Albania Rights Groups Condemn ‘Undemocratic’ Media Bills

Edi Rama is being urged to withdraw two media bills that rights groups say pose a serious threat to freedom of the media and democracy in the country.

A number of organizations in Albania dedicated to the protection of human rights, media freedom, freedom of information and journalists associations called on Prime Minister Edi Rama on Friday to withdraw two proposed bills that would empower the government to regulate online media outlets, under the threat of penalties and closure.

“We inform the public that the two proposals endanger freedom of expression and could turn Albania in a undemocratic country and at the same time are not helpful in tackling the existing problems of the media, including hate speech, defamation, propaganda or disinformation,” the organizations stated at a press conference.

The two draft laws aim to create a registry of online publications and empower a new “Complaints Council” to sanction online media, based on third-party requests, ordering their closure or blocking access to such media in Albania.

The draft laws provide legal mechanisms for the Audiovisual Media Authority AMA and Tax Authority to fine or even close online media outlets, blogs and other publications on the Internet without clear procedures. Rights groups say this poses a threat to seriously increase the level of censorship and self-censorship already present in Albania’s media.

“If the ruling Socialist parliamentary majority enacts these proposals, our hybrid democracy will inevitably slither toward an authoritarian regime. In democratic countries, the aim of the law is to protect citizens from the government and not to protect government from the citizens,” the organizations noted.

The joint statement was backed by BIRN Albania, the Association of Professional Journalists of Albania, the League of Albanian Journalists, AIS/Open Data Albania, Civil Rights Defenders, the Albania Media Council and the MediaLook Center.

Albania’s media is considered only partly free by Freedom House’s media freedom index. The media climate has also deteriorated over the last decade, experts say.

The television market is concentrated in a few hands and political coverage is largely limited to publishing material pre-packaged by parties’ PR offices that have developed into fully fledged TV studios with their own journalists and camera crews.

BIRN Urges Russian Leader To Release Journalists

As Vladimir Putin visits Belgrade, BIRN journalists have used the occasion to call on the Kremlin leader to release imprisoned journalists in Russia and respect human rights.

BIRN journalists in Serbia on Thursday held up banners asking Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had arrived in Belgrade, to release imprisoned journalists in Russia and to respect human rights.

“Free journalists,” said a banner in Serbian, Russian and English held from the windows of the BIRN office, close to where supporters of Putin in Serbia were gathering for a rally.

The BIRN office also displayed an LGBT flag, calling on Putin to respect human and LGBT rights in his country.

Pro-Russian NGOs with the support of the ruling Serbian Progressive Party on Thursday organized a mass gathering in support of the Russian President who was meeting Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic in the city.

According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 58 journalists have been killed in Russia since 1992. The Committee also said it knew of four journalists imprisoned in Russia at this moment.

Rights groups also criticize Russia over its treatment of LGBT people, who face routine pressure, intimidation and violence.

In its latest report, the rights watchdog Human Rights Watch, HRW, noted that a law against so-called gay propaganda was having a negative impact on lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people and on the young also.

“The 2013 law exacerbated the hostility LGBT people in Russia have long suffered, and also stifled access to LGBT-inclusive education and support services, with harmful consequences for children,” HRW said in December.

The Russian President is meeting his Serbian counterpart to sign a series of agreements and memorandums, highlighting the warmth between the two Slavic countries.

Serbia and Russia are close diplomatic allies. Russia has strongly supported Belgrade in rejecting Kosovo’s independence, while Belgrade has refused to criticise or sanction Russia for its actions in Ukraine and the unilateral annexation of Crimea.

Originally published on Balkan Insight.

BIRN and Partners Start Balkans, Turkey Media Freedom Project

The goal of the three-year project entitled ‘Strengthening Quality News and Independent Journalism in the Western Balkans and Turkey’, led by BIRN Hub and its partners and supported by the European Union, is to enhance media trust among citizens and create a safe environment for journalists to produce independent news content through training, mentoring, technical and financial support, and publishing.

The project will be implemented by BIRN Hub in partnership with Thomson Media gGmbH (TM), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Central European University (CEU CMDS), the Media Association of South-East Europe (MASEE), the Center for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro (CIN CG), the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers in Macedonia (SSNM), BIRN Albania and BIRN Serbia.

