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.

‘Weak’ Serbian Media Can’t Resist Political Pressure: Research

Serbian media outlets’ economic weakness means journalists are vulnerable to pressure on their reporting, suggests new research conducted as part of a project involving BIRN, the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia and the Slavko Curuvija Foundation.

Serbian media’s economic unsustainability and dependence on the authorities for advertising, combined with a poor professional culture and a lack of protection and financial security for journalists, allows politicians to exert control over media organisations, according to the research published on Tuesday.

According to the findings of the research, conducted by the Slavko Curuvija Foundation as part of a project with BIRN and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, pressure usually comes from the authorities and political parties, then from editors, and then advertisers.

The executive branch exerts the strongest effects over journalists’ work, the research suggested.

“The minister calls the managing editor or the ‘Dnevnik’ [daily news show] editor or deputy, or someone from the PR service calls, you never know who, but they do it non-stop,” said one journalist working for Serbia’s public broadcaster, RTS.

Another journalist interviewed for the research said that “the [president’s] office dictates who should not be invited as a guest”.

The research was conducted through an online survey of 177 journalists and 10 in-depth interviews with employees of various media that showed indications that they had been exposure to strong pressures from outside or within.

Of all the journalists polled, 69 per cent said they encountered at least one form of pressure from the authorities. Over half of them – 56 per cent – encountered pressure from political party representatives.

Editorial pressure was experienced by 47 per cent; 41 per cent faced pressure from management, a third from the advertisers and 30 per cent from the media owners.

Institutions and parties obstructed journalists by refusing to provide them with information, while officials turned down requests for statements and interviews, and expressed displeasure with media coverage, according to the survey.

Journalists also reported “systemic discrimination” against their media organisations, which included the denial of public funds and not receiving invitations to public events.

Over half of the journalists surveyed said that their outlet or its reporters had been publicly denounced by officials.

According to the survey, officials also insisted that the media publish, change, or withhold certain information about them or their institutions or parties, while almost half of the polled journalists faced open insults from public officials.

Forms of control exercised by editorial staff included turning down offers of coverage of certain topics and requesting coverage of topics with no professional justification.

Around a third of the surveyed journalists also reported cases of editors turning down already finished reports, plus distortion of the tone of reports and headlines to make them either positive or negative.

When it came to pressures from management, most commonly reported were requests for preferential treatment of advertisers in daily reporting.

Journalists also reported requests for covert advertising –publishing promotional content disguised as a journalistic report.

Around a third of the journalists surveyed reported that management interfered with the selection of topics to be covered and which assignments were given to which reporters.

Management also demanded preferential treatment for certain political subjects, called for some stories not to be published, and interfered with the selection of sources, the surveyed journalists alleged.

Other forms of pressure included the dismissal of employees and demands to support certain electoral campaigns, according to the survey.

Journalists further reported cases of advertisers threatening to pull their ads, reneging on their financial obligations, and requesting covert advertising – promotional content made to look like a journalistic report.

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 Serbia Launches ‘Info-Hub’ to Aid Civil Society

New website will contain documents relevant to budget spending in the media and hopefully serve as a valuable resource for the media, civil society and other stakeholders interested in use of public money.

BIRN Serbia, the Independent Journalists’Association of Serbia and Slavko Curuvija Foundation launched new website – kazitrazi.rs, as part of the joint project Public Money for the Public Interest.

All materials created within the project, such as handouts, manuals, case studies, multimedia, articles, etc, will be available on this website.

The info-hub will also contain documents relevant to budgetary spending in the media sector, data collected by the Research Team and reports produced over the course of the project.

“Tracing public money in Serbian media sector is of special importance as this money, for most of the local media, is the main source of survival,” said Tanja Maksic, program coordinator of BIRN Serbia.

“Partisan and non-transparent allocation leads to corrupt practices and abuse of public funds. In the long run, it diminishes fair competition and pushes media towards propaganda, rather than reporting in the public interest,” she added.

“That is why it is highly important to have effective monitoring tools as well as to engage the broader civil society community in this issue.”

The info-hub is envisaged as a resource center for all interested stakeholders, particularly in civil society, and as a unique platform where all relevant data can be easily accessed.

The website will be updated regularly through the duration of the entire project and will hopefully serve as valuable information source for all stakeholders interested in this topic.

Revealing Corruption Remains Challenge for Balkan Media

Reporters on corruption and organised crime in the Balkans are subject to a range of different pressures and challenges – as our comparison of reporting on such cases in Bosnia, Kosovo and Serbia shows.

Organised crime and corruption are among the key challenges facing the societies of the Western Balkans, with corruption in particular being a key grievance for ordinary citizens and voters.

As in any democracy, the media play a crucial role when it comes to informing the public on these subjects and shaping public debates.

The extent to which the media are able to do so objectively and independently will help the public to both better understand the scale of the problem and assess what their elected representatives and institutions, tasked with upholding the rule of law, are doing to combat organised crime and corruption.

During 2017, BIRN conducted a regional study that examined how the media report on organised crime and corruption in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia.

Aside from the looking at how media report on the topic, the study also sought to unpack why media report on organised crime and corruption in the way they do.

Specifically, our study sought to identify the challenges and constraints faced by media organisations across the region when it comes to reporting on organised crime and corruption.

