Marija Ristic Appointed as New BIRN Network Director

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Regional Network (BIRN Hub) has appointed Marija Ristic to the positon of Regional Network Director, to replace the current director, Gordana Igric.

Marija Ristic has been appointed as BIRN’s Regional Network Director, effective from May 1 this year.

She will lead the BIRN Hub, which coordinates the BIRN network, dealing with editorial, training, operations and development, as well as developing, fundraising for and coordinating core regional projects.

Since its inception, BIRN has attracted exceptional professionals to its team who have helped the organisation over the years to flourish and become a trusted source of information, and Ristic is one of the foremost examples, said Gordana Igric, the current BIRN Regional Network Director.

“I feel confident that she will bring fresh ideas and new energy to the Network, as well as passionately guard the quality of programmes within the Hub,” Igric said.

Ristic started working for BIRN in 2011 as a journalist, contributing to the regional Balkan Transitional Justice programme. Topics related to facing the past, reconciliation and transitional justice have been at the core of her professional development.

In 2015, Ristic produced the award-winning documentary ‘The Unidentified’, which was screened across the Europe and the United States.

She also made BIRN one of the first media organisations in the Western Balkans to initiate regular reporting about violent extremism, populism and propaganda under the regional Resonant Voices Initiative, which also involved training journalists to cover these topics.

“It is a privilege and an honour to lead such an exceptional team of professionals who have been at the forefront of defending media freedoms, human rights and setting the highest journalistic standards across the Western Balkans region,” Ristic said.

Ristic has significant expertise and knowledge related to media, transitional justice, human rights, democratic processes and EU integration.

She has also been actively involved in organisational development, fundraising and expanding the organisation’s influence regionally and abroad over the past several years.

Ristic is a graduate of the Geneva Academy for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. She has received numerous awards and scholarships from the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, the OSCE, Zoran Djindjic Foundation and the Research Council of Norway. She is currently a fellow at the Free University in Berlin, Germany enrolled in the European Journalism Fellowship programme, researching universal jurisdiction.

Gordana Igric, the outgoing Regional Network Director, set up BIRN in 2004, and over the past 14 years has overseen its growth from a handful of employees to around 150, with six offices in the Western Balkans, journalistic coverage from 13 countries, and 16 websites in English and local languages.

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.

Albania

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.

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, 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 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 Albania Publishes Online Court and Crime Reporting Manual

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania has published an online court and crime reporting manual which aims to strengthen the capacities of local journalists to report on complex cases from local courts and law enforcement institutions.

The manual was written by Flutura Kusari, an international expert on media law, Albanian media expert Elira Canga and Dorian Matlija from the Res Publica legal centre in Tirana. The drafting and publication of the manual, entitled ‘Reporting of Court and Criminal Cases in the Media’, was supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund and the USAID-funded ‘Justice for All’ project.

Published in the Albanian language, the manual is an online resource for reporters, journalism students, researchers and people who have an interest in how the media reports on criminal cases and court cases which are of legitimate public interest.

The manual was drafted to give journalists and media practitioners, but also to the wider public, an understanding of the institutions and the hierarchy of the judicial system in Albania and the path that civil, criminal and administrative cases follow.

The manual also aims to serve as a resource for journalists who report from the courts and on criminal cases on daily basis, in order to better understand their rights and responsibilities, the regulations and self-regulation of the media, the right to information and access to public court documents as envisioned in the local legal framework, as well as best international practices.

Published with the goal of being periodically updated, the manual also provides ample tip sheets for journalists who report from courts and on crime cases, as well as advice on how to protect sources and whistleblowers.

BIRN Albania Training Enhances Crime Reporting Skills

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

BIRN Albania Holds Roundtable on Political Party Finances

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania held a roundtable discussion in Tirana on September 27 about the transparency of political party finances, with a focus on the campaign finances in the June parliamentary elections.

The roundtable was part of a project entitled ‘Strengthening the Media’s Role in Transparency of Political Party Financing’, supported by the National Democratic Institute, NDI, in Albania and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.

About 25 journalists, experts, representatives of local NGOs and international organisations participated in the roundtable.

Representatives of local organisations that monitored the June 2017 parliamentary elections shared some of their findings with local journalists and discussed ways in which media could investigative the illicit flow of money to political parties.