It is intended to address the main problems and challenges in the Western Balkans identified in the Feasibility Study for the Establishment of a Regional Program in Media and Journalism Training – poor professional skills among journalists; the limited training capacity at a high proficiency level for mid-career journalists; the lack of financial resources in the most of media sector, especially for investigations; and the limited penetration of the investigative stories that are published.

Planned activities include national and regional training for young and mid-career journalists and for reporters from mainstream media and public service broadcasters, while a separate curriculum for investigative journalism in academia will also be created. In addition, training for training providers will be held, setting up long-lasting training mechanisms for domestic journalists in the region.

They will learn about news criteria and the structure of news stories; knowing their target group; basic interview techniques; sources and checking facts; writing for the web; news and social media; mobile journalism; story-telling; ethics, and techniques and methodologies for interaction with audiences.

The funding of cross-border story ideas and a study trip for up to 20 editors to one of the major media outlets in Europe with a highly-developed investigative newsroom is also planned.

Also envisaged is the launch of a resource platform for investigative journalists, aiming to provide them with the tools and services that will help journalists breach the tech gap between their skills and an investigative story.

An important element of this project is the continuation of the ongoing regional EU Investigative Journalism Award in the Western Balkans and Turkey. Through the award scheme, 63 prizes will be awarded over the course of 36 months, three in each project country (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia and Turkey).

The project is funded by the European Commission through its Regional Training and Support Programme to Improve Quality and Professionalism in Journalism.

BIRN’s Krypometer Receives New Fact-Checking License

The International Fact-Checking Network, IFCN, has granted BIRN’s Krypometer an extended license to operate after a careful assessment of the work of this product.

In a published announcement, it said that following careful evaluation of the specific criteria, the Krypometer, a product of Kallxo.com, is an exclusively fact-checking initiative that operates within a legally registered organisation.

Its quality was based on an assessment of published stories from September, October and November of the previous year.

“The general conclusion is that the reporting seems to be in line with the principles of fairness, political impartiality and factuality,” the IFCN announcement said.

“Public information about the organisation, its employees and financial resources is accessible. The fact-checking methodology is explained, corrections are highlighted where such interventions are made in the text,” the announcement added.

Faik Ispahiu, director of Internews Kosova, called it an “internationally credible assessment of the work and the way of reporting” at Kallxo.com.

“Certification by the IFCN and public confidence makes us proud and strengthens our confidence that Kosovo can be a state of true values and achievements,” he added.

Jeta Xharra, director of BIRN Kosovo, recalled the hard work done to receive this positive assessment from the IFCN.

“IFCN has a system where it is not enough to be good only at the beginning (in 2018, when we were accredited for the first time); in fact, they have assessed our fact-checking methodology in a continuous manner,” Xharra said.

“I and my colleagues need to make sure we reach the proper level each year because we are the subject of a yearly audit from this international mechanism,” she added.

Krypometer’s goal is to reflect on the credibility of public statements from political figures on issues of major importance, be they local, central or international.

Krypometer does not focus only on the political accusations and counter-accusations commonly used during election campaigns.

It aims also to explain more complex matters, provide the context or history of statements and present a data analysis, as well as an explanation of how politicians, diplomats and others phrase and formulate their opinions, so as to distort or shadow the truth.

Kallxo.com and the TV show Jeta ne Kosove  are part of the IFCN of the US-based Poynter Institute, which is a media organisation that is dedicated to promoting excellence in fact-checking.

Tools to impartially and transparently verify facts are seen as powerful for accountable journalism. BIRN Kosovo and Internews Kosova are signatories to this code of principles, which was announced on September 15, 2016.

BIRN and Internews Kosova Welcome Court Access Regulation

The Kosovo Judicial Council, KJC, has issued a decision regulating access by parties to courts, which prohibits lawyers from approaching judges without prior arrangement and without the other parties being present and has sent a letter demanding equal measures for prosecutors to be implemented as well.

Lawyers have deemed this decision controversial and illegal, however, and have responded by boycotting their work in the courts, which is causing unnecessary and dangerous delays in trials.

On January 10, 2019, BIRN Kosovo and Internews Kosova, IKS sent a letter of support to the KJC, showing support for the decision and demanding equal treatment of parties in court procedures. BIRN Kosovo and IKS asked the KJC to apply the same procedure for prosecutors as well.

