Reporting Democracy in the Heart of Europe

A BIRN conference in Budapest will explore the future of democracy at a time of sweeping change.

Across Europe, populist movements are changing the political landscape and eroding faith in democratic institutions. In some countries, they are cracking down on independent media, the judiciary and civil society. The result is Europe’s biggest political transformation since the end of the Cold War. Many fear for democracy itself as authoritarian alternatives enter the mainstream.

In the immediate aftermath of EU elections, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and ERSTE Foundation will host a conference in Budapest to explore the factors eroding democracy, from populism and authoritarianism to demographic change.

The Reporting Democracy Conference will also focus on the role of media in countering such threats and consider how civic activism can help defend freedom.

More than 100 journalists, activists and representatives of academia and international civil society are expected to attend the all-day event at the Hotel Mercure Budapest Buda​ on May 31.

Distinguished speakers from across Europe and the Balkans will look at what is at stake, how independent media outlets can reassert themselves and what happens when the people start to push back.

To register to attend, please fill in the registration form.

The conference marks the launch of Reporting Democracy, a new cross-border journalism platform aimed at unleashing the power of fact-based journalism to scrutinise the issues, trends and events shaping the future of democracy in Central, Eastern and Southeastern Europe.

BIRN Launches New Cross-Border Reporting Platform

BIRN’s new Reporting Democracy platform seeks to unleash investigative journalism to examine the state of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network launched a cross-border journalism platform on Monday aimed at shining a light on issues affecting the health of democracy across a swathe of Europe vulnerable to rising populism and authoritarianism.

Reporting Democracy extends BIRN’s coverage from the Balkans to the so-called Visegrad Group of countries in Central and Eastern Europe: Poland, Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary.

The new platform comes as Europeans prepare to vote in EU elections that polls suggest could bring big gains for far-right nationalists, eurosceptics and supporters of the kind of “illiberal democracy” championed by Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

“Democracy is at a crossroads in Europe as authoritarian alternatives enter the mainstream and threaten to undo fundamentals like media freedom, judicial independence, minority rights and respect for the rule of law,” Reporting Democracy Editor Timothy Large said.

“The goal here is to put rigorous, fact-based journalism to work in exposing the trends and developments that will shape democracy, for better or for worse, and to look at things from a cross-border perspective.”

In addition to offering in-depth analysis by BIRN correspondents in 14 countries, Reporting Democracy will support independent media across the region by commissioning stories from local journalists and offering grants for cross-border investigations.

The project is supported by ERSTE Foundation, the main shareholder of Austrian bank Erste Group, which also funds BIRN’s flagship Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence programme, now in its 13th year.

Robert Anderson

Robert is a correspondent for Reporting Democracy, and is living in the Czech Republic.

He has been a journalist for more than 30 years, starting out in his native Wales at the Western Mail, before joining the Financial Times in London. During his 24 years at the FT he was the paper’s correspondent in Prague and Stockholm, as well as Deputy European News Editor and European Company News Editor.  During the past four years he managed, a CEE business news site aimed at financial investors.

Robert has a master’s degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics from Queen’s College, Oxford University, and in international relations from the London School of Economics. He speaks French and has a passive understanding of Czech.

Miroslava Germanova

Based in Bratislava, Slovakia, Miroslava covers a variety of topics concerning politics, rule of law, freedom and democracy in original features or interviews.

She has worked as a freelance journalist since 2010, covering topics such as politics, minorities, extremism, gender equality or economy. She has worked for global media outlets, as well as local newspapers, magazines and a news agency.

She has completed a Master’s degree in Journalism from Comenius University in Bratislava.

Miroslava speaks Slovak/Czech and English, and a little German.

Edit Inotai

Based in Budapest, Edit is reporting about Hungary for the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

She was formerly the Foreign Editor and Berlin Correspondent of the leading daily, Nepszabadsag, and the foreign policy analyst for the business weekly, Figyelo.

Edit holds a PhD from Corvinus University Budapest and has MA from ELTE University Budapest in English and Spanish philology.

She speaks Hungarian, English, German, Spanish.

Claudia Ciobanu

Based in Warsaw, Claudia is reporting on political and social developments in Poland. Originally from Romania, she’s been based in Warsaw since 2012.

Claudia has been a journalist for a decade, starting out at the Romanian national daily, Cotidianul, before moving to cover Central and Eastern Europe as a freelancer for various international outlets. Her articles have appeared in The Guardian, Reuters and Al Jazeera. She is particularly interested in social movements, frontline communities and illiberal regimes.

Claudia won the first prize in the 2018 Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic excellence. She was a finalist in the Reporting Europe and One World Media awards.

She has MA in Political Science from the Central European University in Budapest, Hungary.

Blerta Begisholli

Blerta is a correspondent for Balkan Insight from Kosovo. She covers politics, economy and culture, and has a special focus on Transitional Justice and reporting about the turbulent past of Kosovo in 1998-99.

Previously she did legal research for ICODA European Affairs, a Brussels based lobbying company that specialised in financial and insurance advises. Blerta has also worked as Project Coordinator at the European Integration Organisation in Pristina and did a mentorship at the Kosovar Embassy in Vienna, Austria.

She has received a double Master Degree in International Relations at LUISS Guido Carli, Rome, Italy, and in European Union Studies at the University of Salzburg, Austria. Before that she received a Bachelor degree in European Integration Studies in ISPE University in Pristina and English Language and Literature at the University of Pristina.

Blerta speaks Albanian, English, Italian, German and Spanish.

BIRN Co-Hosts Media Policy Forum in Moldova

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network on Tuesday co-hosted the second annual Media Policy Forum event in Chisinau, organised by Freedom House, the Black Sea Trust for Regional Cooperation and Internews.

