WASHINGTON -- A U.S. official says Washington must work to discourage governments in the Western Balkans from encroaching on media freedoms, comments that come amid criticism from rights activists and Western officials in recent months about the state of the free press in the region.
Thomas Melia, assistant administrator for Europe and Eurasia at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), said signs of pressures and infringement on independent media have emerged from EU members like Hungary to "aspiring members as far away as Georgia."
"In the Western Balkans as well, I think we all have to be on guard all the time to encourage government leaders and political leaders to appreciate the advantage that comes to a society with an independent media," Melia, who visited the region in May, told RFE/RL in a July 11 interview.
In its annual report on press freedoms, the U.S.-based rights watchdog Freedom House in April expressed concern about "ongoing violence toward journalists" across the Western Balkans and designated Serbia as "partly free" and Macedonia as "not free" in terms of media liberties.
The Western Balkans also includes Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, and EU-member Croatia.
Meanwhile, a wave of dismissals at the regional public broadcaster RTV Vojvodina has sparked protests and accusations that Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic's government carried out a politically motivated overhaul of the network's staff -- allegations Vucic rejects.
Melia told RFE/RL that "shutting down outlets because a particular official or government doesn't like what they're reporting obviously is a temptation" that Washington needs to "work diplomatically and programmatically to push against."
USAID, the government agency responsible for managing civilian foreign aid, funds numerous media projects across the Western Balkans. The U.S. Congressional Budget Justification for Fiscal Year 2017 lists more than $60 million in foreign aid for countries of the former Yugoslavia under the category of Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance.
Among the media projects that USAID has funded is the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which played a prominent role in reporting on the trove of leaked documents known as the Panama Papers that uncovered secretive financial dealings of officials and businesspeople across the globe.
"The U.S. government and USAID continue to be major supporters of training journalists, editors, publishers on the fundamentals of a professional, independent media oriented towards fact-checking and fair coverage of issues," Melia told RFE/RL. "And so we continue to do that in Kosovo, in Serbia, in the region so that the cadre of professional journalists will continue to be strengthened."
Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose friends and associates appeared in the Panama Papers, suggested that the U.S. government was behind the leak -- an apparent reference to USAID's support.
The State Department rejected the implication, saying the OCCRP was not the only organization to report on the leaked materials and that Washington has no role in the organization's editorial process.
Melia's comments coincided with a tour of the Western Balkans by U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland.
Speaking in Kosovo on July 10, Nuland called on the country's leaders to strengthen the rule of law, the justice system, and the fight against corruption and organized crime, according to a statement from President Hashim Thaci's press office.
Speaking in Belgrade the following day, Nuland met with Vucic and spoke positively of Serbia's progress in strengthening rule of law, media reforms, and creating a favorable climate for foreign investment.
With reporting by RFE/RL's Balkan Service and AP