Reporting Democracy in the Heart of Europe

A BIRN conference in Budapest will explore the future of democracy at a time of sweeping change.

Across Europe, populist movements are changing the political landscape and eroding faith in democratic institutions. In some countries, they are cracking down on independent media, the judiciary and civil society. The result is Europe’s biggest political transformation since the end of the Cold War. Many fear for democracy itself as authoritarian alternatives enter the mainstream.

In the immediate aftermath of EU elections, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and ERSTE Foundation will host a conference in Budapest to explore the factors eroding democracy, from populism and authoritarianism to demographic change.

The Reporting Democracy Conference will also focus on the role of media in countering such threats and consider how civic activism can help defend freedom.

More than 100 journalists, activists and representatives of academia and international civil society are expected to attend the all-day event at the Hotel Mercure Budapest Buda​ on May 31.

Distinguished speakers from across Europe and the Balkans will look at what is at stake, how independent media outlets can reassert themselves and what happens when the people start to push back.

To register to attend, please fill in the registration form.

The conference marks the launch of Reporting Democracy, a new cross-border journalism platform aimed at unleashing the power of fact-based journalism to scrutinise the issues, trends and events shaping the future of democracy in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

BIRN Launches New Cross-Border Reporting Platform

BIRN’s new Reporting Democracy platform seeks to unleash investigative journalism to examine the state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network launched a cross-border journalism platform on Monday aimed at shining a light on issues affecting the health of democracy across a swathe of Europe vulnerable to rising populism and authoritarianism.

Reporting Democracy extends BIRN’s coverage from the Balkans to the so-called Visegrad Group of countries in Central and Eastern Europe: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

The new platform comes as Europeans prepare to vote in EU elections that polls suggest could bring big gains for far-right nationalists, eurosceptics and supporters of the kind of “illiberal democracy” championed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“Democracy is at a crossroads in Europe as authoritarian alternatives enter the mainstream and threaten to undo fundamentals like media freedom, judicial independence, minority rights and respect for the rule of law,” Reporting Democracy Editor Timothy Large said.

“The goal here is to put rigorous, fact-based journalism to work in exposing the trends and developments that will shape democracy, for better or for worse, and to look at things from a cross-border perspective.”

In addition to offering in-depth analysis by BIRN correspondents in 14 countries, Reporting Democracy will support independent media across the region by commissioning stories from local journalists and offering grants for cross-border investigations.

The project is supported by ERSTE Foundation, the main shareholder of Austrian bank Erste Group, which also funds BIRN’s flagship Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence programme, now in its 13th year.

BIRN North Macedonia Journalist Awarded for Cultural Heritage Report

BIRN journalist Goce Trpkovski was given an award by the Macedonian National Council of the International Council of Museums for raising awareness about the poor condition of cultural heritage in the country.

The award was presented at the celebration for the International Museum Day on May 18, at the ASNOM Memorial Centre, a national landmark in the village of Pelince commemorating the establishment of the independent Macedonian state in 1944.

After the devastating fire at the Notre Dame cathedral in Paris in April this year, BIRN published an in-depth article documenting the risks to numerous cultural heritage sites in North Macedonia. The country has more than 1,200 sites – houses, public buildings, ancient ruins, churches, mosques, fortsas towers – listed as being under protection.

The article revealed that some unique historical sites like the Skopje Aquaduct are crumbling, despite politicians’ promises to restore them, while many listed sites owned by non-state entities (religious buildings, private houses and others) lack appropriate equipment in case of fire or other disasters, which they should have under the law.

BIRN Co-Hosts Media Policy Forum in Moldova

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network on Tuesday co-hosted the second annual Media Policy Forum event in Chisinau, organised by Freedom House, the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation and Internews.

The aim of the discussions was identifying policy solutions that maintain respect for international standards on free expression with attention to key issues around elections.

“These include defending digital space, fostering fair elections coverage, countering disinformation, and promoting free speech,” said Tatiana Puiu, a representative of Freedom House in Moldova, at the beginning of the conference in Chisinau.

The US ambassador to Chisinau, Dereck J. Hogan, urged independent media and journalists in Moldova to maintain their objectivity and not become intimidated out of doing their job.