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BIRN Hosts Panel Discussion on Media Reporting of Corruption in Serbia

On the eve of International Anti-Corruption Day, BIRN held a panel discussion in the Serbian capital as part of a conference organised jointly with the CEPRIS on the role of the media and prosecution in fighting organized crime and corruption in this Balkan country.

More than 60 representatives of the judicary, NGOs and media in Serbia gathered in Belgrade ahead of International Anti-Corruption Day for a conference jointly organised by BIRN on the role of the prosecution and media reporting in the fight against organized crime and corruption.

The conference, which took place on December 8, was co-organised by the Center for Judicial Research (CEPRIS), the Center for Democratic Transition from Montenegro and the Croatian Legal Center, with support from the European Fund for the Balkans (EFB) and the German Embassy in Belgrade.

During the event, debates were held on the election and position of prosecutors and deputies in charge of combatting organized crime and corruption in Serbia and the region, as well as access to information and media reporting on investigative and judicials proceedings in this sector and problems facing the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

For BIRN’s panel discussion on the day, representatives of the NGO presented the main findings of its Serbian country report on media coverage on organized crime and corruption.

The report was produced as part of BIRN’s project titled “Exercising the Freedom of Expression and Openness of State Institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia,” an endeavor supported by the German Foreign Office Stability Pact funds.

This regional study on how media report on organized crime and corruption investigations and court processes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo and Serbia began in March 2017, with the final outcomes to be presented at a regional conference in Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, in January 2018.

BIRN Serbia Holds Media Content Financing Debate

There is a problem with official financing of media content on the local level because of lack of transparency and allegedly favouritism displayed tender commission members who evaluate the projects, a BIRN Serbia debate heard on December 13.

The debate in Novi Sad was moderated by Nedim Sejdinovic from the Independent Journalists’ Association of Vojvodina (IJAV), and the panel included Tanja Maksic from BIRN Serbia, journalist Denis Kolundzija, legal consultant Milos Stojkovic, and Dubravka Valic Nedeljkovic from the Novi Sad School of Journalism (NSSJ).

It was organised as part of the Public Money for the Public Interest project that BIRN Serbia is implementing with the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (IJAS) and the Slavko Curuvija Foundation (SCF).

The aim of the debate was to present information gathered by BIRN, IJAV, SCF, IJAS and NNSJ about the deficiencies of the project-based co-funding system, as well as to propose possible improvements to address these problems.

The panelists said that there was what they described as political control of state funding allocations to local media, and that certain media were being favoured above others.

But there is rarely money for sensitive and marginalised groups, they agreed.

“A large amount of public money is allocated to the media through non-transparent individual income processes, which according to the law is provided for in emergency cases, but reality shows that rarely are these projects urgent interventions,” Valic Nedeljkovic said.

The idea of project-based co-funding is good, and should not be discarded despite its problems and misuses, the panelists said.

“The alternative is that state absolutely stops having a financial impact on the media sphere, which is not possible, or to going a step back and letting local governments distribute money without any public participation,” Sejdinovic said.

BIRN Serbia and Juzne vesti Train Local Journalists

BIRN Serbia and website Juzne vesti organized a two-day training course for journalist working for local websites.

The training course was held as part of Digital Media Action for Freedom of Expression in Serbia project for journalists from local websites Danas, Maglocistac, Pressek, Forum Info and Bujanovacke.

During the two day, participants had the opportunity to learn how to write for online media, how to pick the right topics and how to find the most interesting ways to present their stories.

BIRN Serbia and Juzne vesti editors gave mentoring support to journalists working on investigations, and future cooperation between the participants was agreed.

BIRN Serbia and Juzne vesti are jointly implementingthe Digital Media Action for Freedom of Expression in Serbia Programme.

The programme offers website optimisation, editorial standardisation, training in investigative and analytical journalism, mentoring support for journalists, the development of public and social network profiles, and content exchange and cooperation on the local and national levels.

The programme continues for six months and includes four local websites in Serbia – Maglocistac, Pressek, Forum Info and Bujanovacke.

BIRN Serbia Hosts Cultural Event on Social Media Impact

BIRN Serbia and Our Endowment: Civil Society House organised a cultural evening in Kragujevac to examine how social media influences and changes people’s lives.

The event on November 20 began with the one-person play ‘Laura, Please’ performed by young actor Nikola Rakocevic, before a public debate about social media’s impact on everyday life.

‘Laura, Please’, produced by group Laura2000, deals with the issues of loneliness and love in the digital age.

After the play, BIRN editor Slobodan Georgiev, radio journalist Miroslav Miletic and marketing and IT expert Anita Pratljacic debated the role of modern technology in society and how traditional media needs to change.

The panelists agreed that there is no place for dialogue in traditional media, and that’s why discussion have thrived on Facebook and Twitter.

For a lot of people Facebook is the internet, and journalists should adapt to that fact, they said.

“Bearing in mind the expansion of fake news, people should be very careful when consuming news on the internet. People need to start checking information that is provided to them,” Georgiev warned.

Pratljacic explained that that traditional media didn’t find the way to adapt to new trends and technologies.

“Although social networks have their bad sides, they can also be the trigger for some good things. They are the place where people communicate and organise in order to bring change to their communities,” she said.

The event, the first of many that will be held all over the Serbia, was supported by Interaktiv and pressek.rs, local organisations from Kragujevac.