The aim of the discussions was identifying policy solutions that maintain respect for international standards on free expression with attention to key issues around elections.

“These include defending digital space, fostering fair elections coverage, countering disinformation, and promoting free speech,” said Tatiana Puiu, a representative of Freedom House in Moldova, at the beginning of the conference in Chisinau.

The US ambassador to Chisinau, Dereck J. Hogan, urged independent media and journalists in Moldova to maintain their objectivity and not become intimidated out of doing their job.

“In Moldova and in the world, independent journalists encourage active debates, expose injustices and abuses, help raise more informed citizens, empower leaders, and develop a brighter course for the future,” Hogan said.

Then deputy head of the EU delegation to Moldova, Urszula Pallasz, said there should be more attempts to foster media literacy in Moldova.

Pallasz quoted an OSCE report published after Moldova’s parliamentary elections on February 24 this year, which said access to information around elections was restricted due to the concentration of ownership of media.

Independent reports say that more than 80 per cent of the country’s media is concentrated in the hands of political parties and individuals connected to the authorities.

The event in Chisinau brought together a wide array of experts from civil society, independent media, government, academia, and the international donor community.

BIRN’s correspondent in Moldova, Madalin Necsutu, spoke about the media landscapes both in Romania and Moldova during electoral campaigns on a panel entitled ‘Leveling the Playing Field: Fostering Fair Elections Coverage’.

“Like in Moldova, the Romanian media is confronting the concentration of media in the hands of political parties and restricted access to public information,” he said.

He added that in recent years, media in Romania have focused on becoming more independent, particularly with the help of crowdfunding.

But David Kankiya, a Russian election analyst, said that Russia is adopting more and more restrictive legislation regarding the media and freedom of speech, which also affects the internet.

Serbian Nationalists Target BIRN Staffer for Defending Baker

After BIRN project coordinator Sofija Todorovic live tweeted from a nationalist demonstration in Belgrade against an ethnic Albanian baker, the hate-speech mongers turned their attention to her.

Serbian right-wingers have begun a concerted campaign against BIRN project coordinator Sofija Todorovic since she defended the rights of an ethnic Albanian baker in her hometown of Borca – himself the subject of nationalist attacks – sharing hate speech, insults and threats to her on social media and attempting to hack her account on Twitter.

“I have received lots of threats on my social networks and, sadly, I do not feel comfortable or safe enough in the place where I was born and where I currently live,” Todorovic told BIRN.

“But for me the option was not remain silent while all aspects of a life of an innocent man are threatened with this shameful and dangerous campaign,” Todorovic added – explaining her public advocacy of an Albanian baker who has been subject to nationalist intimidation in Borca.

Todorovic has a long history of work in human rights activism. Before joining BIRN, she worked with the Youth Initiative for Human Rights.

Following everything that has happened to her lately, she has said she will file an official complaint with the Serbian police.

Serbian ultra-nationalists recently started to target the Albanian baker in the Belgrade suburb of Borca, which is also Todorovic’s hometown.

Mon Gjuraj became a target of nationalist fury after right wingers on Facebook re-posted a two-year-old picture of his cousin posing with a hand gesture in the shape of a double-headed eagle – the national symbol of Albanians.

On April 27, nationalists gathered in front of the bakery, shouted nationalistic slogans, played Serbian patriotic songs, put stickers reading “Kosovo is Serbia” on the windows, and threw pig’s heads at the bakery – a reference to his being a Muslim. A similar event was organized again on May 4.

During the April 27 event, Todorovic was live tweeting and posting videos of the incidents.

Since then, she has received online threats. Right-wingers have made videos about her, calling her insulting names, mentioning her family and re-posting old pictures that are no longer public.

Her Twitter account has been placed under “temporarily restriction” since April 28 and she cannot access it.

Andrej Petrovski, from the Serbian SHARE Foundation, an NGO dedicated to protecting people’s digital rights, told BIRN that Todorovic’s account had been subjected to attack.

“Someone tried to hack her and her account was then temporarily blocked. Then she unlocked it with a new login. The attacker eventually managed to access her account, but Twitter locked the account again because it recognized unusual activity,” Petrovski explained.

He added that, when Twitter asked for verification by the number of her phone, the hacker used Todorovic’s old number, because of which the account has stayed locked.

“We are trying to communicate with Twitter on this case so it can provide her with the possibility to add her current phone number,” Petrovski said.

BIRN has also sent questions to Twitter about this matter but received no answer by the time of publication.

BIRN and SHARE Launch Project on Digital Freedom Violations

BIRN Hub in partnership with SHARE Foundation, supported by Civitates, have launched a project called ‘Mapping Digital Freedom Violations’ which will run from June 2019 until November 2020 and monitor digital threats and trends in their occurrence, raise awareness about violations of digital freedom, and issue policy recommendations.

The main goal of the project is to determine who are the main players involved in disinformation and propaganda in the south-east and central Europe (Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Macedonia, Romania and Serbia) through establishment of the Digital Monitoring database, continuous monitoring of digital threats, and reporting on digital freedom violations.

The project entails training for digital monitors, the design and launch of the Digital Monitoring database using the already existing experience of SHARE Foundation, the publishing of a cross-regional report and five regional investigations, plus stakeholder meetings and a final conference to promote the cross-regional report.

The project will set guidelines for carrying out the monitoring of digital rights and freedoms.

These standardised rules for categorising cases of violations of digital rights and freedoms can be adapted and applied to any country and used to emphasise the importance of the use of technology to highlight social issues, especially in countries and regions without good human rights records.

Previous monitoring has shown that the primary problems are technical attacks on online content, disabling access to content and the endangerment of information security.