Freedom of Information in the Balkans: No Access and no Progress

Regional public institutions still need to improve their records on freedom of information and their transparency and accountability. Institutional silence remains a widespread problem, a BIRN panel discussion heard.

Even though almost all Western Balkan countries have excellent written Freedom of Information laws, they are mostly on paper. State institutions still need to improve regarding Freedom of Information (FOI) requests, speakers from the region told BIRN’s panel discussion, “Freedom of Information in the Balkans: No political will, no access, no progress”, held on Wednesday.

Political will is as important as laws, and public authorities need to make more progress with FOI requests, agreed speakers at the event, at which BIRN’s annual freedom of information report was officially launched.

 Saša Dragojlo, a BIRN journalist from Serbia, told the panel discussion that the laws are good only in theory. „The key word is political will. In our societies, it is much more important than laws”, Dragoljo said. Although the new law Serbia implemented last year is an improvement, if public institutions do not answer FOI requests, journalists will submit fewer of them. They will try to gather information unofficially, and that is a danger, he told the panel.

Helen Darbishire, executive director for Access Info Europe, said political will is often an individual decision, which leads to different reactions from even the same institutions. „In some countries, we have seen progress. Journalists tend to ask for more controversial pieces of information, therefore, have different impressions than the rest of the public. That’s not the way it should be,” Darbishire said.

Elona Hoxhaj, General Director of the Right to Information in Albania, told the panel that, „although much progress has been made towards transparency, civil servants are still unaware of their obligation towards the press and the public, so they question the requests”. The Information and Data Protection Commissioner’s Office is actively working with the Albanian school of public administration.

The Agency for Personal Data Protection and Free Access to Information in Montenegro also helps public servants and journalists. But it is struggling to deal with more than 6,100 appeals, the Head of the Department for Free Access to Information said. „Some first-instance bodies don’t have enough money to have websites, so despite their goodwill, they are unable to publish public information”, Biljana Božić described the situation.

All Western Balkan countries have problems, the panel heard. In Bosnia and Herzegovina, there is a need for a strong, independent body monitoring the implementation of a new law submitted last year. In Kosovo, the local agency aims to raise awareness of public institutions that providing access to public information is obligatory.

In Serbia, one of the most significant problems is the so-called „silence of the administration”. „The common goal for all of us, both in the region and in Serbia, should be zero tolerance”, Serbia’s Commissioner for Information of Public Importance and Personal Data Protection, Milan Marinović, wrote in a statement sent to the panel.

According to BIRN’s annual Freedom of Information report, this institutional silence is one of the most critical problems in the region. Monitored institutions from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia continue to struggle with implementing their own Freedom of Information laws. They are failing to become more transparent and accountable to their citizens.

BIRN’s annual FOI report is part of the „Paper Trail to Better Governance” project, funded by the Austrian Development Agency.

 

 

Freedom of Information in the Balkans: No access and no progress

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, will present its annual Freedom of Information Report in an online event on Wednesday, October 19.

The panel, including representatives from the Freedom of Information commissioner’s offices from several countries in the region, will discuss main findings of the report: that politics in the Balkans has a significant influence on access to information.

The report is part of BIRN’s ongoing project, A Paper Trail to Better Governance, whose main aim is monitoring access to information and exposing wrongdoing through country-based and cross-border investigations.

Speakers:

Krenare S. Dermaku, Commissioner of the Information and Privacy Agency, Kosovo

Besnik Dervishi, Commissioner for the Right to Information and Personal Data Protection, Albania

Irma Hadžiavdić, Deputy Ombudsperson, Bosnia and Herzegovina

Biljana Božić, Head of Department for Free Access of Information, Montenegro

Cvetan Stanoeski and Makfirete Morina Sulejmani, lawyers, Agency for Protection of the Right to Free Access to Public Information, North Macedonia

Helen Darbishire, Executive Director, Access Info Europe

Shengyl Osmani, author of BIRN’s Freedom of Information in the Western Balkans report in 2021: “No political will, no access, no progress”.

Moderator of the event: Ivan Angelovski, BIRN Investigations Editor

Date and time: Wednesday, October 19., 1400 CET

Zoom link: https://us06web.zoom.us/j/82662905904?pwd=Z2dKZTJoeGo4RjB0Rytwck11VlUwdz09

The report will be available on https://bird.tools/publications/ after the official launch event.

 

 

Open Call: Third Cycle of the Digital Rights Programme for Journalists

Journalists from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo are invited to apply for the third edition of BIRN’s Digital Rights Programme, which seeks to analyse threats to digital rights and freedoms and to document, explore and communicate to the wider public the abuses of digital tools to undermine democracy and human rights.

