BIRN’s Weapons Investigation Wins Online Poll

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network’s investigative story The Pentagon’s $2.2 Billion Soviet Arms Pipeline Flooding Syria has been selected as the best article by voters in a Forum on the Arms Trade online poll recognising exemplary reporting in articles published from July 1 to September 30, the organisers announced on Wednesday.

The authors of the investigation are Ivan Angelovski and Lawrence Marzouk, and the story is a part of wider research by BIRN and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, OCCRP on the arms trade.

“The type of deep dive investigative reporting that Ivan Angelovski and Lawrence Marzouk have done here is difficult and extremely valuable. Drawing attention to how the arms trade is conducted, with specific identification of international actors who often bend if not outright skirt the rules, reminds us that diligence is needed at all levels,” said Jeff Abramson, an arms trade expert and senior fellow at the Arms Control Association.

“As the Trump administration moves forward with new arms sales and security assistance, their findings serve as examples of how to examine whether it proceeds responsibly,” Abramson added.

Eleven articles were nominated by experts chosen by the Forum on the Arms Trade for being examples of exemplary journalism that uncovers new information and/or expertly explains issues related to the arms trade, security assistance and weapons use that were published in the fourth quarter of 2017.

Angelovski and Marzouk’s story traced programmes to arm Syrian rebels, aided by questionable use of end-user certificates and what they called “misleading” legal documents.

They identified the supply of AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades and other weapons, often from the Balkans, eastern Europe and former Soviet Union factories and inventories, as being led by the US military’s Special Operations Command, SOCOM, as well as the Picatinny Arsenal in New Jersey.

When asked about why they felt it important to report on apparent abuses within the system for conducting arms transfers, Angelovski and Marzouk told the Forum on the Arms Trade: “The rules are supposed to prevent weapons ending up with terrorists, criminals and rogue states. Countries which have signed up to these rules should abide by them. Breaches of these rules presents a real, current risk to the world, but more troubling is the long-term impact if the whole system is undermined.”

“There’s actually a lot of quality reporting on arms trade, security assistance and weapons use. All the articles that were nominated for exemplary reporting, as well as previous winners and nominees, are great examples of quality reporting,” Angelovski and Marzouk added.

“However, there is not enough media awareness of the issue, partly as it requires some specialist knowledge to begin to find interesting stories and understand their importance. Few journalists have this know-how or the time to learn,” they said.

BIRN Hub Explores Media Development Opportunities in Moldova

BIRN Hub representatives discussed media development and capacity development opportunities and partnerships on October 4 and 5 with journalists, media organisations, donors and international organisations in Chisinau, Moldova.

The media organisations included the Centre for Independent Journalism, The Association of Independent Media, the Higher School of Journalism and the Centre for Journalistic Investigations.

“With some of the Balkan countries having been through similar transitions, BIRN Hub believes that Moldova can be seen in this context in cultural terms too, not just in terms of the former Soviet space”, Petar Subotin, BIRN Regional Development Officer explained.

Moldova has been going through important political, geopolitical and social developments over the past decade, which need to be properly understood by an international audience in a regional context.

The country is on a path towards EU accession, but it is also troubled by a frozen conflict with the separatist authorities in Transnistria and faces large-scale youth migration, while media freedom is under increasing threat.

Moldova is under-reported in the international English-language media and BIRN, by partnering with local media organisations and supporting in-depth and investigative reporting, wants to give it more coverage, and to allow international and regional audiences to understand the country’s dynamics.

BIRN’s Work Presented to Students in Washington

BIRN Programme Manager and investigative reporter Jelena Cosic gave a presentation to students at the American University in Washington DC on October 9 about BIRN’s work and achievements.

During her visit to Washington as part of the Digital Communication Network programme, Cosic was invited by renowned investigative reporter Chuck Lewis and the managing editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop, Lynne Perri, to talk about BIRN’s investigative projects.

Cosic presented investigations from the Making a Killing series, and spoke about the importance of investigative reporting and BIRN’s work in general.

She held two sessions for students from two different classes, the history of investigative reporting led by Perri and international investigative reporting led by Lewis.

The Digital Communication Network exchange programme is sponsored by the US Department of State and coordinated by World Learning. Cosic is the Serbian representative among 16 media professionals from Eastern Europe and Central Asia.

Serbian Media Stage Blackout in Defence of Freedom

Around 150 Serbian media outlets and NGOs are temporarily blacking out their websites or going off air on Thursday, in protest against what they see as assaults on the media’s freedom.

