BIRN Hosts Panel Discussion on Media Reporting of Corruption in Serbia

On the eve of International Anti-Corruption Day, BIRN held a panel discussion in the Serbian capital as part of a conference organised jointly with the CEPRIS on the role of the media and prosecution in fighting organized crime and corruption in this Balkan country.

More than 60 representatives of the judicary, NGOs and media in Serbia gathered in Belgrade ahead of International Anti-Corruption Day for a conference jointly organised by BIRN on the role of the prosecution and media reporting in the fight against organized crime and corruption.

The conference, which took place on December 8, was co-organised by the Center for Judicial Research (CEPRIS), the Center for Democratic Transition from Montenegro and the Croatian Legal Center, with support from the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB) and the German Embassy in Belgrade.

During the event, debates were held on the election and position of prosecutors and deputies in charge of combatting organized crime and corruption in Serbia and the region, as well as access to information and media reporting on investigative and judicials proceedings in this sector and problems facing the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

For BIRN’s panel discussion on the day, representatives of the NGO presented the main findings of its Serbian country report on media coverage on organized crime and corruption.

The report was produced as part of BIRN’s project titled “Exercising the Freedom of Expression and Openness of State Institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia,” an endeavor supported by the German Foreign Office Stability Pact funds.

This regional study on how media report on organized crime and corruption investigations and court processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia began in March 2017, with the final outcomes to be presented at a regional conference in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, in January 2018.

Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence – 2017 winners chosen!

Greek freelance multimedia journalist Alexia Tsagkari was awarded first prize for the 2017 Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence programme at a closing ceremony in Budapest on Thursday.

Tsagkari won the prize of 4,000 euros for her exposé of the abuse facing lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, LGBT, asylum seekers on their journey to a safe haven in Europe.

The second prize of 3,000 euros went to Romanian journalist Octavia Coman for his exploration of the complacency, bungling and discrimination that led to a deadly measles epidemic in Romania.

Third prize and 1,000 euros was awarded to Serbian journalist Vladimir Kostic for his investigation into illegal campaign financing by Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party.

Jury members praised Tsagkari for her intimate portrayal of life on the road for LGBT refugees travelling through Turkey and Greece — and the failure of host countries and the humanitarian system to protect them from appalling violence and intimidation.

“Alexia did an extraordinary job of winning the trust of one of the most vulnerable groups within an already vulnerable group,” said jury member Elena Panagiotidis, editor for Swiss daily Zürcher Zeitung. “At a time when people are fed up with refugee stories, she shed new light on the issue, and at considerable risk to herself.”

Jury members singled out Coman and Kostic for their nuanced work on difficult investigations.

“Octavian’s is a skillfully crafted story on a complex yet socially very relevant topic exposing the failure of the Romanian healthcare system through the example of a measles epidemic that has so far claimed 36 lives and infected around 10,000 people,” said Kristof Bander, deputy chairman of the European Stability Initiative.

Speaking of Kostic’s investigation into the use of proxy donors to fill campaign war chests with cash from secret sources by Serbia’s ruling party, Adelheid Wolfl, correspondent for Austrian daily Der Standard, said: “Vladimir not only revealed the arrogance and sense of impunity of the ruling party, but by showing the facts, he contributed to transparency and accountability.”

Ten journalists from Macedonia, Montenegro, Kosovo, Bulgaria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Romania, Serbia, Croatia and Greece spent more than six months of 2017 pursuing in-depth stories and investigations around this year’s fellowship theme: ‘Change’.

The jury congratulated all of this year’s fellows on the high level of their work, which included stories on organised, crime, corruption, public health, nationalism, the environment and human rights.

A publication titled Change: The Trials of Transition brings together their work and was presented at the award ceremony in front of guests including media partners from around Europe.

The jury members who selected the winners were Florian Hassel, Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for the German daily newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung; Remzi Lani, executive director of the Albanian Media Institute; Kristof Bander, deputy chairman of the European Stability Initiative; Milorad Ivanovic, representative of the BFJE Alumni network; Elena Panagiotidis, editor for the Swiss daily Neue Zürcher Zeitung; Adelheid Wolfl, correspondent for Austrian daily Der Standard; and Steve Crawshaw from Amnesty International.

