‘Weak’ Serbian Media Can’t Resist Political Pressure: Research

Serbian media outlets’ economic weakness means journalists are vulnerable to pressure on their reporting, suggests new research conducted as part of a project involving BIRN, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia and the Slavko Curuvija Foundation.

Serbian media’s economic unsustainability and dependence on the authorities for advertising, combined with a poor professional culture and a lack of protection and financial security for journalists, allows politicians to exert control over media organisations, according to the research published on Tuesday.

According to the findings of the research, conducted by the Slavko Curuvija Foundation as part of a project with BIRN and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, pressure usually comes from the authorities and political parties, then from editors, and then advertisers.

The executive branch exerts the strongest effects over journalists’ work, the research suggested.

“The minister calls the managing editor or the ‘Dnevnik’ [daily news show] editor or deputy, or someone from the PR service calls, you never know who, but they do it non-stop,” said one journalist working for Serbia’s public broadcaster, RTS.

Another journalist interviewed for the research said that “the [president’s] office dictates who should not be invited as a guest”.

The research was conducted through an online survey of 177 journalists and 10 in-depth interviews with employees of various media that showed indications that they had been exposure to strong pressures from outside or within.

Of all the journalists polled, 69 per cent said they encountered at least one form of pressure from the authorities. Over half of them – 56 per cent – encountered pressure from political party representatives.

Editorial pressure was experienced by 47 per cent; 41 per cent faced pressure from management, a third from the advertisers and 30 per cent from the media owners.

Institutions and parties obstructed journalists by refusing to provide them with information, while officials turned down requests for statements and interviews, and expressed displeasure with media coverage, according to the survey.

Journalists also reported “systemic discrimination” against their media organisations, which included the denial of public funds and not receiving invitations to public events.

Over half of the journalists surveyed said that their outlet or its reporters had been publicly denounced by officials.

According to the survey, officials also insisted that the media publish, change, or withhold certain information about them or their institutions or parties, while almost half of the polled journalists faced open insults from public officials.

Forms of control exercised by editorial staff included turning down offers of coverage of certain topics and requesting coverage of topics with no professional justification.

Around a third of the surveyed journalists also reported cases of editors turning down already finished reports, plus distortion of the tone of reports and headlines to make them either positive or negative.

When it came to pressures from management, most commonly reported were requests for preferential treatment of advertisers in daily reporting.

Journalists also reported requests for covert advertising –publishing promotional content disguised as a journalistic report.

Around a third of the journalists surveyed reported that management interfered with the selection of topics to be covered and which assignments were given to which reporters.

Management also demanded preferential treatment for certain political subjects, called for some stories not to be published, and interfered with the selection of sources, the surveyed journalists alleged.

Other forms of pressure included the dismissal of employees and demands to support certain electoral campaigns, according to the survey.

Journalists further reported cases of advertisers threatening to pull their ads, reneging on their financial obligations, and requesting covert advertising – promotional content made to look like a journalistic report.

Eleven Awards Won by BIRN Journalists in 2017

BIRN Network members took home 11 awards in 2017 for reporting within their respective countries as well as for their regional and international investigations.

A multi-country series of investigations about weapons exports into the Middle East, carried by BIRN Hub and BIRN Kosovo won three awards in 2017.

Judges awarding the prestigious Global Shining Light Award honoured the investigation in November with citations of excellence.

“Making a Killing” received special recognition at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference 2017 in Johannesburg with a certificate of excellence. The report was jointly produced with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). The story deals with the Pentagon’s $2.2 billion weapons pipeline of Soviet-made arms flooding into Syria.

The report is part of a wider research project by BIRN and the OCCRP on the illegal international arms trade. It was shortlisted in July 2017 for the Global Shining Light Award sponsored by the Global Investigative Journalism Network, an association of 155 non-profit organisations in 68 countries.

“Making a Killing” also won an award for online media in an investigative journalism competition organised by the Independent Journalistic Association of Serbia and was also selected in October by voters in an online poll recognising exemplary reporting.

Three Kosovo stories given awards

BIRN Kosovo journalist Doruntia Baliu was awarded the “Best Story on Education” prize in November by the Kosovo Journalist Association and German Corporation for International Cooperation. The award was given to the journalist for her investigation into a grade falsification scandal in the municipality of Drenas.