The letter reminds the KJC that BIRN and IKS, over 13 years of monitoring the justice system, have repeatedly called for equal treatment of prosecutors and lawyers so that the courts enjoy more credibility among citizens.

They deplore the practice of prosecutors meeting individually with judges just before hearings start, having coffee together before trials, or entering the court hearing together, as a bad practice that is likely to undermine the faith of both the parties and the public.

BIRN and IKS also urged the KJC not to allow this decision to be used by individuals against court monitors and the media in a way that would endanger the transparency of court procedures, and question the objectivity and impartiality of the court.

BIRN and IKS also requested the KJC to continue with the swift implementation of the decision, and ensure the proper and normal functioning of the courts.

BIRN Publishes Transitional Justice Report

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network published the report “After the ICTY: Accountability, Truth and Justice in former Yugoslavia” which aims to map current challenges in regional cooperation over war crimes prosecutions and missing persons, victims’ participation, and the role of archives, art, media and museums in dealing with the past.

Twenty years after the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia and a year after the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia closed down, accountability, truth and justice still seem more like ideals than reality.

During 2018, under the umbrella of BIRN’s Transitional Justice Initiative, a series of events was organised to discuss regional cooperation over war crimes prosecutions and missing persons, victims’ participation, and the role of archives, art, media and museums in dealing with the past.

Participants from civil society, the expert community, institutions, academia and the media tried to answer the overarching questions – how far we are from reconciliation, and what more can we do to combat impunity and increase intercultural dialogue?

Although several protocols regulating cooperation in the area of war crimes prosecution are in place, the offices of the national prosecutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Kosovo and Serbia still haven’t engaged in meaningful cooperation to address the legacies of the grave violations that took place during the breakup of Yugoslavia. Regional cooperation is at its lowest level in years, there is a stagnation in the number of new cases launched – and in some countries a significant fall in new cases – while only a few middle- and high-ranking officers have been indicted. National prosecutions are often subjected to political pressure, and lack resources and other institutional support.

Another main challenge in addressing the legacies of the 1990s wars is victims’ participation and reparations. Most victims who participated in trial proceedings as witnesses got limited support through victims’ and witnesses’ units. But overall, victims’ participation was piecemeal, and war survivors were just passive observers, with limited space to make compensation claims. Victims are often not adequately informed about reparation schemes, while reparation processes – if they exist – are lengthy and burdened with bureaucracy and legal challenges. There is a general perception that the justice systems in former Yugoslav countries have betrayed victims.

Survivors of crimes and families of killed and missing persons also say that the right to truth has not been fulfilled. While almost all missing persons are listed as such, name-by-name lists of all the people killed during the conflicts are lacking. Politicians and state institutions in the region have often showed a lack of coordination and cooperation on issues dating from the conflicts, while their approach to the issue of missing persons has been from a strictly national and ethnocentric perspective.

Although significant documentation about human rights violations during the conflicts has been amassed by the ICTY and domestic courts, few members of the general public are aware of its existence. Another problem is the lack of openness of the archives of institutions in former Yugoslav states. Where archives are open, institutions struggle with limited resources.

Regardless of the documentation and resources that are available, there is still no sign of fact-based narratives on war legacies being created in countries in the region, mainly due to the persistent predominance of nationalistic discourse. Official representatives of all countries in the region continue to use ‘us and them’ rhetoric with regards to wartime crimes, while political elites and state institutions have repeatedly supported and even promoted convicted war criminals. Meanwhile human rights activists who challenge the official narratives are attacked and sometimes even prosecuted.

Nationalistic discourse also spills over into memorialisation and education. Memorialisation processes in post-Yugoslav countries are ethnically-based, with state commemorations only organised for victims of the dominant ethnicity. In schools, history textbooks lack impartiality when it comes to the wars in the former Yugoslavia.

The report concludes with recommendations for governments and judicial institutions in the former Yugoslav countries to take meaningful steps in the process of dealing with the past, and to the European Union to include transitional justice policies as EU benchmarks throughout these countries’ integration process, as well as ensuring that transitional justice forms part of its other policy interventions in the region.

To read the full report, click here.

BIRN Staff Trained in Google Analytics Management

BIRN journalists, web team and project management staff attended a training in the use of Google Analytics on December 26 and 27 in Belgrade.