BIRN is looking for people who want to create engaging and informative content focusing on technology and the opportunities and challenges it poses to democracy and human rights, in particular:

  • Freedom of expression,
  • COVID-related tech regulations,
  • Content blocking and removal,
  • Artificial intelligence, machine-learning and algorithmic decision-making processes,
  • Transparency of processes of digital transformation in the region,
  • Hate speech and discrimination in the digital environment,
  • Gender issues,
  • LGBTI+ issues,
  • Digital security and phishing campaigns,
  • Privacy and data protection,
  • Surveillance practices,
  • Accountability of the major internet platforms and online safety of users,
  • Information security,
  • Disinformation and misinformation,
  • 5G technology in the region,
  • Cryptocurrencies/blockchain,
  • Social media bots and troll farms.

BIRN offers a comprehensive six-month programme for all accepted applications, which includes:

  • Financial support ($1,325 gross),
  • Regular networking opportunities,
  • Meetings with relevant stakeholders dealing with digital transformation challenges and freedom of expression,
  • On-the-job mentoring and editorial sessions to produce high-quality journalism and educational sessions focused on digital security for media.

Support is available for professional freelance or staff journalists to cover local, national and cross-border topics. The stories produced under the programme will be published by Balkan Insight and by prominent European, regional and international media outlets.

Click here to apply for the programme.

The call is open until October 31, 2022.

Who can apply?

The programme is open to all journalists who believe they have a good story concerning the health of the digital ecosystem in the Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo . We also welcome applications from staff reporters from local and national media who wish to co-publish the story with us.

Formal applicants can be:

  • Individual journalists (working as part of newsroom structures or as freelancers),
  • Teams (eg. reporter, producer, photographer, video editor) with a designated team leader as the contract signatory.

BIRN is committed to gender diversity and freedom from prejudice on any grounds.

Story requirements

  • The story must focus on at least one of the topics listed above,
  • It must be relevant and current to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, and Kosovo ,
  • Stories that cover more than one country will be given an advantage,
  • Only in-depth, investigative stories will be taken into account,
  • Each story should be around 2,000 words long,
  • Each selected story must be published within six months of receipt of the first instalment.

How to apply?

Fill out the application form and follow the instructions.

Attach the signed declaration document.

Evaluation and selection:

Step I: Technical evaluation will be carried out by BIRN staff to ensure the applicants have followed application procedures and submitted all the required documents.

Step II: Evaluation will be carried out by the editorial board to select applicants based on the evaluation criteria, including:

  • Quality of the proposed idea,
  • Feasibility of the proposed plan,
  • Ability to reach the general public,
  • Relevance of the proposed idea.

Step III: Notification of applicants.

For additional information, please contact [email protected]

The Digital Rights Programme for Journalists is made possible through support from the UN Democracy Fund, Internews and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

BIRN Supports 28 Media Outlets in Engagement Journalism

Journalists and editors from 28 media outlets in six Balkan countries are being given financial and editorial support to engage their local communities in the reporting process.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, launched a new round of support for media outlets across the Balkans in October 2022, continuing the regional Media for All project.

BIRN will provide editorial and mentoring support to journalists and editors from total of 28 media outlets from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

The group of 28 media outlets was previously supported in 2020 and 2021 within the same project through training, grants, technical support and mentorship to enable engagement with local communities and enable citizens to participate in the reporting process, by suggesting topics, providing testimonials, documents and evidence.

BIRN’s support will now equip local media to further develop their skills in engagement journalism and raise their editorial standards, with a particular focus on storytelling, data analysis, verification and fact-checking, contributing to the fight against misinformation and disinformation.

The media receiving the support will continue to use the Engaged Citizens Reporting tool, ECR, which was developed by BIRN during the previous phase of the Media for All project.

Media outlets will receive support until the end of February 2023. They will also be able to carry on using the ECR tool after the project is complete, to ensure sustainability of engagement journalism methodology in the region and enable media to better answer the information needs of local communities on a long-term basis.

The project aims to achieve a level of relationships and standards in which media outlets and journalists report together with citizens, and not only about them.

The project intends to build on the results from the previous phase but also to help prevent the spread of and the susceptibility to misinformation and disinformation. It will continue to work towards the creation of high-quality, accurate and relevant content created with the community by using the ECR tool and with support from BIRN’s editors and journalists.

Community-engaged reporting, in which ordinary people’s voices are heard and unresolved issues are tackled, proved to be a game-changer, as shown by numerous examples from the previous project phase.