About 150 Serbian websites and NGOs have agreed to join a “blackout” campaign on Thursday, called “Stop media darkness”, to protest over what they called the worsening situation of the free media in the country.

“We want to warn the public that freedom of media in our country is running out of breath, and we want to fight together to save it,” a joint press release of the participating organisations – which include BIRN – said.

Media outlets including Balkan Insight as well as NGOs are blacking out their websites for one hour on Thursday while carrying the simple message: “This is how it looks without a free media”. Supporting print media carry a black page.

Just a few major print media outlets joined the campaign, with none of those with state ownership participating.

The dailies Danas and Kurir and the weekly Vreme published messages in support of the campaign on their front pages, while in the daily Blic, owned by Germany’s Ringier Axel Springer, only the independent cartoonist blacked out his cartoon of the day.

Television and radio stations will be air jingles and videos with the campaign message during the day.

The protest follows a recent incident on September 18 when the Defence Minister Aleksandar Vulin’s political party called the editor of the Serbia’s Crime and Corruption Reporting Network, KRIK, Stevan Dojcinovic, a “drug addict” – in apparent retaliation for his published investigation into the minister’s real estate puchases.

Soon after, Vukasin Obradovic, the founder of Vranjske novine and former head of the Serbian journalists’ association, went on hunger strike in protest over his title’s closure and what he called the decline in media freedom in the country.

Media and NGOs say the campaign is designed to remind people that some free media still exist in Serbia. “From here we start,” the joint press release adds.

A progress report published by the European Commission in November 2016 noted that Serbia had made no progress, and had only carried out “some level of preparation”, in terms of supporting freedom of expression.

“The overall environment is not conducive to the full exercise of this right [to media freedom],” the report stated, adding that threats, violence and intimidation against journalists were issues of concern.

The watchdog organisation Freedom House in its latest report said that Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and media outlets aligned with him had escalated a drive to portray all investigative and critical media organizations as foreign-backed propagandists seeking to damage the government and destabilize the country.

“Self-censorship was a worsening phenomenon that journalists attributed to concerns about both harassment and economic pressure,” the 2015 report, published last year, said.

It said journalists in Serbia continued to face threats and physical attacks. “Some of the most visible pressure on the media came from Prime Minister Vucic and his allies, who continued to verbally harass critical journalists and outlets”, it said.

The UN Human Rights Committee has also expressed concern about Serbian officials publicly vilifying and intimidating media workers and about the prosecution of journalists and civil society actors for expressing their opinions.

The Serbian state should refrain from prosecuting journalists and human rights activists, should take steps to protect media workers from intimidation and sanction the perpetrators of such offences, the report, published in March, said.

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.

Investigate for ME and EU

BIRN Hub

‘Investigate for ME and EU’, a project which is being implemented by the Center for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro (CIN-CG) and BIRN, began in February 2017. CIN and BIRN jointly won this grant in the first-ever EC media call to be organised in Montenegro.

Summary

Through its partnership with BIRN, CIN-CG – which was established just three years ago – will strengthen its capacities, both in terms of supporting journalistic investigations and in managing an EU project.

Investigative stories about the process of EU integration are produced by the members of CIN CG team and journalists from other Montenegrin media – those that are chosen in a call for the best investigative proposals, which is already open. They will deal with the biggest challenges in the country’s negotiations with the EU, including corruption, the rule of law, and environmental issues.

Western Balkans Countering Violent Extremism Training Initiative

BIRN Hub

Summary

The overarching objective of this initiative is to contest extremist narratives in the public discourse, in particular those disseminated online, throughout the Western Balkans. The specific objectives of this project are:

–        To equip critical voices with the skills, know-how and resources to challenge extremist narratives.

–        To encourage critical evaluation of extremist messages by the most vulnerable groups and the general public.

–        To improve policies and practices in the region in handling and responding to online extremist content.

The project adopts an iterative approach, involving a wide range of stakeholders in discussing needs, gaps and opportunities to challenge violent extremist narratives online, followed by the development and testing of prototypes of effective digital solutions and tools to enhance counter-messaging content production and distribution and to strengthen resilience against violent extremism.

Actions will be aligned with national Countering Violent Extremism strategies, with partnerships formed with mainstream media, public institutions, technology companies, and private investors, with the aim of influencing policies and practices in contesting extremist narratives online.