The training, organised by BIRN and the international non-profit organisation Internews, through their Balkan Media Assistance Programme, covered topics such as content analysis  with quantitative data, review of key metrics for websites, and improvements that can lead to audience expansion and revenue potential.

On the first day, trainer Fedja Kulenovic from Internews gave a presentation on how to create content strategies for a synergy of business and journalism.

Kulenovic showed the trainees basic Google Analytics measurements, including the number of users, new users, bounce rate, sessions, page views, sessions per user, pages per session and session duration.

Participants worked individually to review their websites, review key metrics, compare them to benchmarks, and then discussed the findings.

On the second day of the training, BIRN staff learned about numerous small improvements that can potentially help attract new audiences and generate more revenue.

Participants learned how the market evaluates platforms, and how to build a media kit using Analytics data.

The final presentation focused on creating dashboards and emailed reports, using Google Data Studio and Google Tag Manager.

BIRN Journalists Trained on Advanced Journalistic Techniques and Mobile Journalism

Twenty journalists and editors from BIRN’s regional web portal Balkan Insight and other BIRN organisations attended an advanced training on journalistic techniques and mobile journalism in Montenegro from December 17-20.

Over four days, a group of BIRN journalists and editors were trained on “Writing with Insight” and mobile journalism at the mountain resort of Kolasin in Montenegro, with the aim of developing and honing advanced skills on longer form reporting and mobile journalism.

The editor of BIRN’s Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, Timothy Large, who was formerly a Reuters correspondent and worked as editor-in-chief of the Thomson Reuters Foundation, led the course on advanced journalistic writing techniques.

The goal of his sessions was to equip journalists with a ‘survival guide’ for writing with insight, to examine interview techniques and to demystify the art of writing features and news analysis.

Lamija Aleckovic, media expert and a former journalist and editor at Croatian public broadcaster HRT and at Al Jazeera Balkans, led the section of the training on mobile journalism.

This included insights into how an integrated newsroom functions and how mobile journalism can best be utilised.

The participants were trained on how to construct a narrative in visual form, which included how to plan shots to suit the story and what interviewees or additional elements may be required. It also covered the basics of camera angles, framing, lighting and sound control, finishing with a hands on task to film and edit a video package using advanced mobile editing apps.

Two members of Balkan Insight’s web team, Ljubisa Banovic and Branko Karapandza, concluded the training with a session that introduced participants to the new content management system for the outlet’s new website, which will be launched soon.

Three BIRN-Backed Stories Receive Prizes for Human Rights Reporting in Kosovo

Three journalistic pieces produced by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, were awarded with prizes in a competition by the NGO Coalition for the Protection of Children, KOMF.

In cooperation with the Forum ZFD and the Center for the Education of Kosovo, through EIDHR projects financed by the EU and managed by the EU Office in Kosovo, KOMF held the annual award ceremony for journalistic reporting on the rights of children in Kosovo.

Donjeta Kelmendi, director of KOMF, said that the media and journalists have always supported her organisation.

“Without support from the media, we would not have had the results we achieved as a coalition so far. This year, there was a lot of competition, like in previous years. We expect that 2019 will have even greater collaborations than previous years,” she said.

Libor Chlad, the Deputy Head of Cooperation at the EU Office in Kosovo, said that it is an honor for him to be present at the prize-giving ceremony.

“The EU has been the main donor in Kosovo to advance some sectors in the past years. We are in favor of improving the quality of life here in the future. We need to support children. We concluded that security is paramount, but also their smiles. It is not easy to include all of these. It is important for journalists to write about the issues that children face,” he said.

KALLXO.com journalist Emirjeta Vllahiu was awarded with a prize for the article titled “The 10 euro bonus does not cover essential expenses for raising children,” on the resolution approved by the Kosovo assembly to give 10 euros monthly for children under 16 years of age.

Another KALLXO.com article awarded in the competition was written by a group of authors – Agnesa Citaku, Ertan Galushi, Mergim Rudari, Fatjona Mani, Valon Fana – titled “Between the desire and inability to get an education,” a project supported by the Office of the EU Special Representative in Kosovo, implemented by BIRN, increasing the cooperation between journalists and all communities in Kosovo. The article is dedicated to the issues that Roma, Ashkali and Egyptian children face regarding access to education.

