We chose to be watchdogs, not lapdogs

With five women and one man sitting around a table a decade ago, a decision was reached in the spur of a moment without any concrete plan for the future.

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN was born. It was a sound of fury and exasperation – a stark reminder that endless negotiations on the future of IWPR’s Balkans programme had come to a fruitless end. That end was our chance for a new beginning.

As a favor to us, a graphic designer friend went ahead and created the BIRN logo with a magnifying glass spotlight on investigative journalism. The idea of naming our newsletter Balkan Insight Report was unanimously accepted and off we went. Our funds and ambitions at the time certainly did not match up.

One of the first concrete things we did was to produce a film on the future of Kosovo: “Does Anyone Have a Plan?” We encountered numerous obstacles. Tempers were rising high as we found ourselves often having to deal with comic situations laced with flaring egos and unrealistic demands. The film that we produced almost ten years ago was a huge success. The title as well as some of the content are still relevant.

It was just the first step of many more to be taken. We learned to work together and more importantly to understand that the interconnectedness of the issues in the Balkans creates a puzzle. Like almost everything in this region, the full picture of social, economic or political themes is revealed only when you look at it from various local angles.

This approach is reflected in the very structure of BIRN, a major regional network in the Balkans, where each office follows its own unique projects with possibilities of pulling together resources and skills for cross-border investigations into issues like organised crime and corruption. At the same time, we were made painfully aware that the “Brotherhood and unity” we were so indoctrinated about in former Yugoslavia was now fully operational and flourishing only in the criminal world.

At the beginning, we spent a lot of time thinking about the kind of reporting that we should be aspiring to. We asked ourselves many questions: if politicsis imagined as a football match, are we journalists just spectators, referees or fans of a particular club? Are we as human beings ever fully objective or do our own perceptions and views inevitably find their way into our writing?

“Write what you can prove” was the mantra we decided to follow from the beginning. In the ongoing journalistic battle of facts vs opinions, whilst reporting we strove to stick to the facts.

This is the core of inquisitive journalism that is focused on public interest. This is also the core misunderstanding between the political establishment and journalism in the Balkans, where politicians traditionally treat the press as a transmission channel that exists for the sole purpose of conveying their messages to the people, unchallenged, it goes without saying.

However, journalists should be watchdogs not lapdogs. It is the facts and public interest that they are after. BIRN’s noble principles in publishing, media training and promoting public debate are quality, reliability and impartiality.

This commitment has never wavered in the past decade as a dedicated and close-knit team of journalists across the Balkans continues to probe and analyse key transitional issues while providing objective, balanced and comprehensive reporting.

There is a price to pay for such an approach. Some of the recent attacks on the organisation as a direct consequences of its reporting are evident, from the murky decisions to ban the distribution of Belgrade Insight newspaper to articles alleging various conspiracy theories, written on the orders of those who would rather shut BIRN down than face the truth.

BIRN is a network comprising of individual member organisations, registered in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Kosovo, Macedonia, Romania, Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and Croatia.

Each office engages in relevant local media development projects. In Bosnia, for example, the focus is on war crimes reporting, whilst Serbia concentrates on public expenditure themes and Kosovo produces TV debates on current affairs.

The regional activities of the Network, such as editorial, operational and development work, are coordinated through the BIRN Hub registered in Sarajevo. The Hub coordinates projects such as Balkan Transitional Justice and Culture Watch, numerous cross-border investigations and regional trainings.

Can this kind of journalism be fully sustainable in non-existing media markets in the Balkans?

This is a question for policy makers. Media reforms are under way everywhere in the region and liberal media legislation is in place. The right to freedom of expression is enshrined in all constitutions. However, pressure on the media is becoming more sophisticated and more difficult to spot. To influence the media’s output, interested parties have to control their sources of income.

These financial rugs are routinely pulled from under the feet of the press by withdrawing advertising contracts or banning their distribution. Popular current affairs programmes are taken off air to punish critical reporting. This happens on a regular basis and in a blink of a powerful eye.

One thing is certain: there is no independent editorial policy without an independent source of income. And there is no democracy without a free press, just as there is no pluralism of political choices in a society where the media output is rigorously controlled.

Aware of this situation, BIRN established a company, BIRN LTD as far back as in 2007 with the intention to develop commercial products designed to feed its non-for-profits services. Though the income generated from this is steadily rising, it is still not sufficient to sustain this large network.

Here is food for thought for those supporting this and other similar journalistic enterprises around the world: the most groundbreaking and most important media investigative output often is simply not sustainable.

It is difficult to imagine a Coca Cola advert popping up whilst reading an on-line investigative piece about the unwanted children of rape victims during the Bosnian war. Similarly, it is just as difficult to evaluate the impact upon the spirit of reconciliation in the region created by a documentary, produced by Serbian journalist, which names Serbian officers who ordered attacks on Kosovo Albanian villages in 1999.

So, congratulations BIRN! A decade later you are maturing and growing. Some new talents are taking over, to the delight of the old guard. I am proud I once was part of you.

