Through high-quality reporting and by creating a pool of skilled journalists, BIRN examines and scrutinises key processes, steers debates and provides the public with impartial and reliable information.
The BIRN Network also monitors and advocates for the transparency and accountability of public institutions and enables civil society organisations, CSOs, and citizens to influence decision-makers.
BIRN Network: 2015 to 2016
In 2015 and 2016, members of the BIRN network operated in a challenging environment which was marked by authoritarian tendencies among political elites, political turmoil, economic difficulties and deteriorating media freedoms. Political and financial pressure on the media, the refugee crisis, violent outbreaks in Macedonia, the long-term economic crisis and accompanying high unemployment, and high levels of corruption are just some problems that countries in the region have experienced.
Through investigative, analytical and specialised coverage of underreported topics such as war crimes cases, the flow of public money, cases of potential and/or verified corruption, problems within justice systems, media freedoms and ethics, and security issues etc., BIRN continued to play an important role in providing people in the Balkans with access to accurate information.
Furthermore, the BIRN Network has organised training sessions and carried out monitoring and advocacy initiatives, thus strengthening the capacity of journalists, civil society and citizens to understand and deal with challenges facing their societies. These efforts were amplified through direct work with vulnerable groups, creating databases enabling access to important documents, through partnerships with CSOs and local administrations, and via organised debates and conferences.
Activities and Achievements
Publishing, Republishing and Broadcasting
Through its 13 websites BIRN directly reached almost 5 million people in 2015. The number of people reached through TV and radio programmes, print media and republications is difficult to estimate.
Our texts were republished or quoted thousands of times, including very influential regional and international media (such as CNN, AL Jazeera English, the Independent, the EU Observer, Newsweek, and the Guardian) across all continents.
BIRN journalists won 15 awards in 2015 and 10 in 2016 so far. In May this year alone BIRN won 7 prestigious journalism prizes.
BIRN’s investigations often provoked strong political and media reactions, including around 20 direct changes.
- In Albania, for example, an investigation published by BIRN Albania on the eve of the local elections in June 2015 brought to light the fact that some mayoral candidates had criminal records in EU member states. The report pushed the government and the opposition to agree on the so-called law on decriminalisation, which was passed by the Albanian parliament in December 2015. The law bans the election or appointment to public office of people with a serious criminal background. Elvis Rroshi, former Mayor of Kavaja, a town in central Albania, resigned in May 2016 after admitting to having been convicted in Italy – the first major casualty of the decriminalisation law. The mayor was arrested in June for using forged documentation to hide past criminal convictions.
- As a result of investigations by BIRN Kosovo’s flagship TV programmes Life in Kosovo and Justice in Kosovo, in 2015 alone one official was dismissed, one suspended, three resigned, three investigations were initiated, one official warning was sent by the prosecution service, and one contract annulled. BIRN Kosovo’s report on how the prime minister’s son won a tender from his fathers’ office to fix the PM’s car was quoted in Reuters and other international media prompting the son to give up the contract.
- Following an investigation produced as part of the Paper Trail for Better Governance programme – a joint BIRN Hub and BIRN Kosovo project – into the privatisation of MDI, Montenegro’s largest arms exporter, an anti-corruption watchdog from Montenegro has filed criminal charges against Montenegrin Prime Minister Milo Djukanovic. Within the scope of the same project, Austrian prosecutors are reviewing evidence uncovered by the same BIRN investigative journalism programme about an offshore company suspected of being involved in bribing an Albanian official at the now bankrupt Austrian construction company Alpine Bau.
- Following publication of a story about women in Romania and Bulgaria enduring low pay, long hours and gruelling work to make clothes for luxury Western clothing brands – produced as part of BIRN Hub’s Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence 2015 programme – Labour inspection issued three fines for one of the factories in Romania.
- Since its release in May last year, documentary film The Unidentified, produced as part of BIRN Hub’s Balkan Transitional Justice programme, has been screened by more than 10 regional film festivals. This has set a new record for documentary production in the region as The Unidentified is the most screened film by Balkan film festivals. A screening was also hosted in February 2016 by the US Congress Tom Lantos Commission for Human Rights, the body responsible for informing US policy in the area of human rights. This was the first time that a film from Serbia was screened in the US Congress with numerous diplomats, civil society representatives and other stakeholders attending.
- BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina journalists monitored 157 war crimes cases heard by the State Court, 86 trials at local courts and one case at the ICTY. In doing so, it continues to provide reliable information about war crimes trials and transitional justice issues and journalistic texts were often referenced in national and international academic and policy publications. In March 2016, wartime Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic gave an exclusive interview for BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina published the day before his ICTY verdict. The interview gained a great deal of attention from the local and international media and was republished in around 270 outlets in the region and across the globe, including the Guardian, the Independent, the Telegraph, NBC News, the EU Observer, etc.
- Following a series of investigations by BIRN Serbia into the accreditation of higher education institutions, the Commission for Accreditation and Quality Control announced the suspension of accreditations and a review of procedures.
In 2015, BIRN organised 90 training and workshop sessions with a total of more than 900 attendees across the region, including journalists, local government members, and CSOs. Training covered journalistic topics (investigative techniques, data journalism, freedom of information laws, online publishing and social media networks, and election reporting) and wider social issues: transparency and accountability, public procurement, participative budgeting, the judiciary, healthcare, public administration, and open-data.
Organised training included regional programmes such as BIRN Hub’s The Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence. Many of the texts produced were republished by prominent international outlets, thus drawing attention among audiences beyond the region to controversial Western Balkan issues.
Through BIRN Hub’s sixth annual Summer School of Investigative Reporting, held last year in Albania, 29 journalists were trained in investigative reporting techniques. Within the joint BIRN Hub and BIRN Kosovo A Paper Trail to Better Governance programme, all journalists took part in on-the-job training, benefiting from specialised mentorship by one or more BIRN editors. In addition, through the joint BIRN Hub and BIRN Kosovo Media for All programme, 50 journalists from local Albanian and Serbian-language media in Kosovo received training. Participants produced about 120 stories during the training period.
BIRN Serbia issued its Data Journalism Handbook, the first publication of this type in Serbia. Publication of the handbook was followed by a series of workshops.
Monitoring and Debates
In 2015, BIRN published 12 policy papers/monitoring reports related to media, elections, security threats in the region, the Kosovo-Serbia agreement, the work of the courts, governmental accountability, corruption and education. They served as a watchdog mechanism for local and national governments and helped international institutions in creating regional policies and recommendations. Monitoring was in most cases followed by conferences and workshops, thus opening wider discussion about the findings and sending stronger messages to policy makers.
Seven local conferences focused on media freedom – one of the key issues in the region – were held in 2015, with more than 350 participants. The BIRN Network celebrated its 10th anniversary in June 2015 with a regional media conference in Sarajevo. The conference featured a video message by EU Enlargement Commissioner Johannes Hahn who said that media freedom in the Balkans remained “of particular concern” to the European Commission – particularly the issues of government interference and threats to the independence of public broadcasters.
A conference focused on Violent Jihadism in the Balkans as organised by BIRN Hub in March 2016 in Sarajevo. The conference, along with a series of analyses, reportage and articles published on BIRN’s regional English-language publication – Balkan Insight – was the first regional overview of the global phenomenon of radicalisation and violent extremism and provided a basis for creating policies to counter extremism.
BIRN Kosovo and its partners launched three reports examining how the 16 Kosovo–Serbia agreements signed as part of the dialogue facilitated by the European Union are being implemented in practice – this has now become known as the BIG DEAL platform. The platform received an invitation to present its findings in Barcelona, Berlin, Brussels and New York and also to regularly brief foreign delegations coming to Kosovo including MEPs, ambassadors, media representatives etc. The BIG DEAL platform has allowed both governments to produce reports on the progress of the agreements. Both governments send their representatives to sit at the same table, something that has not happened before in the region.
In addition, BIRN Kosovo produced and published two annual court monitoring reports generated from more than 1,500 court hearings. It also produced a report on public spending based on the monitoring of public tenders. BIRN Kosovo’s 35 post-election debates checked how mayoral promises made in 2013 had been delivered on. Using a new TV format filmed inside every municipal assembly, this kind of scrutiny encouraged many mayors to finish work and projects before the debates were aired. These debates also marked the first time a local journalist from the north of Kosovo, who moderated the debates, challenged mayors of Serb majority municipalities in Kosovo on practical matters concerning the people. Almost all the mayors who participated in the debates were doing so for the first time in their careers and familiarising them with this mechanism of accountability was a precedent that is now established.
BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina’s monitoring of nepotism in the courts was the first to explore this important problem and opened a public debate on the work of the judiciary in general in the country. Following the report, the High Judiciary and Prosecutor’s Office changed some procedures for hiring employees. BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina plans a follow-up investigation about the issue later this year.
The results of BIRN Albania’s study on self-censorship were used to create an animated video by an Albanian artist that highlighted the findings of the study. The animated video was widely hailed in Albania and beyond as an innovative method to present research data. The video was also included in the SIDA Network Newspaper on ICT as a good example of how to use technology to promote freedom of expression.
During 2015, seven databases were created with over 500,000 documents obtained during BIRN investigations, helping citizens, journalists, researchers and policy makers to access important information previously unavailable.
Databases provide a variety of documents: scraped data used for investigative journalistic stories by the joint BIRN Hub and BIRN Kosovo programme Paper Trail for Better Governance (more than 400,000 documents); expenditures of all ministries since 2010; lists of public notaries with their references; state subsidies for sports since 2012; state media financing (BIRN Serbia); materials from the wiretapping scandal revealed by the opposition party in 2015; documents related to public procurement, living standards, employment, financial results of state companies (BIRN Macedonia); and data related to local government (BIRN Albania).
In July 2015, BIRN Macedonia launched the first interactive database providing details of the government revamp of the Macedonian capital called Skopje 2014. The database revealed the number of planned and built monuments had tripled and that the price tag had risen from 80 million euros to 634 million euros by the end of 2015. In December 2015, a mobile application was launched enabling users to take pictures of built structures with the cost appearing on the screen with buttons enabling sharing via social networks. This is probably the first augmented reality mobile application ever made in Macedonia aimed at raising awareness of public spending. It has been used as a tool for fostering public debate over the need for good governance in general. In March 2016, BIRN published another big database documenting four years of agricultural subsidies worth more than 400 million euros.
Building Partnerships, Strengthening Capacities, Working with Vulnerable Groups
Through cooperation with media outlets, CSOs (200+) and independent institutions, as well as by reaching out directly to vulnerable groups, BIRN strengthened its impact in terms of promoting citizens’ participation in social and political life and more responsive working practices among public institutions.
Based on a series of articles published by BIRN Albania on a case of Roma evictions in October 2015, a group of children rights NGOs, the Ombudsman and the Anti-Discrimination Commissioner reacted and requested the municipality of Tirana take necessary measures. Based on coverage of the story, Amnesty International also released a public statement on this issue. Unfortunately, the Roma community was still evicted but the local government was put under pressure to undertake a resettlement plan for the 48 Roma families.
In 2015, BIRN Serbia, along with several online media, established the Association of Online Media. In the situation where most of the broadcast and print media in the country are under political and financial pressures from the authorities, online media has an increasingly prominent role in preserving journalistic integrity, and this association is a step in strengthening their position through cooperation and mutual support.
At the beginning of 2015, two Serbian alumni of BIRN Hub’s Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, Stevan Dojcinovic and Dragana Peco, established an investigative media portal KRIK and have, during the past 18 months, won most the major national awards for their work.
BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina’s team of journalists interviewed a number of individual victims of war and representatives of victims’ associations, such as the Mothers of Srebrenica and the Zepa Enclaves Association; Families of the Captured, Killed Fighters and Missing Civilians of Republika Srpska; Association of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide; Women Victims of War Association; and Association of Detainees of BiH. In cooperation with victims’ associations and prosecutors’ offices, BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina has continued to reach out to ‘silent’ victims.
During the process of public consultations in order to identify the main challenges to be addressed by new local governments after the local elections of June 2015, more than 80 members of vulnerable groups across the country were consulted in 10 local workshops organised by BIRN Albania. Based on these consultations, BIRN Albania conducted interviews with all the mayoral candidates in Albania’s 61 municipalities with a special focus on the promises related to concerns raised by vulnerable groups, such as the Roma community, people with disabilities, etc.
Advocating improvement of transitional justice policies in the region and more accountable and transparent governance formed an important part of BIRN’s work in the previous year.
The BIRN Balkan Transitional Justice team is a part of local initiatives in the region that aim to change government and international polices in the area of transitional justice. Editor Marija Ristic took part in the consultation process ahead of drafting Serbia’s war crimes strategy and she is also engaged in a coalition of NGOs dealing with the past in the region that aims to coordinate all transitional justice efforts on a local level, both governmental and non-governmental.
