New Partners for ‘Public Money’ Project in Serbia

Three civil society organisations were selected on June 11 as partners on the ‘Public Money for Public Interest’ project which is being conducted by BIRN Serbia, the Independent Journalism Association of Serbia (IJAS) and the Slavko Curuvija Foundation, funded by the European Union.

The organisations selected were the Nis Committee for Human Rights, the Omnibus civic association from Pancevo, and the Sumadija Centre for Civil Activism ‘Res Publika’.

Over the next year, these organisations will have the opportunity to determine what is in the public interest in their communities.

After a restricted call for five local civil society organisations that attended a training course in April, three of them were selected to continue working on the ‘Public Money for Public Interest’ project as sub-grantees.

The overall objective is to contribute to the participation of civil society in changing public policies related to media financing to reflect the rights and interests of the country’s citizens.

BIRN Summer School 2018 in Romania

This year’s BIRN Summer School of Investigative Reporting will be held from August 19th to 25th in Poiana Brasov, a Romanian resort best known for winter sports but also for hiking and other activities.

This is a great opportunity for all those who wish to improve their investigative skills and learn the latest tricks from media experts.

BIRN will be gathering some of the world’s best-known editors and trainers to teach the course members investigative tips and tricks.

Successful applicants will be provided with excellent possibilities for networking – and the possibility of getting a grant for a story idea.

The lead trainer on the course in Romania is one of the best investigative editors in the US, Reuters’ Blake Morrison, a three-times finalist for the Pulitzer investigative award.

Others include the New York Times senior journalist Christoph Koettl; co-creator of one of the best podcast series in US and winner of an Emmy and three Peabody awards Susanne Reber; Knight International Journalism Award winner and OCCRP editor Miranda Patrucic; European Press Prize winner Bellingcats’ Christiaan Triebert; ICIJ journalist Matthew Caruana Galizia and award winning BIRN’s investigative editor, Lawrence Marzouk.

BIRN-Backed Documentary Wins Washington Festival Award

The documentary film ‘Kosovo… Nazdravlje! Gëzuar!’, produced by the Association of Independent Journalists of Vojvodina and BIRN Kosovo, won the audience award at the Serbian Contemporary Short and Documentary Film Festival on June 10 in Washington DC.

The documentary, directed by Aleksandar Reljic, looks at the possibility of coexistence between Albanians and Serbs in Kosovo.

In 2017, a Serbian far-right group called Zavetnici attempted to stop a screening of the film in Novi Sad, but the coordinators and the police prevented them.

The documentary originated from project ‘Real People – Real Solutions’, which addresses relations between Kosovo and Serbia from the perspectives of history, everyday life, and the future.

The project is a cooperation between the Association of Independent Journalists of Vojvodina, BIRN Kosovo and ZFD Forum Belgrade, with the support of the EU delegation in Serbia.

Four other movies have been shot as part of the same project.

The Serbian Contemporary Short and Documentary Film Festival is staged by the Orfelin Circle (Krug Orfelin) organisation.

Belgrade Insight Publishes Special Pride Month Issue

The latest issue of BIRN’s newspaper Belgrade Insight, published on Friday, is the first Serbian publication to join global celebrations of LGBT Pride Month.

The edition of Belgrade’s only English-language newspaper offers a feature on  Belgrade’s LGBT history, an interview with prominent drag performer Dekadenca, a guide to the city’s LGBT-friendly spots and a comment piece on why being ‘out’ in Serbia is still a big issue for many.

Pride Month is globally celebrated each June to honour the 1969 Stonewall riots in New York City, which were an important milestone in the LGBT community’s struggle for equal treatment.

The latest issue of Belgrade Insight also provides an analysis of planned infrastructure and beautification projects that are set to reshape the Serbian capital, as well as a list of recommended sports bars where fans can watch the football World Cup.

Conference Discusses Ombudsperson’s Role in Kosovo

The embassy of the Netherlands in Kosovo, ACDC and BIRN held a conference and discussion in north Mitrovica on June 12, to endorse the ‘Boosting the Role of the Ombudsperson in Watching Human Rights in Kosovo’ project, which is supported by the embassy of Netherlands and is being implemented by ACDC and BIRN.

At the conference, the panellists talked about human rights and the Ombudsperson’s role, then participants had the opportunity to discuss the topic with experts who are directly or indirectly involved in dealing with human rights.

The panellists were Gerrie Willems, the Netherlands’ ambassador to Kosovo, Mehdi Geci, a representative of the Ombudsperson, Tatjana Lazarevic, editor of the KoSSev news website and Ljubisa Bascarevic, a human rights activist.

Ambassador Williams said that the objective of the project is to raise public awareness and encourage people to report relevant information to the Ombudsperson.

Ombudsperson’s representative Geci said only two per cent of all citizens’ reports to the Kosovo Ombudsperson come from Serb cizens in the north, and they are mostly related to the usurpation of property and prolongation of judicial cases.

Lazarevic from KoSSev claimed meanwhile that human rights are being violated on a daily basis in Kosovo.

Serbian ‘Alternative Report’ Responds to EU Media Assessment

Six civil society organisations in Serbia, including BIRN, have prepared a comment and Alternative Report on the findings on freedom of expression and media pluralism in the European Commission’s recently-published Serbia Country Report for 2017.

The European Commission’s 2017 report on Serbia rightfully states that negative trends are restricting media freedoms in the country, but an additional emphasis on the depth of the problem in this field is needed, in particular the inadequacy of the legal framework and problems in the implementation of legislation, says the Alternative Report.

The Alternative Report says that EU monitoring of the progress of media freedoms under Chapter 23 and its ‘Freedom of Expression and Media’ section has proved to be insufficient as issues of public procurements, state aid, advertising and other areas effectively affecting media freedoms are not covered in it.