Pristina-based journalist Serbeze Haxhiaj was honoured in October for her story ‘The Enduring Agony of Wartime Rape in Kosovo’, published on BIRN’s flagship website Balkan Insight. The story explores how women who have been raped and tortured during the Kosovo War are not applying for reparation schemes due to the stigma of rape that is still prevalent in Kosovar society nearly 20 years after the war ended.

BIRN Kosovo’s television programme “Jeta ne Kosove” (Life in Kosovo) and the anti-corruption platform KALLXO.com were given the second prize for investigative journalism by the European Union Office in Kosovo in May.

The investigation that caught the five-member jury’s eys was “Organized Tax Fraud,” which revealed that over 300 Kosovo businesses were involved in a tax evasion scheme through the use of shell companies.

Macedonia took home two awards

Aleksandar Dimitrievski, author of a BIRN’s story about a database for agricultural subsidies, was awarded first prize for investigative journalism for 2016, at a ceremony in Skopje, Macedonia in May 2017. Dimitrievski’s story documents the amount of agricultural subsidies granted to individuals and companies over four years, from 2010-2014, worth about 450 million euros.

The Association of Journalists of Macedonia gave its annual investigative reporting award for 2016 to BIRN journalist Vlado Apostolov in February for his series of articles on properties connected to a Macedonian official, Vladimir Zdravev.

Apostolov received the “Yasar Erebara” award for three investigative articles on properties linked to the former chairman of the Council in the Skopje Municipality, published on BIRN Macedonia’s website Prizma.

Journalists in Serbia won two awards

Dragan Gmizic’s “Flatland Without Birds?”, a documentary about illegal bird hunting in Serbia, won the second prize in the EU Investigative Journalism Awards for 2016.

The film, co-produced by BIRN Serbia and Greenfield Productions, examines how the hunting of rare turtle doves and quail in Serbia is organised and asks whether it can be controlled. The documentary was aired on TV N1, TV CG, and Al Jazeera Balkans.

First prize went to Maja Zivanovic for her series of stories for VOICE, the Investigative and Analytic Centre of Vojvodina. Maja is currently working for BIRN’s regional publication Balkan Insight.

BIRN Serbia journalist Jelena Veljkovic’s story “The Secret of Vucic’s Tavern” won an award in the print media category at the annual competition for investigative journalism, organised by the Independent Journalistic Association of Serbia. Her story looked into claim by Serbia’s Property Directorate that it was unaware an exclusive restaurant had opened in a part of the Belgrade Cooperative building, which the directorate had leased to the “Belgrade Waterfront” company. The directorate refused to answer whether it believed the use of public property by a private company was in accordance with the law.


Elvis Nabolli, a 2016 fellow in the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, in June 2017 won the award for best article by a young investigative journalist, as part of the part of the EU Investigative Awards in Albania. Nabolli won for his article, “An Albanian War on Drugs”, which was produced as part of a fellowship and published by Balkan Insight.

Call opens for 2018 Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence

The call for the 12th edition of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence (BFJE) is open and will last until March 12.

Experienced journalists from Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, Kosovo, Republic of Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Greece and Serbia are eligible to apply.

Each year, 10 journalists are chosen through open competition to receive funding and professional support to conduct in-depth research into a topic of regional and EU significance. For 2018, the subject is TRUTH.

Applicants selected by an independent committee to take part in the fellowship will receive a €2,000 bursary and up to another €2,000 for travel and research expenses. They will also attend international seminars and receive continuous one-to-one mentoring for their stories. Stories from the programme will be published by BIRN and by prominent regional and international media outlets. The top three stories, as selected by an independent jury, will also receive cash awards.

The Application Form and Guidelines are on the BFJE website.

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.

Aimed at promoting the development of a robust and responsible press, the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence has evolved into a signature programme that has helped shape journalism standards across the Balkans while boosting the careers of participating reporters.

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

BIRN’s Transitional Justice Programme Enters New Phase

Over the next three years, BIRN’s transitional justice initiative, which is supported by the EU, will focus on building the capacities of local media and civil society in order to promote reconciliation and intercultural dialogue.