Dragana Nikolic Solomon is a co-founder of BIRN and the former director of BIRN Serbia. Any views or opinions presented in this text are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent any organisation.Dragana Nikolic Solomon

Ten years of BIRN

The Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence is an editor’s dream. You get to spend a year working with the brightest reporters in the region. You get to step outside the breaking-news cycle and do some truly meaningful journalism. And above all, you get BIRN, making it all possible.

The Fellowship is only slightly younger than BIRN – its first decade is still a year away. It is very much a child of BIRN, a reflection of what makes the organisation itself so special.

I spent two years as an editor for the Fellowship, from 2012-13. The annual process – from commissioning stories to publication – drove home the depth of BIRN’s expertise.

Our reporters drew upon the guidance of BIRN’s network of editors across the region as they researched their stories. At the climax of the process, as the deadlines closed in, the organisation also seemed to draw closer. Drafts were continually critiqued and refined, problems were identified, ledes were sharpened.

It was damned hard work – but Dragana, Goca and Ana made sure that it was never lonely work. As the saying goes, they led from the front.

The final stories were very well received. They were widely re-published, often provoking debate, some even picking up prizes. Each and every story bore the fingerprints of a remarkable organisation.

As BIRN celebrates its first decade, many will marvel at how long this media start-up has survived in the harsh Balkan climate. But for me, the real surprise is that BIRN is only ten years old. With all that it has done, it feels as if it has been around for a lot longer. The start-up has become an institution.

Neil Arun was the Editor of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence. Any views or opinions presented in this text are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent any organisation.

So, here’s to the next decade

Many years ago, a former colleague at the Independent newspaper, Steve Crawshaw, now a senior figure at Amnesty, invited me to go hear a talk in London by a Serbian journalist who had been forced out of Milosevic’s thuggish regime in Serbia. The room was hot, the microphone far away and I could barely hear what the distant blond-haired woman was actually saying.

“Who was that, again?” I asked Steve at the end. “Gordana Igric,” he said. I doubted we would meet again. I certainly never imagined that I would end up working with and for Goca Igric for the best part of a decade – in what has since become the most important cross-country regional portal in the Balkans.

Our paths did not cross for years. I had left the London Independent at the ripe old age of 40, fulfilling a vow I had taken not to cross that age threshold and remain stuck in a newsroom. A generous book commission from a US publisher gave me my freedom ticket and out I went. I stayed out for six years, as one commission led to another, but by 2006 my freedom ticket was expiring. I was still finishing my latest book on a Renaissance king of Hungary, but my dream of achieving economic sustainability on the back of writing books had fallen through. The sums just didn’t add up.

My path crossed with Goca’s once again. Now running the Balkan arm of IWPR, I started doing a little freelance work for her, in what was then the IWPR’s cramped office in Islington in north London. Goca, I now found out, was an exacting boss. She put me to work on a long investigation about Milosevic’s money, but long after I had sorted out the linguistic and flow issues, I discovered that ruthless attention to detail and rock-solid sources were needed before she would let anything go into print. It was a useful lesson.

At the time, the Balkan wing of IWPR was starting to emerge as an independent organisation but no one knew if BIRN would fly upwards or crash land. Rightly, Goca decided that the only course for her fledgling was grow or die, and soon after BIRN was established, offices were being opened up in the Balkans.

I jumped at the chance to join the Serbian team, then a humble affair run by Dragana Nikolic Solomon, alongside Danny Sunter and the late, much missed, Vesna Bekic. Dragana was inspirational. Dynamic and relentlessly positive, she was absolutely determined to get the message out that BIRN was alive and kicking. She also had a wicked sense of humour.

Interestingly, given the patriarchal culture of the Balkans, most of the other BIRN offices were also pioneered by young dynamic women: Jeta Xharra in Kosovo, Nerma Jelacic in Sarajevo and Ana Petruseva in Macedonia.

Those early years were fraught as well as exciting. Would anyone actually fund BIRN? What were we there to do exactly? Train journalists? Provide rolling news? Serve up expert analysis? Investigate Balkan corruption in depth? We knew what we wanted to be – a cross-regional media network of a type that had never existed in the Balkans. But how to flesh this out and make it work was another matter.

Besides that, each of the offices had a specific problem with its own national environment. In nationalist Serbia there was no tradition whatever of looking to “outsiders” to provide information or context on national affairs. Breaking down the wall of suspicion was tough. Bosnia in some ways was even more introverted and inward looking. Finding partners there was nightmarishly difficult. One giant newspaper, Avaz, ruled the media roost. Its rivals were all too bound up in their own battles for survival to be of much use as colleagues. Gaining visibility in Bosnia was going to be a struggle.