“In Moldova and in the world, independent journalists encourage active debates, expose injustices and abuses, help raise more informed citizens, empower leaders, and develop a brighter course for the future,” Hogan said.

Then deputy head of the EU delegation to Moldova, Urszula Pallasz, said there should be more attempts to foster media literacy in Moldova.

Pallasz quoted an OSCE report published after Moldova’s parliamentary elections on February 24 this year, which said access to information around elections was restricted due to the concentration of ownership of media.

Independent reports say that more than 80 per cent of the country’s media is concentrated in the hands of political parties and individuals connected to the authorities.

The event in Chisinau brought together a wide array of experts from civil society, independent media, government, academia, and the international donor community.

BIRN’s correspondent in Moldova, Madalin Necsutu, spoke about the media landscapes both in Romania and Moldova during electoral campaigns on a panel entitled ‘Leveling the Playing Field: Fostering Fair Elections Coverage’.

“Like in Moldova, the Romanian media is confronting the concentration of media in the hands of political parties and restricted access to public information,” he said.

He added that in recent years, media in Romania have focused on becoming more independent, particularly with the help of crowdfunding.

But David Kankiya, a Russian election analyst, said that Russia is adopting more and more restrictive legislation regarding the media and freedom of speech, which also affects the internet.

The Second Phase of the “Kosovo Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence” Programme Launched Today

Following a success during the first phase of the program, BIRN Kosovo in cooperation with AJK, as part of the project funded by the EU, has opened the call for applications for the second phase of the “Kosovo Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence” program for the year 2019.

The programme will begin in June and is based on the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, which has been running since 2007.

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network – BIRN Kosovo and Association of Journalists of Kosovo – AJK invite all interested journalists to apply to the 6 months fellowship, provided by the European Union in Kosovo.

10 ambitious and daring journalists will be selected by a team of local and regional professionals to become part of this dynamic and enriching experience. Each fellow will be granted a 2,000 euro fellowship bursary for an in-depth research story covering issues such as public spending, local governance, public procurement, environment, energy, healthcare, culture, education, media financing, human rights, inter-ethnic cooperation, etc.

In addition, the selected journalists will receive mentorship by a team of highly-skilled BIRN Kosovo editors, who have extensive experience in producing and editing high quality reporting in Kosovo and the region.

At the end of the programme, fellows are expected to have produced an original research/investigative story with a limit of 1,500 – 3,000 words. The format may vary from written articles, to TV reportages or content presented in a multimedia format. Stories of the selected fellows will be published in Albanian, Serbian and English. BIRN will ensure republication of fellowship articles in other local media in order to increase the outreach of the stories produced.

Are you interested in becoming part of this prestigious program?

Fill in the Application Form and submit your application by midnight on May 31, to [email protected], with the subject “Kosovo Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence” – Phase II”

Any questions regarding this programme or the application can be addressed to [email protected], by May 25that the latest.

The proposals can be submitted in either Albanian, Serbian or English, the three working languages to be used during the fellowship.

Women and members of non-majority communities are strongly encouraged to apply.

Lansohet faza e dytë e programit të Bursës së Kosovës për Ekselencë në Gazetari

Pas një suksesi gjatë pjesës së parë të programit, BIRN Kosovo në bashkëpunim me AGK, në bazë të projektit të finanucar nga BE, ka hapur procesin e thirrjes për aplikim për fazën e dytë të Programit “Bursa e Kosovës për Ekselencë në Gazetari” për vitin 2019.

Programi do të fillojë në qershor 2019 dhe është i bazuar sipas Bursës Ballkanike për Ekselencë në Gazetari, që ka filluar qysh në vitin 2007.

Rrjeti Ballkanik i Gazetarisë Hulumtuese – BIRN Kosovo dhe Asociacioni i Gazetarëve të Kosovës – AGK ftojnë të gjithë gazetarët e interesuar që të aplikojnë për këtë bursë 6-mujore, të ofruar nga Bashkimi Europian në Kosovë.

