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.

BIRN Cited as Source in International Reports

BIRN and its network members’ publications continue to be quoted and referenced in reports by international organisations around the world.

Balkan Insight articles on human rights, politics, social issues and media were referenced in Amnesty International reports Montenegro: Failure to Implement International Law and Serbia: Still Failing To Deliver On Human Rights in August.

In a report in September 2017 entitled ‘Risks Related to Exports of European Arms’ from the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung publication ‘The Causes of Migration due to “Made in Europe” Policies’, the results of an investigation carried by BIRN and OCCRP, Making a Killing: The 1.2 Billion Euro Arms Pipeline to Middle East, are cited.

Also in September, the McGill International Review, a student-run scholarly journal and daily online publication based in Montreal, examined the “dismal state” of press freedom in Serbia, mentioning smear attacks on BIRN by Serbian political leader Aleksandar Vucic.

The article also said it was “critical” to support organisations that promote and produce “incisive, investigative reporting like the Independent Journalist Association of Serbia (NUNS) or the BIRN”.

In the Freedom House report ‘Nations in Transit 2017 – Albania’, articles published by Reporter.al, BIRN Albania’s publication, are mentioned extensively in relation to elections, public spending and other political affairs.

Report on asset declaration of Albanian Constitutional Court judges

Analysis of the System of Declaration of Constitutional Court Judges in Albania, is a study published by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania, which evaluates that structure of the wealth of the Constitutional Court members in Albania as well as the integrity of the asset declaration system.

The goal of this report is to identify key trends towards the enrichment of these judges who have a long career in the justice system and make up a quarter of its members. The study sheds light not only on how career judges in Albania have accumulated wealth but also on key practices, recognized as “red flags”, which obscure the origin of this wealth. These include dividends from businesses, debts owed by family members, real estate transactions and cash kept outside the banking system.

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

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

Pressure Rises on Journalists in the Balkans

Weakening EU and US influence in the Balkans and increased Russian influence, as well as growing political and economic pressures on journalists, have created a harsher environment for Balkan media, BIRN’s biennial meeting heard.

At the biennial meeting of the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network on Saturday, Ana Petruseva, director of BIRN Macedonia, said the situation facing the media in the Balkans “seems to be going from bad to worse”.

In addition to the usual political and financial pressures, she said, the media is seeing new types of pressure – the labelling of reporters and media outlets as spies and foreign mercenaries, as well as the opening of a large number of fake news websites.

Petruseva said the flood of fake news was “creating a media noise” in which it is becoming difficult for the public to distinguish between real and fake information, as a result of which confidence in the media in general is declining.

“People are losing trust in the media, and start to see everything as propaganda and promotion,” Petruseva said at the BIRN meeting on Saturday in Kopaonik, Serbia, referring to the new challenges facing the Balkan media.

Wolfgang Petritsch, a BIRN Board member and the president of the Austrian Marshall Plan Foundation, warned the Balkan countries not to always count on EU support, as many in Brussels saw “stability as the priority” over reforms.

“The EU position has weakened owing to its internal problems. As long as it does not finish the process of internal reforms, there will be no strong EU role in the region,” he said, noting that while the promise of EU enlargement is fading, authoritarian regimes in the region are strengthening.

“Since no system has been established of how to handle enlargement, the situation will remain in the ‘twilight zone’,” Petritsch said.

Political analyst for The Economist and Balkan expert Tim Judah said the policy of “stabilitocracy”, whereby the EU and the US appear to tolerate authoritarian Balkan leaders who deliver stability, is essentially a pragmatic response.

“It means dealing with the leaders that we have, and dealing with the Balkans in the way that they are,” he said.

Judah said that while Western influence had decreased, Russian influence had grown, but that Moscow saw setbacks in recent months – giving the example of Macedonia, where Prime Minister Nikola Gruevski has been ousted, and Montenegro, which joined NATO on June 5 despite Russian opposition.

“What is Russia’s interest? It is simple, they want to create within the region pro-Russian or neutral territories,” Judah said.

BIRN Board member and visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe Stefan Lehne said the Balkan countries could move closer towards EU membership in different ways.

“Parallel to the very, very slow and very boring and complicated enlargement process there could be some process of horizontal enlargement. The Balkans countries should not join only country by country, but policy by policy,” Lehne said, listing Balkan countries’ participation in the Energy Community as an example of this.

BIRN board member and media expert Robert Bierman spoke of the recent experience of the media in the United States, where the administration of President Donald Trump has been targeting the press.

“Any weakness in the media will be pointed at. It doesn’t matter if two things are wrong and 98 are right, those two things become the most important in the world. It doesn’t matter that the administration is doing 98 things wrong and two things right,” Bierman said.

However, he added more optimistically that Americans appear more ready now to pay for editorial content, adding that the media are also continuing to do their job.