With the conclusion of this year’s programme, the 10 fellows join the BFJE alumni network, which consists of more than 90 journalists from 10 Balkan countries who collaborate on stories and promote the highest professional standards.

The Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence was launched in 2007 to promote high-quality, cross-border reporting. The programme provides fellows with financial and editorial support, enabling them to travel, report and write their stories and develop their journalistic skills.

A project that promotes the development of robust and responsible press, the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence has evolved into a decade-long platform that has helped shaping journalism standards in the Balkans and the very careers of participating reporters.

The fellowship will issue a call for applications for next year’s programme in January 2018.

The Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence is implemented by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, supported by ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations.  

Balkan Insight Holds Digital Media Training Course

Balkan Insight held a four-day digital media training course for its reporters and editors across the region, focusing on writing for the web and shooting video stories on mobile phones.

Around 30 BIRN reporters and editors from across the region participated in the intensive, practical training course in Belgrade from December 3-6, which was aimed at giving them the knowledge and skills to enhance Balkan Insight’s multimedia coverage and improve its ability to report news and communicate with audiences in the digital era.

Murray Dick of Newcastle University led training in writing for the web, focusing on best practices in producing stories for online audiences.

Dick explained the principles and practice of search engine optimisation for news, explored online analytics and search metrics, and looked at techniques to help Balkan Insight increase its online readership and audience engagement.

He also introduced the reporters and editors to online interactive resources and methods of communicating data within stories, such as the use of infographics.

Alen Mlatisuma of Voice of America then led two days of training in video reporting techniques using smartphones.

The training covered the use of software and gadgets for video filming and editing with smartphones, and highlighted best practices for shooting news reports.

This was followed by a hands-on exercise in visual story planning, practical advice for shooting high-quality video reports and editing the finished product.

“In addition to raising the skills of our journalists, we hope that the most important benefit of this training will be a wider audience reach,” said Balkan Insight’s editor-in-chief, Gordana Andric.

“Considering the poor media environment in many of the countries in which we work, and the fact that mainstream media are mainly closed to independent and especially investigative reporting, we must find ways to bypass these obstacles, reach readers and provide information,” Andric added.

“Amidst a cacophony of news, fabricated scandals and propaganda, we need to attract their attention in innovative ways and enhance our methods of communicating important stories,” she said.

BIRN Journalist Wins “Best Story on Education” Award

On November 30, 2017, BIRN Kosovo journalist Doruntia Baliu was awarded the “Best Story on Education” prize by the Kosovo Journalist Association and German Corporation for International Cooperation (GIZ). The award was given to the young journalist for her investigation into a grade falsification scandal in the municipality of Drenas. The story, named “The Silence toward Falsifying Grades,” was illustrated with a show published as a weekly program on “Life in Kosovo.”

The investigation into the Shote Galica School revealed that a teacher named Fehmi Ramaj curved and falsified grades for 12 students. The whistleblower in the story, Ramadan Ramaj, had noticed that the teacher, by the end of 2013/2014 academic year, had falsified the grades of 12 students, including his son’s, in the subject of biology.

Once Ramadan Ramaj provided proof, the teacher himself admitted his wrongdoings in front of other teachers, the school principal, as well as the Education Director. Ramaj had reported this case to the school principal, Sokol Ramaj, who happens to be his brother; however, all the principal did was issue a warning for Fehmi Ramaj, which, according to Ramadan Ramaj, was not enough. Ramadan Ramaj sent the case to the Education Director in Drenas, Sadik Tahiraj.

However, even Tahiraj did not take the issue seriously enough or do anything more than issuing another written warning. The whistleblower, Ramadan Ramaj, continued his struggle to bring attention to the case, which according to him was a crime against students’ success, by going to Prishtina several times to take the case to higher institutions. He then submitted a report to BIRN’s anti-corruption platform KALLXO.com. According to whistleblower Ramaj, the reason why Fehmi Ramaj had this impunity was because he had a so-called ‘certified booklet’ from the political entity Democratic Party of Kosovo (PDK).

“Life in Kosovo” managed to find several other breaches in the case.