From 2018 to the end of 2020, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network’s Balkan Transitional Justice Initiative will work to promote and strengthen transitional justice mechanisms and processes through regular, in-depth, high-quality reporting from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia.

Supported by the European Union, BIRN has partnered with the Netherlands-based organisation Impunity Watch in order to increase and strengthen the capacities of local journalists, civil society activists and victims’ groups to monitor, effectively engage and shape ongoing transitional justice processes, including the implementation of the EU policy framework on transitional justice.

In the upcoming months, besides daily reporting on transitional justice issues, BIRN’s team will produce investigations across the region, televised debates in Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and create a focus page about the newly-established Specialist Chambers in The Hague.

It will also continue to work on data journalism, update BIRN’s war crimes verdict map and develop a new database of wartime mass graves.

BIRN will also support local journalists through training sessions, study tours, small grants and mentoring to report on transitional justice.

Impunity Watch will hold workshops and produce policy papers about victims’ participation and guarantees of non-recurrence.

BIRN’s Transitional Justice Initiative has been run since 2011 and besides the EU, it has been supported by the Foreign Ministry of the Netherlands and the Robert Bosch Stiftung.

BIRN Serbia Launches ‘Info-Hub’ to Aid Civil Society

New website will contain documents relevant to budget spending in the media and hopefully serve as a valuable resource for the media, civil society and other stakeholders interested in use of public money.

BIRN Serbia, the Independent Journalists’Association of Serbia and Slavko Curuvija Foundation launched new website – kazitrazi.rs, as part of the joint project Public Money for the Public Interest.

All materials created within the project, such as handouts, manuals, case studies, multimedia, articles, etc, will be available on this website.

The info-hub will also contain documents relevant to budgetary spending in the media sector, data collected by the Research Team and reports produced over the course of the project.

“Tracing public money in Serbian media sector is of special importance as this money, for most of the local media, is the main source of survival,” said Tanja Maksic, program coordinator of BIRN Serbia.

“Partisan and non-transparent allocation leads to corrupt practices and abuse of public funds. In the long run, it diminishes fair competition and pushes media towards propaganda, rather than reporting in the public interest,” she added.

“That is why it is highly important to have effective monitoring tools as well as to engage the broader civil society community in this issue.”

The info-hub is envisaged as a resource center for all interested stakeholders, particularly in civil society, and as a unique platform where all relevant data can be easily accessed.

The website will be updated regularly through the duration of the entire project and will hopefully serve as valuable information source for all stakeholders interested in this topic.

BIRN Albania Holds Workshop on Judges’ Asset Declarations

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania held a workshop in Tirana, presenting its database on the asset declarations of first-instance court judges.

The BIRN Albania database, presented on January 30, contains data from the asset declaration disclosures of 268 first-instance court judges from 2003 until 2016, and was introduced as a resource for journalists looking into stories on the hidden assets of justice officials.

About 20 mid-career journalists from local and national media participated in the workshop, which provided a guide to the data collected in the database, as well as the methods and techniques of investigative journalism used by BIRN Albania to investigate the hidden assets of Albania’s justice officials.

During the workshop, BIRN Albania also presented the findings from its report on the asset declarations of first-instance court judges, which analyses the asset declaration data and highlights suspicious transactions based on internationally-recognised red flags.

The workshop was aimed at strengthening the skills of journalists to look closely at systemic issues of illicit wealth, with a special focus on the red flags raised by the analysis of asset disclosures by first-instance court judges conducted by BIRN Albania.

BIRN Kosovo Publishes Report on Media and Rule of Law

Following a regional conference at which a regional report on the relationship between media and rule of law institutions on fighting corruption and organised crime was launched, BIRN Kosovo held a roundtable event to discuss the topic at the local level.

The roundtable, which took place on January 30, was organised as part of a mutual project with BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina and BIRN Serbia called “Exercising Freedom of Expression and Openness of State Institutions in Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia”, an endeavor supported by the German Foreign Office Stability Pact.

More than 30 representatives from the NGO sector, Kosovo media groups, Kosovo Police, and the Kosovo judiciary—including representatives from Kosovo basic courts and the Kosovo Prosecution—were present. Some interviewees who contributed to the report’s study of Kosovo were also present at the roundtable.