Before the panel, BIRN Regional Director Gordana Igric presented the results of the BIRN network’s projects in the last year, noting that the network had directly reached over five million people.

“In the past year, this number increased by over half a million people,” Igric said, adding that milestone stories had tackled such major issues as corruption, problems with public procurements and concessions. As a result of these investigations, officials have been removed and criminal charges filed.

Igric said that BIRN currently operates 16 websites in various languages, and has produced over 100 TV reports and films and held 50 training courses during the past year.

According to Igric, BIRN’s articles have been republished or cited in many respected foreign media, including The Guardian, the BBC, and Bloomberg. BIRN has also been very active in advocating the prosecution of war crimes and in participative budgeting activities.

The biennial BIRN network meeting continues until June 10 on Mount Kopaonik in Serbia.

Albania Court Hears Judge’s Lawsuit Against BIRN

Hearing started in Tirana in a case brought by Gjin Gjoni, an Appeals Court Judge, and his wife, Elona Caushi, who claim they have suffered ‘moral anguish’ from BIRN reports and are seeking compensation.

The case of Judge Gjin Gjoni and his wife against BIRN Albania and its journalists, Aleksandra Bogdani and Besar Likmeta, started in the First Instance Court of Tirana on Wednesday and in the presence of several observers from local and international organisations.

Gjoni, an Appeals Court judge and member of the High Court of Justice, and his wife, Elona Caushi, a businesswoman, claims three BIRN articles published in Reporter.al, BIRN Albania online publication, caused them anguish and are demanding 52,000 euros in compensation from both BIRN Albania as an organisation and from the journalists.

One of the articles reported on the closure of an investigation against the judge, accused by the High Inspectorate for Declaration and Audit of Assets and Conflicts of Interest, of concealing wealth, falsifying official documents and money laundering.

The second one stated that the case against him has been reopened while the last showed the ten richest judges in the country based on their wealth statements – including Gjoni.

BIRN Albania stated in the court that it stands by the stories and considers the lawsuit baseless. The next hearing is scheduled for September 12.

Gjoni and his wife filed a separate lawsuit against the Tirana newspaper Shqiptarja.com and its journalists, Elton Qyno and Adriatik Doci. In this, the plaintiff seeks about 14,800 euros damages from the newspaper and 7,400 euros from each of the journalists.

The lawsuits have drawn criticism from both Albanian and international rights organisations as an attempt to intimidate journalists and to push them into self-censorship, so they drop further reporting on issues of public interest.

The European Federation of Journalists, a body representing about 320,000 journalists, called the lawsuits a “malicious use of the law”, in a press release on June 16.

EFJ President Mogens Blicher Bjerregard said: “The European Federation of Journalists believes the malicious use of the law in this case is a mean of pressure and harassment against journalists. It seems clear that the real aim of the lawsuit is to intimidate and to silence journalists reporting on matters of public interest.”

The Union of Albanian Journalists, based in Tirana, condemned the lawsuits in an earlier press statement as “doomed to fail”.

“The Union of Albania Journalists has been informed of the judicial assault launched by the member of the High Council of Justice, Gjin Gjoni, against several journalists and respective media, under the legal claim that his image has been tainted,” the Union said in a statement.

“The Union considers this process from a controversial name as an attempt doomed to fail from the start,” it added.

BIRN Albania in Call for Investigative Reports on Environment

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania held a roundtable on environmental hotspots, bringing together journalists, civil society organisations and experts.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania launched a call for investigative stories on the theme of environmental hotspots on June 20.

The call forms part of the program “Fostering Transparency through Investigative Reporting”, supported by the Open Society Foundation in Albania, the Balkan Trust for Democracy and National Endowment for Democracy.

Three journalists will be awarded grants to cover their expenses while doing their investigations and writing their stories on organized crime.

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 standards.

The call only applies to journalists from Albania and closed on July 9th.

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

Click here (in Albanian) to download application.

BIRN Albania Holds Roundtable on Environmental Hotspots

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania held a roundtable on environmental hotspots, bringing together journalists, civil society organisations and experts.

BIRN Albania’s roundtable on environmental hotspots held on June 13 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 in the financial industry by bridging the gap between civil society and investigative journalists, in order to uncover abuses of power, abuse of client trust and abuse of regulations.

About 16 representatives of non-governmental organisations and journalists discussed the topics to be investigated, which ranged from the health concerns linked with legacy environmental hotspots, new urban garbage incinerators, the switch in strategy on urban waste treatment, the lack of certification of laboratories maintained by government watchdogs and the oversight of big polluters.

Participants at the roundtable also listed poor recycling management in the capital and waste water treatments in coastal towns as topics of concern.

The topics highlighted by the NGOs will be listed in BIRN Albania’s upcoming call for investigative stories about environmental hotspots.