Ramadan Ramaj, despite the pressure against him, sent the case to the Kosovo Police. As a result, the Education Director of Municipality of Drenas, Tahiraj, was dismissed from his duty due to neglecting the reported case and staying “silent about grade falsification.”

Doruntina Baliu’s investigative reporting revealed this case and the damages it caused to the education system.

BIRN Kosovo Organizes Discussions with Law Students at Prishtina Basic Court

 

On November 27 and 29, 2017, BIRN Kosovo organized two discussions as part of the “Promoting Transparency in Kosovo’s Judicial System” project, supported by USAID’s Justice System Strengthening Program, JSSP, at the Prishtina Basic Court.

During the first discussion, moderated by BIRN Kosovo’s Chief Editor Kreshnik Gashi, law students were briefed regarding the audio and video recording devices in court hearings. According to the panelists, it is highly important that participants of the court proceedings are fully committed to maintaining the integrity of the proceedings and operating in favor of justice. Moreover, public access to court records and hearings holds the courts accountable by ensuring that any errors, misunderstandings, or injustices are completely transparent. Lastly, according to the judges, public access to court records and proceedings assists in upgrading our justice system to the highest standard of accuracy and integrity.

The publicity of detention hearings sparked a lengthy debate among the students and judges during the second discussion, held on November 29, at the Prishtina Basic Court. This time, the discussion hosted not only law students from the University of Prishtina “Hasan Prishtina”, but also students from the Faculty of Law at AAB College in Prishtina. The panelists briefed the students on the standards that limit the circumstances in which the detention hearing may be followed and closely observed by the media,

the public, and court monitors. They also talked about specific cases where the media, observers, and the wider public may not be granted with the opportunity to closely follow such proceedings.

BIRN Kosovo, under the “Increasing Transparency in Kosovo’s Judicial System” Project, supported by USAID’s JSSP, will continue to conduct debates of similar nature in the coming months.

BIRN Romania Reporters Share Experiences at Media Festival

BIRN Romania journalists and alumni spoke about international reporting standards and freelancing, drawing on their own experiences of being involved in a number of BIRN regional projects, at Zilele Superscrieri [Superscrieri Days], an event that forms part of Romania’s main media festival.

Ana Maria Luca, BIRN correspondent in Bucharest, shared her thoughts on reporting on a daily basis for Balkan Insight, stressing how tough but rewarding it is for a journalist to follow Western-style reporting standards while facing several challenges at home, such as the long delays and refusals of public institutions to deliver requested information, the reluctance of some analysts and officials to speak with a foreign correspondent, and more.

Lina Vdovii spoke about her investigations into migration and its effect on Romanian families, and into Romanian international adoptees who try to find their biological families via social media. Both reports were published in 2014-2015 as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence. Vdovii underlined the importance of having enough time and money to investigate such sensitive topics in depth.

Finally, Matei Barbulescu recalled how attending BIRN’s Summer School of Investigative Reporting this year had helped enhance his reporting skills and also increase his network of contacts across the region.

The debate held on 18 November in Bucharest was moderated by BIRN Romania’s executive director, Marian Chiriac.

BIRN Bosnia Probes Weak Points in Country’s Judiciary

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network Bosnia and Herzegovina, BIRN BiH, held a closing press conference for “Rule of Law – disclosed”, a project supported over the past two years by the Netherlands’ MATRA program.

The conference, organized in Sarajevo on November 27, presented analyses of work on the judiciary with a special focus on the processing of organized crime, corruption and terrorism cases over the past year.

BIRN BiH director Mirna Buljugić said the lack of transparency in Bosnia’s judicial institutions, and low level of trust that citizens have in them, are one of the main reasons why BIRN BiH needs to act as a social correctively tool.

Journalist Elameri Skrgic-Mikulic presented analysis on the prosecution of corruption cases before the country’s state-level court, the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Some of the main problems it detected are the lack of indictments, discrepancy between reported and prosecuted crimes and a shortage of experienced prosecutors.

One of the good practices institutions have started to use, however, is tracking the flow of money, which can present important evidence, and has an important role in preventing new crimes from taking place.

Denis Dzidic, BIRN BiH editor, speaking about cases related to terrorism, noting a trend towards plea agreements resulting in similar penalties.