The panel consisted of seven people: Kreshnik Gashi, a BIRN editor who also moderated the discussion; Arben Qirezi, the author of the Kosovo report; Enver Peci, the head of the Kosovo Supreme Court; Ewa Korpi, EULEX prosecutor; Besim Kelmendi, prosecutor at the Kosovo State Prosecution; Baki Kelani, spokesperson from the Kosovo Police; and Petrit Çollaku from the Kosovo Association of Journalists.

The panel discussed this central question: Who sets the agenda on reporting organised crime and corruption?

The head of the Supreme Court of Kosovo, Enver Peci, said that this court has published 2,000 verdicts, and that the Supreme Court has achieved success despite complaints about financial problems.

State prosecutor Besim Kelmendi said that cases of organised crime and corruption “are not easy to investigate”, and that the biggest difficulties are with high-level corruption cases.

“We have prosecutors that are more open and some that hesitate to communicate with media, and I can say that prosecutors should not hesitate to talk to media within the legal framework”, Kelmendi said.

EULEX prosecutor Ewa Korpi talked about the presence of fake news in reporting on organised crime and corruption.

“During this year’s local elections, I had several cases when it was reported that a certain investigation was over while I had that case on my table, investigating it. And this for sure comes from political pressure, and I have to say that in the place where I come from, Sweden, I have never seen such a case”, Korpi said.

After the report was presented, participants were given the opportunity to pose questions to the panel and engage in an interactive discussion. Representatives from media organizations and NGOs in Kosovo were pleased to have a chance to address questions on access to public documents to representatives of the panel and the judiciary.

Through this report, BIRN Kosovo aims to foster freedom of expression and transparency in relevant institutions in Kosovo and to contribute to the debate among journalists, civil society and public officials of judicial institutions on the elimination of barriers to reporting on organised crime and corruption.

Revealing Corruption Remains Challenge for Balkan Media

Reporters on corruption and organised crime in the Balkans are subject to a range of different pressures and challenges – as our comparison of reporting on such cases in Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia shows.

Organised crime and corruption are among the key challenges facing the societies of the Western Balkans, with corruption in particular being a key grievance for ordinary citizens and voters.

As in any democracy, the media play a crucial role when it comes to informing the public on these subjects and shaping public debates.

The extent to which the media are able to do so objectively and independently will help the public to both better understand the scale of the problem and assess what their elected representatives and institutions, tasked with upholding the rule of law, are doing to combat organised crime and corruption.

During 2017, BIRN conducted a regional study that examined how the media report on organised crime and corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia.

Aside from the looking at how media report on the topic, the study also sought to unpack why media report on organised crime and corruption in the way they do.

Specifically, our study sought to identify the challenges and constraints faced by media organisations across the region when it comes to reporting on organised crime and corruption.

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BIRN to Host Regional Conference on Media and Rule of Law

BIRN will host a regional conference on access to information and media reporting on investigative and judicial proceedings in cases of organised crime and corruption on Thursday in Sarajevo.

The event will bring together representatives of the judiciary, non-governmental organisations and media representatives from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia.

The conference is being organised as part of a project entitled ‘Exercising Freedom of Expression and the Openness of State Institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia’, supported by German Foreign Office Stability Pact funds and implemented by BIRN Hub in cooperation with BIRN Serbia and BIRN Kosovo.

In 2017, BIRN undertook a regional study which examined how the media report on organised crime and corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia.

As well as looking at how media report on these topics, the study also sought to analyse why media report on organised crime and corruption in the way that they do.

The study also sought to identify the challenges and constraints faced by media organisations across the region when it comes to reporting on organised crime and corruption.

The media monitoring was carried out in the period from April-June 2017 and involved six media outlets in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia respectively as well as five in Kosovo.

In-depth interviews were conducted with 72 people during this period – 29 in Bosnia and Herzegovina, 22 in Kosovo and 21 in Serbia. Among those interviewed were a broad range of current or former judges, prosecutors, policemen, lawyers, editors, journalists, politicians and experts.

The project resulted in three unique country-based analyses and one cross-regional analysis, the first such study to offer a regional perspective on this topic.

The findings will be presented on Thursday in Sarajevo, together with a debate divided into three panels, including guests from the media, police and judiciary across the region, who will conduct a dialogue on issues arising from the analyses.