It points to not only stagnation but also “obvious deterioration of the situation with media freedoms which are very much under threat”.

Pressure and attacks on journalists and media outlets, control of media by way of financial pressure, and the dysfunctional state of the independent institutions which are supposed to enforce the laws in these fields are the principal causes of threats to media freedoms, the Alternative Report adds.

The report provides a range of recommendations both for indicators to be taken into account in future EU reports and for the Serbian authorities in charge of establishing the conditions for freedom of expression and the media in the country.

The Alternative Report was compiled by Civic Initiatives, Balkan Investigating Reporting Network – BIRN Serbia, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, PG Network, Educational Centre and Transparency Serbia.

The whole report is available here.

UK Parliament Opens Inquiry After BIRN Weapons Report

The British parliament’s committee on arms export controls  requested internal correspondence related to the shipment of ammunition from Bosnia to Saudi Arabia, following BIRN’s investigation into the deal.

The committee said it would write a formal letter outlining the information it needs as part of an inquiry into UK arms licences issued in 2016.

On June 6, BIRN revealed that the UK failed to warn Bosnia and Herzegovina of its suspicions about the consignment of bullets officially bound for Saudi Arabia.

This is the latest case of international reactions following BIRN’s Balkan arms trade investigations.

In September 2017, a BIRN investigation had sparked an official probe in Germany into whether the Pentagon broke the law by sending weapons to Syrian rebels through its German airbases. A public prosecutor in the  city of Kaiserslautern carried out a preliminary investigation into the findings of an investigation that BIRN, the OCCRP and Süddeutsche Zeitung published.

BIRN’s weapons investigations in 2016 provoked reactions from heads of states and foreign ministers (in Serbia, Bulgaria and Montenegro) and from arms companies. The EU’s diplomatic service also said it was looking into the findings of the BIRN and OCCRP investigation into how Central and Eastern Europe weapons are flooding the battlefields of Syria, while the opposition in Germany questioned Berlin’s role in the Middle East arms trade following the reports.

BIRN Albania’s Documentary ‘Free Flow’ Premiered

Nearly 100 activists, civil society representatives and film buffs packed the Destil Hostel in Tirana on June 5 for the premiere of the BIRN Albania-produced documentary ‘Free Flow’, which was directed by documentary film-maker Elton Baxhaku.

The premiere was held on World Environmental Day, in an effort to underline the importance of documenting the efforts of local communities to protect the environment and their way of life.

The documentary covers the decade-long grassroots struggle of local communities, activists and civil society organisations against hydropower plant projects that threaten the environment, the water supplies of local communities and their livelihoods that are based on sustainable tourism.

In the past two decades, the Albanian government has approved over 500 hydropower plant projects on its rivers and streams, which environmentalists say threaten some of the last unspoiled river systems in Europe.

The documentary focuses on three areas, the Shebenik Jabllanica National Park, the Vjosa River and the Valbona National Park – following local villagers, community rights activists, scientists and artists as they struggle to voice their concerns over hydro power plant projects, challenge concession contracts in court and protest in the streets to encourage support for their cause.

Elton Baxhaku is an acclaimed Albanian film-maker, best known for his 2014 documentary ‘Skandal’ and the 2016 documentary ‘Selita’, which was co-directed by Eriona Çami.

BIRN Refutes Claims It Ignored US Role in Arms Trade

In response to the report “Loud whistle: Journalism is a powerful weapon and whistleblowers must be protected” – published on the portal on June 7, 2018 and republished by other media – Balkan Investigative Reporting Network hereby refutes a number of biased and inaccurate claims concerning a series of investigative reports on the international arms trade published by BIRN this year and last.

According to the article, during a public panel debate entitled “Journalists and the government: Who controls whom?” the editor of the portal and president of the Serbian Association of Journalists, Vladimir Radomirovic, said that BIRN had written “about arming terrorists, but did not mention America’s involvement in this”.

One of the panel participants, Bulgarian journalist Diljana Gajtandzijeva, was quoted as saying she believed this was “because BIRN is funded from US funds.”

BIRN would like to point out that, more than once, it has published in-depth investigations into the arms trade involving Saudi Arabia and the United States. No fewer than seven of BIRN’s investigative stories have focused on the role of the US and US institutions in buying and selling arms for Syria.

Based on BIRN’s investigations, prosecutors in Germany have opened an investigation into the role of Germany as an intermediary in such deals.

Recently, Al Jazeera UK, together with BIRN, produced a documentary on the topic which featured, among other interviewees, Diljana Gajtandzijeva.

BIRN’s team of reporters has won a number of regional and international awards for the above-mentioned investigative reports, including the prestigious Global Shining Light Citation of Excellence awarded by the Global Investigative Journalism Network, GIJN, in 2017.


BIRN Regional Meeting Held in Bucharest

Directors, board members, partners and donors of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, met in the Romanian capital Bucharest on June 2-3 for the network’s latest regional meeting of its governing bodies.

At the meeting, the BIRN Network’s activities and achievements in 2017-2018 were presented and the plans for the upcoming period discussed.

The annual Steering Committee meeting and Assembly session were held, and regional social media guidelines were adopted at the event.

In recent times, BIRN has operated in an environment marked by illiberal tendencies in the region, media freedom decline in several countries, captured states, and unresolved issues from the past.

Nevertheless, its online publishing, TV and video production reach growing numbers of people; its journalists have won a number of local and international awards, and its reporting has produced tangible social and political changes.

BIRN’s longstanding donors and partners from Konrad Adenauer Stiftung and ERSTE foundation attended the meeting.