Citizens’ engagement in the reporting process has put additional pressure on local authorities and decision-makers to act on issues of concern. It has helped media outlets to listen to voices from the community while bringing innovation to their investigative reporting and newsrooms.

Journalists and editors who have already used the ECR tool say that it has transformed the way the media outlets communicate with their audiences, who feel empowered by helping shape the content of their own media.

“It has direct impact on mobilising communities to solve a problem, because we provide data … that they can rely on, and continue to seek their rights,” Dorjana Daka, editor of Albanian news website Informim, told BIRN in August 2022.

Informim investigated stories about the Roma community, whose members often do not have access to the internet and lack trust in journalists, but managed to engage them through ECR and community events.

BIRN’s manager for the Media for All project, Marija Vasilevska, said that BIRN continues to support the media outlets in the creation of quality content “required by citizens and for citizens”.

“This way we are bringing back trust in the media, but also increasing the audience of local media outlets. Moreover, we are giving voice to the voiceless, such as minorities and vulnerable groups of citizens to share information that can be placed on media outlets’ front pages, lobbying and advocating for real needs in society,” Vasilevska said.

This extension of the projects is built on successes from the previous phase. During the first phase of the project, 51 media outlets were supported, directly engaging more than 39,000 citizens in six countries through more than 300 different callouts for engagement, which resulted in more than 700 journalistic products in various formats, including articles, video, podcasts and multimedia content.

The Media for All project is being implemented in six countries in the region: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia. The project is funded by the UK Government and implemented by a consortium led by the British Council together with BIRN, the Thomson Foundation and Intrac.

 

 

BIRN’s Museum Reporting House Presented at International Journalism Week in Greece

Nejra Mulaomerović, Programme Associate at BIRN’s Balkan Transitional Justice Programme, was invited to IMEDD’s International Journalism Week in Athens to speak about BIRN’s new museum.

Nejra Mulaomerović, Programme Associate at BIRN’s Balkan Transitional Justice Programme, presented BIRN’s new museum, Reporting House, dedicated to media workers who covered the war in Former Yugoslavia at Incubator for Media Education and Development – IMEDD’s International Journalism Week in Athens.

IMEDD, a Greek non-profit organization with a mission to support transparency and independence in journalism and promote meritocracy and excellence in the field, organizes the International Journalistic Week in Athens, where international organizations, journalists, and the student community meet to exchange experiences, opinions and knowledge.

Mulaomerović spoke to an international audience about BIRN’s initiative to create the first regional museum in the Balkans “built” by journalists and dedicated to them.

To ensure that transitional justice efforts are heard by a wider population, in 2021 BIRN started a bold initiative to create the first independent, non-profit regional museum in the Balkans that would bring the comprehensive story of the break-up of the former Yugoslavia and its aftermath to the attention of as many people as possible.

Guided by constant reevaluation and examination of the existing archives within BIRN and outside the network, a new direction emerged that unmasked a need for a distinct and reshaped approach to education and research within the transitional justice process, but also to role of media in it, in particular to disinformation and propaganda, but also the role that quality journalism plays.

“Journalists are engaged in creating the collection of the museum. We want to celebrate media workers who covered the war. A lot of people are not addressing the war trauma in our region. Reporting House would be a place where this topic will be discussed together with other issues of conflict journalism and transitional justice,” Mulaomerović said in her speech.

The museum will offer compelling, fact-based narratives on the break-up of Yugoslavia, the role of media propaganda in the war, war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, the life of journalists and media workers during the war and the overall challenges of war reporting in the 1990s in parallel with present conflict journalism challenges.

The goal of the museum will go beyond serving as a heritage venue of wartime history; despite the tragic events, BIRN wants to celebrate journalists, photographers and media workers who courageously reported the war and its aftermath, exposing atrocities and serious human rights abuses while maintaining the highest professional standards – despite the deadly risks they faced.

 

 

 

 

BIRN Kosovo Holds Workshop on Reintegrating Returnees from War Zones

BIRN Kosovo held a regional workshop on September 28 in the Prizren area on reinforcing the role of Centres for Social Welfare, Municipal Directorates of Education, of Emergency and Security, of Health and of Mental Health – and other relevant institutions – in strengthening the process of reintegration and resocialization of returnees from Middle Eastern conflict zones.

The workshop was delivered by Kreshnik Gashi, editor-in-chief at KALLXO.com and focused on the state’s vision for preventing radicalism and the violent extremism that leads to terrorism, as well as reflecting this vision to the public.

Twelve representatives from the aforementioned institutions participated in the workshop, five of whom were women.