10 gazetarë ambiciozë dhe të guximshëm do të zgjidhen nga një ekip profesionistësh lokalë dhe rajonalë për t’u bërë pjesë e kësaj përvoje dinamike dhe të pasur. Secili anëtar do të përfitojë bursë prej 2,000 Euro për një storie të thellë hulumtuese që mbulon çështjet si shpenzimet publike, qeverisja lokale, prokurimi publik, mjedisi, energjia, shëndetësia, kultura, arsimi, financimi i mediave, të drejtat e njeriut, bashkëpunimi ndëretnik etj.

Përveç kësaj, gazetarët e përzgjedhur do të përfitojnë mentorim nga një ekip redaktorësh të kualifikuar të BIRN Kosova, të cilët kanë përvojë të gjerë në prodhimin dhe redaktimin e raportimit të cilësisë së lartë në Kosovë dhe në rajon.

Në fund të programit, bursistët pritet të kenë prodhuar një storie origjinale hulumtuese/kërkimore me një limit prej 1,500 – 3,000 fjalësh. Formati mund të ndryshojë, nga storie të shkruara, në reportazhe televizive ose përmbajtje të paraqitura në format multimedial. Storiet e bursistëve të përzgjedhur do të publikohen në shqip, anglisht dhe serbisht. BIRN do të sigurojë ripublikimin e storieve të bursistëve në mediat e tjera lokale në mënyrë që të rrisë shtrirjen e storieve të prodhuara.

A jeni të interesuar të jeni pjesë e këtij programi prestigjioz?

Plotësoni formularin e aplikimit dhe dorëzoni aplikacionin tuaj deri në mesnatë më 31 maj 2019, tek [email protected] me temën: “Bursa e Kosovës për Ekselencë në Gazetari – Faza II”.

Çdo pyetje në lidhje me këtë program ose aplikacion mund të drejtohet tek [email protected], jo më vonë se deri më 25 maj 2019.

Propozimet mund të dorëzohen në shqip, anglisht ose serbisht, që janë tri gjuhët e punës të cilat do të përdoren gjatë kohëzgjatjes së programit.

Gratë dhe pjesëtarët e komuniteteve pakicë inkurajohen fuqishëm që të aplikojnë.

Danas je lansirana druga faza programa Stipendija za novinarsku izuzetnost Na Kosovu

Nakon uspeha u prvoj fazi programa, BIRN Kosovo je u saradnji sa AGK, u okviru projekta koji finansira EU, otvorio poziv za podnošenje prijava za drugu fazu programa „Stipendija za novinarsku izuzetnost na Kosovu“ za 2019.

Program počinje u junu 2019. i zasnovan je na modelu Stipendije za novinarsku izuzetnost na Balkanu.

Balkanska Istraživačka Regionalna Mreža – BIRN Kosovo i Udruženje Novinara Kosova (AGK), pozivaju sve zainteresovane novinare da se prijave za šestomesečnu stipendiju, koju obezbeđuje Evropska unija na Kosovu.

10 ambicioznih i smelih novinara će izabrati tim lokalnih i regionalnih profesionalaca kako bi postali deo ovog dinamičnog i obogaćujućeg iskustva. Svaki stipendista će dobiti stipendiju od 2.000 evra za detaljnu istraživačku priču koja pokriva pitanja kao što su javna potrošnja, lokalna uprava, javne nabavke, životna sredina, energetika, zdravstvena zaštita, kultura, obrazovanje, finansiranje medija, ljudska prava, međuetnička saradnja, itd.

Osim toga, odabrani novinari će dobiti mentorstvo tima visokokvalifikovanih urednika BIRN Kosovo, koji imaju veliko iskustvo u produkciji i uređivanju visokokvalitetnog izveštavanja na Kosovu i u regionu.

Na kraju programa, očekuje se da stipendisti izrade originalnu ispitivačku/istraživačku priču, limitiranu na 1,500 do 3,000 reči. Format se može razlikovati: od pisanih članaka do TV reportaža ili sadržaja u multimedijalnom formatu. Priče izabranih stipendista biće objavljene na albanskom, engleskom i srpskom jeziku. BIRN će obezbediti ponovno objavljivanje članaka stipendista u drugim lokalnim medijima kako bi se povećalo pokriće izrađenih priča.

Da li ste zainteresovani da postanete deo ovog prestižnog programa?