Dzidic also detected a lack of an effective mechanism of confiscation of illegally acquired property in cases of organized crime.

All analyses are available at following links:

State Judiciary Failing to Seize Illegally-Acquired Assets

Prosecution’s Internal Struggles Undermine Fight Against Corruption

Terrorism Focus Shifts from Trials to Deradicalisation

BIRN Albania Training Enhances Crime Reporting Skills

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania held a three-day training session on November 17-19 in the port city of Durres, designed to sharpen the skills of local reporters in advanced techniques on court and crime reporting as well the use of multimedia tools.

The training was made possible with support from the USAID funded Justice for all project, the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency, SIDA, and the Rockefellers Brothers Fund.

Some 18 journalists from all across Albania participated in the days of training, where BIRN Albania presented its new online manual on court and crime reporting.

This provides an easily understood description of the judicial system, tips sheets on court and crime reporting, as well as advice about protection of sources and whistleblowers.

The training aimed to strengthen the skills of mid-career journalists to report from the courts, the prosecutor’s office and other law-enforcement institutions, as well as their use of multimedia tools in their stories.

A special session on video reporting was held during the training session by Michael Alexander, Investigative Media Adviser for the Justice for All project, who shared his experiences of working for the BBC with local reporters.

The three-day workshop strengthened the on-the-job training and mentoring for the journalists already provided by BIRN Albania, which is regularly commissioning and publishing reports about the judiciary as the country gears up to implement a major reform of the justice system.

BIRN BiH Comprehensivlely Covers Ratko Mladic Verdict

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BIRN BiH) journalists reported from The Hague, Srebrenica, Prijedor, Banja Luka and Sarajevo on the day of former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic’s verdict, delivering exclusive reports and reactions.

BIRN BiH’s executive editor Erna Mackic and journalist Admir Muslimovic followed the sentencing of Ratko Mladic in The Hague. They filed reports from the courtroom, in real time, before and after the judgment, along with reactions from those who were most affected by the trial.

BIRN BiH also had a live blog dedicated to the Ratko Mladic verdict, publishing minute-by-minute reactions and news from The Hague, Srebrenica, Prijedor, Banja Luka and Sarajevo. For ten hours, while the blog was live, it had about 1,200 unique visits.

In the week of the Mladic verdict, over 107,000 people visited the Facebook page of detektor.ba. Its Twitter account had 33,500 impressions and the web site www.detektor.ba had more than 4,700 unique visitors.

In cooperation with Radio Free Europe, a TV debate was produced about the first count of Mladic indictment – genocide in 1992 in six Bosnian municipalities.

Journalists and editors from BIRN BiH, as media experts on the subject of war crimes and war crimes prosecutions, commented on Mladic’s verdict for Unsko-Sanska TV, N1 Bosnia and Herzegovina, BHRT public service, BH Radio 1, Federal radio, Radio BIR Zenica, Deutsche Welle, Al Jazeera Balkans, Radio Free Europe, RTV Slon, Canton TV Sarajevo, Bihac TV, Hayat, Bljesak  and Kosovo TV Kohavision.

BIRN BiH will this week publish special reports on the Herzeg-Bosnia verdict at the Hague Tribunal.

Global Shining Light Award Judges Honour BIRN

The judges of the prestigious Global Shining Light Award have honoured an investigation by Balkan Investigative Reporting Network with citations of excellence.

BIRN’s investigation “Making a Killing” received special recognition – certificate of excellence – at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference 2017 in Johannesburg on Saturday.

Making a Killing”, which was jointly produced with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, uncovered how billions of euros of arms from the Balkans and Eastern Europe are illegally ending up with Syrian rebels, including Islamic State, ISIS.

In July this year, the story was shortlisted for the Global Shining Light Award, an award sponsored by the Global Investigative Journalism Network, GIJN, an association of 155 non-profit organisations in 68 countries.

The story was produced as part of “A Paper Trail to Better Governance” project supported by the Austrian Development Agency to promote rule of law, accountability and transparency in six South-Eastern Europe countries.

Global Shining Light Award Judges Honour BIRN from BIRN on Vimeo.