Throughout 2015, BIRN Serbia’s Participative Budgeting programme was implemented in 10 Serbian municipalities, with the results incorporated in budget laws for 2016. More than 15,000 citizens directly participated in the process of budgeting for 2016 through structured pre-budget consultations. The overall goal of the action was to provide mechanisms for public participation in decision-making.
In order to strengthen participatory democracy and accountability in local governance in the 2015 municipal elections, BIRN Albania carried out a consultation process with more than 150 CSO representatives, activists and community members. Based on the consultation results, interviews were conducted with 102 mayoral candidates in the country forcing them to take public positions on important issues identified in their own communities.
The difficulties faced by journalists and media outlets in the Balkans during 2015 were illustrated by campaigns launched by political elites and pro-government media against BIRN members. Media freedom assessments carried out by international organisations frequently highlighted BIRN’s role in safeguarding professionalism and integrity within journalism across the region.
The European Parliament expressed its concern about a culture of self-censorship among journalists in Albania in its draft resolution on the country’s progress in 2015. The concerns expressed by the MEPs follow a study published by BIRN Albania in October 2015 on the roots and causes of self-censorship among local journalists. The European Parliament “deplores that the Balkan Investigative Regional Network, an independent and investigative media outlet, has been threatened with a defamation case, following its investigations into the criminal past of a mayoral candidate during the local elections in 2015”.
In reports on the media situation in the region, Freedom House, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Reporters without Borders, the European Commissioner for Human Rights, and the European Fund for the Balkans all referred to the case of BIRN Serbia which was at that time facing attacks by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić after publishing an investigation into a state-owned energy company. The European Commission strongly rejected “baseless claims” by the Serbian PM that BIRN is being funded by Brussels to spread lies to destabilise his administration.
At the meeting organised in April 2016 in Sarajevo by the South East European Media Observatory, BIRN was praised for good practice in journalism and described as being among only a few media outlets in the region serving as role models. The panellists said that the issues that usually affect media integrity include problematic and non-transparent ownerships, politically-controlled advertising and non-transparent state advertising.
BIRN directors and editors took part in numerous international conferences about the media, highlighting not only the difficulties media outlets in the region face but also the achievements of investigative journalism initiatives and the plurality of alternative media voices.
In August 2015, BIRN Macedonia Country Director Ana Petruseva presented to Western Balkans leaders and EU officials gathered in Vienna as part of the Berlin Process a message from civil society activists urging Western Balkan states to continue modernisation processes both in their own states and in the wider region.
Journalists from the BIRN Network won the most prestigious national awards in their respective countries and a number of international awards in 2015 and 2016.
2015: Fifteen awards for BIRN team members
- Two BIRN Albania journalists won first prize in the 2014 EU Investigative Journalism Award for Albania (announced in 2015) for a series of articles on the recruitment of Albanians to fight with violent jihadists in Syria. Another BIRN Albania journalist won third place for the investigation into the use of public funds by the previous government to denigrate the leader of the opposition.
- A BIRN Albania journalist was awarded the 2015 CEI SEEMO Award for Outstanding Merit in Investigative Journalism in the professional journalist category for covering complex stories about human trafficking, organised crime and child abuse, corruption and national security.
- BIRN Kosovo won seven different awards: Editor of Life in Kosovo won an award “Vangush Gambeta” by the Union of Albanian Journalists for the investigation Isa Mustafa’s Sons Win Tenders of the Prime Minister Office.
Journalist for Justice in Kosovo program was awarded “Best Journalist of 2015” by the Association of Journalists of Mitrovica. TV cameraman for BIRN was awarded “Best cameraman of 2015” by the same association.
Life in Kosovo and KALLXO.com won second place for investigative journalism from the EU for their programme Scandals of Doctors with Stents.
BIRN Kosovo team won another three awards by the Association of Journalists in Kosovo for 2015: “Best Culture Story” for the article Prizren Ruled by Hotel Owners; award for the category “Best reportage” won by producer for Justice in Kosovo programme for the story Cannabis Made in Kosovo; Cameraman of Justice in Kosovo won “Best filming” award.
- The BIRN Serbia team won the 2014 Jug Grizelj award for its contribution to investigative work. The awards were announced in February 2015. A BIRN Serbia journalist won the 2014 Investigative Journalism Award, given by the Independent Association of Journalists in Serbia and announced in May 2015.