Popunite obrazac prijave i pošaljite vašu prijavu do ponoći  31. maja 2019. na [email protected], pod naslovom “Stipendija za novinarsku izuzetnost na Kosovu – Faza II”

Sva pitanja u vezi ovog programa ili prijave mogu se poslati na [email protected], najkasnije do 25. maja 2019.

Predlozi mogu biti podneti na albanskom, srpskom ili engleskom jeziku – jezicima koji će biti korišćeni tokom stipendije.

Žene i pripadnici manjinskih zajednica se snažno ohrabruju da se prijave.

BIRN Serbia Wins Investigative Reporting Award

BIRN Serbia journalist Jelena Veljkovic was awarded a prize at a ceremony on Tuesday for the best investigative journalism story in Serbian online media.

The award was given by the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia, IJAS, and the US embassy in Belgrade.

Veljkovic was awarded for a series of research articles (1), (2),(3), (4), (5) about illegal construction work on Mount Golija.

The reports named Zarko Veselinovic – brother of a controversial businessman from northern Kosovo, Zvonko Veselinovic – as the man behind the construction project.

This is the sixth time BIRN Serbia has scooped the award for best investigation, and this year BIRN was also shortlisted for another story.

BIRN Serbia journalist Ana Curic was among the finalists for a series of articles on the illegal engagement of Serbian Progressive Party officials at the Medical School in Cuprija.

In the online media category, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network and the Juzne vesti website were also on the shortlist.

Serbian Nationalists Target BIRN Staffer for Defending Baker

After BIRN project coordinator Sofija Todorovic live tweeted from a nationalist demonstration in Belgrade against an ethnic Albanian baker, the hate-speech mongers turned their attention to her.

Serbian right-wingers have begun a concerted campaign against BIRN project coordinator Sofija Todorovic since she defended the rights of an ethnic Albanian baker in her hometown of Borca – himself the subject of nationalist attacks – sharing hate speech, insults and threats to her on social media and attempting to hack her account on Twitter.

“I have received lots of threats on my social networks and, sadly, I do not feel comfortable or safe enough in the place where I was born and where I currently live,” Todorovic told BIRN.

“But for me the option was not remain silent while all aspects of a life of an innocent man are threatened with this shameful and dangerous campaign,” Todorovic added – explaining her public advocacy of an Albanian baker who has been subject to nationalist intimidation in Borca.

Todorovic has a long history of work in human rights activism. Before joining BIRN, she worked with the Youth Initiative for Human Rights.

Following everything that has happened to her lately, she has said she will file an official complaint with the Serbian police.

Serbian ultra-nationalists recently started to target the Albanian baker in the Belgrade suburb of Borca, which is also Todorovic’s hometown.

Mon Gjuraj became a target of nationalist fury after right wingers on Facebook re-posted a two-year-old picture of his cousin posing with a hand gesture in the shape of a double-headed eagle – the national symbol of Albanians.

On April 27, nationalists gathered in front of the bakery, shouted nationalistic slogans, played Serbian patriotic songs, put stickers reading “Kosovo is Serbia” on the windows, and threw pig’s heads at the bakery – a reference to his being a Muslim. A similar event was organized again on May 4.

During the April 27 event, Todorovic was live tweeting and posting videos of the incidents.

Since then, she has received online threats. Right-wingers have made videos about her, calling her insulting names, mentioning her family and re-posting old pictures that are no longer public.

Her Twitter account has been placed under “temporarily restriction” since April 28 and she cannot access it.

Andrej Petrovski, from the Serbian SHARE Foundation, an NGO dedicated to protecting people’s digital rights, told BIRN that Todorovic’s account had been subjected to attack.

“Someone tried to hack her and her account was then temporarily blocked. Then she unlocked it with a new login. The attacker eventually managed to access her account, but Twitter locked the account again because it recognized unusual activity,” Petrovski explained.

He added that, when Twitter asked for verification by the number of her phone, the hacker used Todorovic’s old number, because of which the account has stayed locked.

“We are trying to communicate with Twitter on this case so it can provide her with the possibility to add her current phone number,” Petrovski said.

BIRN has also sent questions to Twitter about this matter but received no answer by the time of publication.

BIRN Kosovo Publishes Monitoring of Municipal Expenses

BIRN Kosovo has published findings from its municipal expenses monitoring project entitled ‘How Much Does the Boss Eat?’