In Serbia, Dragana and Goca hit on the idea of initially going for training as a way to raise BIRN’s profile and cultivate donors. As I had never been trained myself and had learned to be a correspondent “on the job”, I was doubtful about being asked to run this side of things. In the end, I quite enjoyed designing courses and giving them. Off our little caravan went, to Novi Pazar, Sarajevo, Pristina…

Training is a hit and miss affair. You can end up with a class of people who just want to improve their English, or with people who have zero chance of ever realistically making it as journalists. We had our tragi-comic moments. In Novi Pazar, Dragana and I were enraged to find we had booked ourselves into a hotel that was just filthy. I was also informed at the last minute that hardly anyone attending this course spoke English, so would I mind teaching in Serbian? Gulp! God knows what they learned on that course!

In Kosovo, one woman wanted to enroll on the course but asked if her husband could come, too. It turned out she wasn’t allowed out of the house without her man being present. Hmmm… We had to inform her that, in that case, she probably wasn’t cut out for cutting edge journalism.

Still, some of that generation came, learned something and went on to bigger things. Indeed, that was one of the problems. BIRN trained people up and then they would soon go off to Vienna or Berlin. We had created a kind of finishing school!

It is incredible to think nine years have passed since I came back from Serbia to edit in London – and what has happened since then. New offices, much bigger offices – so much has moved on and so many people have changed. I feel a pang of nostalgia, thinking of Nerma standing by her unpacked boxes in her first office in Sarajevo, Vesna telling me for the tenth time not to throw coffee grinds down the sink, or Dragana and Danny arguing passionately about what chairs to buy for our noisy, cramped little office in Belgrade. Dragana has moved on, Nerma has moved on, and it all seems a long time ago. Still, organizations have to look forward, while reflecting on the lessons of the past, so here’s to the next decade. May it be just as good.

The BIRN effect

So BIRN is ten years old, and I have been asked to write a few lines about what it has meant to me. I have so many memories of my time with this unique organisation, of fascinating people, hard lessons, and incredible experiences, that it’s difficult to know where to start.

I remember the first nervous decisions we took in an out-of-season hotel on Bjelasnica mountain to set up our own organisation; how we descended on Dragana’s summer house in Boka Kotorska to thrash out plans for a documentary on Kosovo’s future, something that may not seem so ambitious now, but when you remember how little infrastructure we had then, was really quite audacious; and how I seemed to be constantly on the road, going from capital to capital, and embassy to embassy, looking for funding to get us up and running.

In those first few years, we all did anything and everything we could to realise our ambition to set up an outlet for quality journalism that would inform both locally and internationally on the most important issues facing the Balkan region. It was hard, hard work, and there was little room for anything else.

After three years, first as director of BIRN’s regional hub, and latterly in charge of getting the Fellowship up and running, I decided to move on.

Although my aim then was to achieve better balance in my life, somehow to this day I still find myself regularly deep in excel spreadsheets and funding applications at ungodly hours. Maybe that’s the BIRN effect: once you have realised how hard you can push yourself, and what this can achieve, it is difficult to stop stepping up to the plate and striving for the best.

A Unique Voice and an Inspiration

Let me congratulate you on your 10th anniversary and wish you all the best for your next decade and hopefully more years of contributing to investigative journalism and media freedom in the Balkans.

You were a baby that grew very fast and became a strong, independent and self-confident woman, holding up a mirror to those in power in and around the Balkans – producing stories based on facts and thorough investigations. Well done!

I had been following and reading you from your first days, when I was working as a Western Balkans correspondent for German-speaking newspapers in Sarajevo from 2005 to 2010. You were always a source of inspiration and of course of reliable information. Thank you for that. Later, when I joined the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland in 2010 and started working in different countries of the region supporting civilian peace-building efforts, I met you again.

You were present everywhere in the region; the cooperation of your correspondents and editors had intensified even more than it had already been the case before. I was impressed by your performance, not only as a reader and consumer, which I already used to be for years, but now also as a partner and representative of one of BIRN’s donor countries, Switzerland. This immediately put me in a dilemma. In Berne, capital of Switzerland, my colleagues at the Ministry were often confused because they thought that I was speaking about them when mentioning BIRN. Berne and BIRN sound the same in English! That created funny confusion so many times.

So, dear BIRN, you have become and will remain the Balkans BIRN for me – also in terms of pronunciation – although your stories are also published in English and therefore reach many people outside the Balkans as well. This is good and much wanted. Both audiences need BIRN: those who read, listen to and watch your stories in one of the Balkan languages but also those all over the world who want to be informed about what is going on in and around the Balkans.

One more thing is great with you among many others, a thing that makes you unique. You were founded and have been led by female directors over all these years. This is unique not only in the Balkans but probably worldwide. In addition to that, so many women, side by side with equally talented male colleagues, contribute as professionals to your success every day. Congratulations!

Dear BIRN, I commend and thank you for being what you are: an invaluable contribution to a better-informed society in the Balkans and a better-informed world about the Balkans. This helps connecting people and ideas! Your independent voice is needed more than ever. Happy birthday, BIRN!

The Author is currently working for the Federal Department of Foreign Affairs of Switzerland in Kyiv, Ukraine