- The Macedonian Media Institute awarded three investigative stories from BIRN Macedonia and BIRN HUB fellows. The winning stories were Skopje Landfill Tender Winner: No experience, no Investment, Dream of Luxury Hotels Vanishes in Macedonia, and The pollution in Skopje – Crime without Culprits.
2016: Ten awards won in the first six months of the year
- A 2015 alumna of the BIRN Hub Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence programme received a commendation from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women in Albania, UN Women, for the “creation of a professional model of investigative journalism for the reporting on trafficking of women and girls”.
- BIRN Macedonia journalists won the prestigious Nikola Mladenov award for investigative reporting for the Skopje 2014 Uncovered database and the series of investigative reports about the grand revamp of the capital.
- A BIRN Serbia journalist scooped first prize for the best investigative journalism story in Serbia’s print media. The award was given by the Independent Journalists Association of Serbia, NUNS, and the US Embassy in Belgrade.
- The documentary film The Unidentified – produced by the BIRN Hub Balkan Transitional Justice programme won the best short documentary award at the South East European Film Festival in LA. The film investigated the commanders responsible for brutal attacks during the Kosovo war.
- The Albania’s Judges Wealth Escapes Scrutiny investigation by BIRN Albania won first prize in the EU Investigative Journalism Award 2015 for Albania.
- A BIRN Serbia journalist won first prize in the EU awards for investigative journalism in Serbia for the Pumping Out the Pit and the Budget article, while third prize went to a joint BIRN Hub and BIRN Kosovo story revealing how a multi-million-dollar road construction contract was quietly handed to a consortium with little highway-building experience linked to controversial Serbian businessman Zvonko Veselinovic.
- BIRN Macedonia won the first and second prizes in the EU awards for investigative journalism for the series of articles related to the Telecom dossier and for Skopje 2014 Uncovered respectively.
- The second prize in EU Investigative Journalism Award 2015 for Kosovo was awarded for the story The friend of Lushtaku benefits from Vala published on BIRN Kosovo’s Gazeta Jeta ne Kosove .
Strengthening the BIRN Network
In 2015, the BIRN Network started developing and adopting standards that help the organisation improve internal cooperation and strengthen network rules and regulations.
As part of that process, BIRN has continued to establish systems for the transfer of knowledge within the growing organisation, strengthening capacities of its current staff, setting up digital infrastructure, further development of BIRN Ltd., improving monitoring and evaluation processes, adopting important internal documents, developing an intranet and archive, conducting internal audits for all offices, and implementing more than 10 online services across the network, ranging from online survey tools, to easily embedded galleries, and an audio repository. All network members took an active role in all of these activities, ensuring effective contribution to improving internal procedures and internal sharing of knowledge and expertise.
More than 100 BIRN journalists have been trained within the network via formal and on-the-job training. Moreover, the BIRN Network has focused on enhancing the organisation’s performance and viability by strengthening capacities of its current staff and by bringing on board new team members that will further professionalise the organisation.
During 2015, BIRN has been developing a set of editorial documents/procedures that will determine the roles and obligations, define the standards (journalistic and ethical), and standardise journalistic training across the network.
In addition, BIRN initiated analysis of existing network rules and regulations and the development of templates for certain uniform documents/acts that are used in the work of network members. So far, Financial Rules, Administrative Rules and an Anti-Corruption Policy have been drafted and shared with network members for further improvements. Human Resources Rules, Disciplinary Procedures for BIRN Network members, a Code of Ethics and Professional Conduct Standards will be also developed.
In the second quarter of 2015, BIRN began setting up its digital infrastructure in order to launch the intranet in all regional offices and the BIRN HUB office by June 2017. By December 2015, the intranet network was set up in three offices: Belgrade, Pristina and Sarajevo. During 2016, the same structure should be set up in Skopje and Tirana. Once all five offices have fully functional and connected intranets in their offices, network-wide filing systems should be also be brought into use.
The BIRN Network celebrated its 10th anniversary from June 12 to 14 last year with a regional media conference in the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo, followed by series of team-building events, meetings and workshops on Mt Vlasic, bringing together more than 100 employees from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia.
Finally, during 2015 the BIRN Network invested effort in further improving its monitoring and evaluation processes. Through a series of meetings and workshops, BIRN developed its Network-Wide Monitoring and Learning System, which includes a comprehensive system of monitoring and learning for the network, including overall guidance, clear and realistic definitions of what is to be achieved, how the programmes and projects will be monitored and roles and responsibilities in this process.