Exercising the Freedom of Expression and Openness of State Institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia

BIRN Hub

“Exercising the Freedom of Expression and Openness of State Institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia” is a project intended to increase public awareness on issues of access to justice and contribute towards more transparent and more responsive institutions in these three countries.

Summary

The regional project will result in three country-based and one cross-regional analysis, the first of its kind, offering a regional perspective on the accessibility of public institutions in the Western Balkans.

BIRN Film on Wartime Home Swaps Gets TV Premiere

BIRN’s new film ‘Your House was My Home’, about how war forced villagers in Serbia and Croatia to exchange homes with each other to save their lives, premieres on Al Jazeera Balkans on Tuesday.

‘Your House was My Home’, which tells how Serbs and Croats from Kula in Croatia and Hrtkovci in Serbia swapped houses and moved to each other’s villages after the outbreak of war in 1991, has its television premiere on Al Jazeera Balkans on Tuesday at 5.05pm local time.

The half-hour documentary follows the stories of two of the villages’ residents – Goran Trlaic, who left Kula for Hrtkovci, and Stjepan Roland, who left Hrtkovci for Kula.

Before the 1990s conflict, Kula was predominantly populated by Serbs, while the majority of the people in Hrtkovci in Serbia.

Since the end of World War II, they had lived peacefully together – until the first multi-party elections in 1990, when nationalists came to power and minorities were not welcome in either republic anymore.

A series of threats and violent incidents started a chain reaction as increasing numbers of inhabitants of Kula and Hrtkovci exchanged properties so they could escape to safety.

This was described by officials as ‘humane relocation’, but it was actually a forced population exchange in the midst of a war.

“There has never been ‘humane relocation’ except in the heads of nationalist leaders and their devastating policies in the 1990s in the former Yugoslavia,” said the film’s director, Janko Baljak.

“Relocations of this kind were carried out forcibly and left unimaginable consequences on the lives of people and on relations between nations who lived in peace and harmony before the war,” he added.

The personal recollections in ‘Your House Was My Home’ show how this forced population exchange had a devastating long-term effect on the lives and relationships of ordinary people from both villages, said Baljak.

“The duty and obligation of engaged documentary film maker is a continuous fight against short-term memory,” he said.

See more information about the film here.

BIRN Summer School Day 4: How to Scale Up Investigation

On the fourth third day of BIRN’s Summer School in Dubrovnik, journalists heard how to pitch stories, structure investigative projects and use open data.

The fourth day of BIRN’s Summer School Master Class of Investigative Journalism in the historic city of Dubrovnik on Thursday started with a session on pitching story ideas, run by Lawrence Marzouk, editor with Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Marzouk explained how stories can be pitched to editors without overpromising while bearing in mind the possible angle, sources and the outcomes.

“You need a clear idea; do not spread a lot of different things,“ he said.

Marzouk said journalists should try not promise too much from a story and must be realistic, but their stories have to be fresh and new, workable and possible, to explain why something is important.

“At the beginning, you should at least have a theory in your head, something you would try to prove,“ he said.

Miranda Patrucic, an investigative reporter and regional editor with the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, continued her lecture on how to “follow the money“.

She explained how to gather publicly available information about companies and how to research their financial statements and assets.

“A financial statement summarizes the revenues, costs and expenses incurred during a specific period of time,“ Patrucic explained.

In the afternoon session, Blake Morrison, lead trainer and investigative projects editor at Reuters, advised journalists on how to pitch stories and structure investigative projects.

“You should always think of how to better communicate the story, to use the audio-video material, the data,” he said.

During the last Thursday’s session, BIRN’s Marzouk shed light on a case study about the arms trade from the Balkans and Central Europe to the Middle East.

Journalists heard how to use open data to trace and track the arms trade.

Marzouk explained that, while researching a “controversial industry” like the arms trade, journalists “have to harvest all the possible open source databases” because the industry is highly regulated, meaning that there is a lot of documentation.

During the fourth day, participants at the Summer School also continued to work on their investigation proposals that they will present on Friday.

The eighth BIRN Summer School has brought together young journalists from Albania, Austria, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Canada, Croatia,  the Czech Republic, Greece, Kosovo, Luxemburg, Macedonia, Montenegro, Romania, Serbia, Slovenia, Ukraine and the United States.

The Summer School is organized in cooperation with the Media Program South East Europe of the Konrad Adenauer- Stiftung, Open Society Foundations and the Austrian Development Agency (ADA), the operational unit of Austrian Development Cooperation with the support of USAID Macedonia.