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People in Montenegro hold banners during a protest in Montenegro's capital, Podgorica, on May 9, 2018.Risto Bozovic/The Associated Press

Hundreds protested in Montenegro on Wednesday after unknown assailants shot and wounded a prominent crime and corruption reporter, the latest attack on journalists in the small Balkan country that is seeking EU membership.

Carrying banners reading “Stop violence,” or “For a life without fear,” the protesters demanded that the authorities find the assailants who opened fire late Tuesday on Olivera Lakic, who works for the independent Vijesti daily.

Lakic, 49, was shot in the leg outside her home in Podgorica, the capital. She remains in a local hospital following the attack which has drawn U.S. and European Union concern.

Protesters who gathered outside the government building in Podgorica accused the authorities of doing little to solve a series of attack on journalists in recent years. Those included another attack on Lakic six years ago and a bomb explosion outside another crime reporter’s home last month.

Zeljko Ivanovic, general manager of Vijesti, said there have been a total of 25 attacks on the paper’s journalists and offices. The daily is known for its independent and critical journalism.

“They (government) created an atmosphere in which there are state enemies and traitors,” said Ivanovic. “Can this society survive without a single free media, journalist or intellectual?”

Olivera Ivanovic, a fellow journalist from the national TV Montenegro, said the attack “is not just a message to her, it’s a message to the entire media community.”

“We need to unite and confront this danger,” she said. “We are all exposed.”

The man who beat Lakic six years ago was briefly jailed and she had police protection for a while. But Ivanovic said those behind the attack have not been named.

Lakic has written about alleged murky businesses involving top state officials and their families. Montenegro’s long-ruling Democratic Party of Socialists have faced repeated accusations of corruption and crime links, which they deny.

The party on Wednesday announced plans to introduce tougher sanctions for attacks on journalists, saying they “must be most harshly punished.”

Montenegro last year joined NATO and has promised to boost media freedom and the rule of law, and implement other reforms necessary for the country to join the European Union.

Top Montenegrin and international officials in Montenegro condemned the attack on Lakic and urged a swift investigation.

U.S. embassy Charge d’Affaires Judy Kuo, who visited Lakic in the hospital Wednesday together with the top EU official in Montenegro, said “this crime requires a swift, determined investigation to bring those responsible to justice.”

“The United States calls on Montenegro to foster a safe environment for journalists to fulfil their important role,” she added.

Council of Europe Secretary General Thorbjorn Jagland said Wednesday he is “shocked and saddened” by the shooting.

“The work of journalists and free media are essential to the functioning of any democracy,” he said. “Attacks on journalists are therefore also an attack on democracy.”

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