The project, supported by Kosovo Foundation for Open Society, KFOS, was presented at a roundtable discussion on April 26, where the expenses incurred by municipal employees for official meetings, lunches, and dinners were reviewed on a national level.

In 2012, BIRN Kosovo filed legal proceedings against the Office of the Prime Minister of the Republic of Kosovo because it failed to disclose the receipts of expenses of the prime minister and his officials. After a lengthy judicial process, Pristina Basic Court ruled that every expense paid out of public funds must be transparent and open to the public.

As a result, BIRN decided to extend the monitoring of the expenses of governmental officials to the local level, based on the ruling laid down in the Pristina Basic Court case. Since December 2018, BIRN has sent legal requests to all 38 municipalities in Kosovo, requesting the disclosure of their expenses for lunches, dinners, and events for the period of December 2017 to August 2018.

As of January 2019, BIRN Kosovo has published 78 reports at BIRN’s site. Kreshnik Gashi, the managing editor of the site, presented the findings.

“Besides testing transparency, the project aimed to analyse the true nature of publicly-funded expenses,” said Gashi.

Out of 38 municipalities, 24 provided receipts for the requested period, which resulted in the processing and analysis of over 1,200 receipts.

The findings presented at the roundtable discussion, which was attended by financial officers from many municipalities in Kosovo, as well as civil society representatives, showed that municipalities have accepted expenses claims for which the receipts gave no information on the nature of the expenses being claimed.

Furthermore, the findings show that a considerable amount of expenses were made for alcohol, as well as other items like cigarettes and chewing gum.

Rozafa Ukimeraj, the General Secretary of the Ministry of Local Government Administration (MLGA), presented the outcomes and challenges regarding municipal budget processes, as well as the financial sustainability aspects of municipalities and the steps taken by the MLGA to improve the policy and legislation framework in order to increase transparency and accountability in the management of public funds.

The General Auditor, Besnik Osmani, presented findings about financial checks on municipalities and about the management of and accountability in the process of the spending of public money.

Among a number of recommendations, BIRN suggested to MLGA that within the performance evaluation of municipalities in Kosovo, a transparency mechanism should be included regarding the expenses of municipal officials for lunches, dinners and other general expenses.

BIRN Albania Issues Local Government Transparency Monitoring Report

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania on April 25 published a national report entitled ‘Local Government Under the Lens of Freedom of Information: A Comparative Monitoring of Transparency Indicators Online and On the Ground’, covering all 61 municipalities in the country from 2017 to 2019.

The report contains assessments of the transparency of the 61 local government units in Albania, based on 55 indicators, evaluated in both 2017 and 2019, tracing the progress made by local municipalities in the implementation of freedom of information and public consultation laws.

According to the monitoring data, the indicators were reached by 41 per cent of local municipalities in 2019, with the majority of the municipalities failing to reach half of the monitored target indicators. Compared with 2017, the average level of transparency of local municipalities dropped by five percentage points.

The monitoring of municipalities for the report was carried out in February 2019 by a network of local journalists across Albania. The publication of the report was funded by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the Balkan Trust for Democracy.

For a copy of the report in Albanian click here.

For a copy of the report in English click here.

BIRN Albania Publishes Report on Local Mayors’ Assets

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania has published a report entitled ‘Analysis of the System of Asset Declarations of Mayors in Albania’, which evaluates the wealth of the heads of local government units in the country as well as the integrity of the asset declaration system.

The asset declarations of serving mayors were analysed with the help of three financial experts, who recorded and categorised in a database all the data declared by heads of municipalities in their annual asset disclosures.

The experts analysed the information using a plausibility check, a method of scrutiny used by Albania’s High Inspectorate of Declaration and Audit of Assets and Conflicts of Interest, HIDAACI, to investigate the wealth of public officials.

The goal of the report is to identify key trends contributing to the enrichment of the 61 heads of local municipalities in Albania.

The study sheds light not only on how mayors in Albania have accumulated wealth but also on key practices which obscure the origins of their money.

These include dividends from businesses, debts owed by family members, real estate transactions and cash kept outside the banking system.

To download a copy of the report in Albanian, click here.