By DUSAN STOJANOVIC, Associated Press
BELGRADE, Serbia (AP) — Serbia's prime minister on Wednesday rejected an independent freedom watchdog's report that downgraded the Balkan country from "free" to "partly free."
In its annual global report this week, Freedom House said Serbia's status declined because of "the deterioration in the conduct of elections, continued attempts by the government and allied media outlets to undermine independent journalists through legal harassment and smear campaigns."
The report also says Serbia's populist President Aleksandar Vucic has accumulated "executive powers that conflict with his constitutional role."
Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic, Vucic's close ally, said "I absolutely don't think or feel that I live in a partly free country. I think that I live in a country that is freer than a few years ago."
"I think the report is not objective enough and deals with some perceptions I don't agree with, which does not mean it is irrelevant," she said.
Every Saturday for the last nine weeks, tens of thousands of people have marched in Belgrade and Serbia's other cities and towns to protest what they say is Vucic's increasingly autocratic rule.
The protesters accuse Vucic of stifling hard-won democratic freedoms in the Balkan country that was engulfed in a series of wars during the 1990s. He denies the accusation.
In addition to Serbia, the Washington-based group criticized Russia, Iran, Azerbaijan, Montenegro and Hungary for contributing to "the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom."
It said the United States in 2018 saw "a decline in the rule of law" that placed U.S. democracy "on a level with Greece, Croatia, and Mongolia," and well below other established democracies like Germany, France, Britain or Sweden.
In the Freedom House report, 11 European states are classified as "partly free" including Serbia, Albania, Armenia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Hungary, Kosovo, Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro and Ukraine.
Globally, Norway is ranked the freest country while Syria is the least free.