The TV story called “Punishment” by RTK journalist Festim Kabashi was also awarded; it was a project supported by the EU Office in Kosovo and implemented by BIRN. The documentary shows the violence that children face within the families in Kosovo.

Other awarded stories were “Child mother” by RTK journalist Kaltrina Rexhepi, as well as the article titled “The dangerous mountain road towards education” by Koha Ditore journalist Edona Kutleshi.

Call for Resonant Voices Fellowship

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Commission for International Justice and Accountability and the Foundation Propulsion Fund are inviting journalists, researchers and writers from across Europe to apply for the Resonant Voices Fellowship programme.

The rise of far-right movements fuelled by anti-immigrant sentiment continues to take hold of Europe. Just outside of the EU, in the Western Balkans, the path to EU membership still carries hope to transform intractable conflicts, but people are growing increasingly sceptical.

What is the future of the European Union and the European identity? What do the proponents of both closed and open societies and borders within the EU want? What role do propaganda and disinformation campaigns play in radicalisation and polarisation of our societies and who is the most susceptible?

What are social factors that might make someone radical and what makes people turn to violence? Is there a standard pattern of the radicalisation process and a model of individual extremist? What are the most common ways in which people become exposed to extremist ideologies? What are the root causes of extremism and terrorism? Are they in the EU or outside of the EU? What is the role of propaganda and disinformation? Is the current model of integration suitable? What challenges are we facing from increased migration?

Fellowships consisting of 3,000-euro bursaries and mentoring are offered to cover topics at the intersection of identity, migration, democracy, human rights, radicalisation and violent extremism. We are welcoming proposals that could explore the following themes:

  • Challenges of integration of the Western Balkans communities within the European Union
  • Far right networks operating in Europe with links to the Western Balkans
  • Religious radicalisation in Europe with links to the Western Balkans and Turkey
  • Radicalising transitional justice narratives among the Western Balkans communities living in the EU
  • Nexus between Balkan linked networks of organised crime and terrorism within EU borders
  • Ghettoization and exclusion of immigrants in Europe
  • Political violence within the EU and its online engine
  • Role of media in countering disinformation and propaganda in connection with migration, integration and multiculturalism.
  • Links between political discourse and disinformation in the context of migration, security and terrorism.

Ten journalists, researchers, and writers will be chosen through open competition to receive funding and professional support to conduct in-depth research and investigation into a topic of EU and regional significance.

The content of the Resonant Voices Fellowship call represents the views of the author only and is the author’s sole responsibility. The European Commission does not accept any responsibility for use that may be made of the information it contains.

An independent jury committee, consisting of international media professionals, civil society representatives and security experts, will select from the applicants.

Chosen applicants will receive 3,000-euro bursaries and attend three-day workshop this spring. The workshop will gather selected participants with the aim to increase their knowledge by providing training in the areas of disinformation and fact-checking, strategic communication to counter online radicalisation, social media, data journalism and impact measurement.

Successful applicants will be mentored by BIRN editors in order to benefit from their practical experience, as well as through on-the-job learning.

The stories produced will be published on BIRN’s flagship website Balkan Insight, and by prominent European, regional and international media outlets.

The call for the Resonant Voices Fellowship will last until January 17, 2019.

This fellowship programme is part of the EU-funded project titled “Resonant Voices Initiative in the EU”. The Project is implemented by the Stichting Commission for International Justice and Accountability, the Foundation Propulsion Fund and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Regional Network, BIRN Hub.

Fellowship Structure

The Resonant Voices Fellowship includes the following elements:

  • Fellowship bursary of 3,000 euros per selected fellow or team;
  • A three-day workshop in Austria or Germany, with European and regional trainers in March 2019;
  • Ongoing, on-the-job mentoring and support from BIRN’s editor and  visual communications mentor;
  • Publication of in-depth investigation on BIRN’s flagship website Balkan Insight and in other prominent media outlets.

Eligibility Criteria

  • Individuals or teams with residence in the EU, Western Balkans or Turkey.
  • Applicants should be proficient in English (speaking, reading and comprehension).

How to Apply

All further information regarding the application process, as well as application form and application guidelines, can be found on the Resonant Voices Initiative website: http://resonantvoices.info/open-call/.