The roundtable follows a two-day training session that BIRN Albania held at the end of April in the city of Durres. The training aimed to strengthen the skills of mid-career journalists to look closely at systemic issues of illicit financing of political parties and conflict of interest, with a special focus on the red flags raised by Central Election Commission reports.

After the training session, BIRN Albania opened a call for analytical stories on political party finances, and during the electoral campaign, published one investigation and four in-depth news analyses, strengthening public debate on the issue.

Following the roundtable, BIRN Albania will open a new call for analytical stories by local journalists on the topic of political party financing, looking back at the parliamentary election campaign and campaign finance reports.

BIRN Albania Calls for Investigative Reports on Consumer Protection

Following a roundtable discussion between civil society organisations about consumer protection, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania (BIRN Albania) is opening a call for investigative stories.

The call is part of the project ‘Exposing Corruption in Albania’, supported by the Open Society Foundation in Albania, OSFA.

Three journalists will be awarded grants to cover their expenses while doing investigations and writing stories on a wide range of consumer protection topics which emerged from a roundtable discussion between journalists and civil society on September 20, 2017 in Tirana.

The journalists will have about three months to dig deeper and research their ideas, and will also have the opportunity to work with experienced editors as mentors to guide them through the process of writing to BIRN’s standards.

The call only applies to journalists from Albania and closed on October 15, 2017.

Click for more information (in Albanian) about the application procedure.

Click here (in Albanian) to download application.

BIRN Cited in Balkan Media Freedom Reports

BIRN is mentioned in two new international reports on media freedom and the difficulties and dangers that journalists in the Balkans are facing in their work.

BIRN Cited in Balkan Media Freedom Reports

BIRN is mentioned in two new international reports on media freedom and the difficulties and dangers that journalists in the Balkans are facing in their work.

Violence against journalists in the Balkans is widespread, with 15 assaults in the first half of 2017, says a new report by Mapping Media Freedom, a project run by Index on Censorship in partnership with the European Federation of Journalists and Reporters Without Borders.

It also mentions BIRN and the lawsuits issued against it for reporting on criminal investigations into the family assets of an Albanian judge.

“During the first quarter of 2017, the MMF database registered several trends that we find to be acute challenges to media freedom,” said Hannah Machlin, project manager at Mapping Media Freedom.

“Some European governments have clearly interfered with media pluralism. Others have harassed, detained and intimidated journalists. All of these actions debase and devalue the work of the press and undermine a basic foundation of democracy,” Machlin added.

In an article entitled Serbia and the EU: Stability over Democracy, published in EU Observer, Steve Crawshaw, senior advocacy adviser at Amnesty International and a board member of BIRN, describes the Serbian mainstream media context as dominated by pro-government voices.

“The state television news and the majority of privately owned channels provide a steady drumbeat of unquestioning support, where little to no criticism of government policies can be heard. Media ownership is often opaque, and demonising alternative voices is routine,” Crawshaw wrote.

“Pro-government headlines accused the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and KRIK, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, of being ‘liars’ and ‘mercenaries’,” he added.

Suggesting that the EU is prioritising stability over democracy or human rights, the article quotes Dragana Zarkovic-Obradovic, the director of BIRN Serbia, who said: “They are allowing [President Aleksandar Vucic] to poison the public – and that will backfire. He is feeding [them] all the worst things, and destabilising the country.”

Crawshaw concludes that “the bottom line remains: human rights and stability are not alternatives but two sides of the same coin – and the rule of law is essential for both. We cannot afford to ignore that simple truth.”

BIRN Albania Holds Discussion on Consumer Protection

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania held a roundtable discussion on the topic of consumer protection, attended by journalists and civil society organisations.

BIRN Albania’s roundtable discussion, held on September 20 in Tirana, was part of a programme called ‘Exposing Corruption in Albania’, which is financed by the Open Society Foundation in Albania, OSFA.
The project aims to expose corruption and abuse of power by encouraging cooperation between investigative journalists and civil society organisations, while providing editorial and financial support for investigative stories in the field of consumer protection.

About 30 representatives of civil society organisations, experts and journalists attended the discussion to talk about consumer protections topics that will orient BIRN Albania’s upcoming call for three grants for investigative stories.

The participants listed a number of areas of concern regarding consumer protection, ranging from proper labelling of imported products in the local language, problematic electricity and utility contracts, patients’ rights, food safety and bank loan contracts.

The complete list of the topics discussed will be made available with BIRN Albania’s upcoming call for investigative reports.