This workshop was the fourth held by BIRN Kosovo as part of the “Resilient Community Program”, which is funded by the Global Community Engagement and Resilience Fund, GCERF.

 

 

 

 

BIRN BiH Journalist Shortlisted for Thomson Foundation Award

An investigation into the US far-rightist Robert Rundo and his organization by Nermina Kuloglija-Zolj of BIRN BiH has been shortlisted for the Thomson Foundation’s Young Journalist Award.

By Enes Hodzic

An investigative piece into US far-rightist Thomas Rundo’s influence in Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, and his activities in those two countries, by Nermina Kuloglija-Zolj of BIRN BiH, has been shortlisted for the Thomson Foundation’s Young Journalist Award – dedicated to finding talented and ambitious journalists from all over the world. It is competing with 11 other stories.

BIRN BiH’s investigation into Rundo, who is considered the founder of the Rise Above Movement, R.A.M., in the United States, which says it is fighting a modern world corrupted by “the destructive cultural influences” of liberals, Jews, Muslims and non-white immigrants, shows that after having been accused of charges in the US, he headed towards Europe.

Although he has concealed his places of residence, Kuloglija-Zolj reveals that, over the past two years, he has appeared at numerous events in Serbia and participated in activities of various organizations opposing migrants, reiterating their anti-Roma and anti-Semitic stands and expressing disagreement with Serbia’s entry in the European Union and NATO.

It was determined also that he has spent a certain time in the eastern Serb-run part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

At the same time, authorities in Serbia and Bosnia have not divulged information on when and how often he has crossed the borders between the two countries – one which he was officially expelled from, and the other from which, he said himself, he was banned and whose police were reportedly looking for him.

The aim of the Thomson Foundation’s Award for Young Journalists, which is presented in partnership with the UK Foreign Press Association, is to spotlight young journalists and their work and enable their voice to be heard and for them to feel the power of journalism to create significant changes. The award is open to journalists aged 30 or under, only from countries with a Gross National Income per capita of less than US$ 20,000.

After the list was announced, Kuloglija-Zolj said it was an honour to be placed among the 12 shortlisted young journalists who have worked over the past year on investigative pieces exposing inconsistencies affecting the development of their societies.

“The story about Robert Rundo, for which I was nominated, was a new experience in comparison to previous investigations,” she said, “due to the outspread of activities of the group with which he associated and, on the other hand, due to the closed nature of all those groups and the refusal of their leaders to be interviewed,” Kuloglija-Zolj said.

Now in its 10th year, the Award received a remarkable number of entries from all over the world. Besides the BIRN BiH journalist’s piece on Rundo, other nominees are from Yemen, Guatemala, Ukraine, India, Pakistan, Nigeria and Malaysia.

Following the announcement of the short-listed entries, independent judges at the UK Foreign Press Association will select three finalists whose names will be revealed in October. They will be vying for the award itself, to be presented on November 28 at a gala dinner in London.

In addition to receiving the award, the three finalists and three best shortlisted journalists will have a chance to be mentored by six established journalists and former students of the Thomson Foundation.

 

 

BIRN Albania Holds Training on Data Journalism for Young Journalists

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania, BIRN Albania, on September 27-28 held a two-day training course on data-based journalism techniques and visualization for young journalists, strengthening their capacities in this field.

Sixteen young journalists and journalism students from the 12 regions of Albania took part in the BIRN training session in Tirana.

Training was offered by editor Lawrence Marzouk and investigative journalist Crina Boros, in cooperation with BIRN Albania staff. Marzouk and Boros are the two main authors of the manual “Getting Started in Data Journalism”.

Besides increasing the knowledge of the young journalists in data collection and how to use it in journalism, the course enhanced their skills in mapping, analyzing and visualizing their data, using tools and techniques.

The training was part of the project “Using Big Data and Multimedia to Boost Quality and Independent Journalism in Albania”, which is supported by the European Union and Swedish government and implemented by BIRN Albania.

The project aims to create an enabling environment for Albanian journalists to produce independent content through training, mentoring, technical and financial support, and close cooperation with civil society, so improving freedom of expression and strengthening media pluralism in Albania.

 

 

BIRN Kosovo Holds Training on Reporting Labour Rights

On September 27, BIRN Kosovo held a training module for journalists on reporting labour rights. The training brought together 20 journalists from different communities who learned more about reporting on injuries at work, workplace safety, mistreatment and breaches of employees’ rights, lack of employment contracts, annual leave and maternity leave, among others.

Training was delivered by BIRN editors Kreshnik Gashi and Visar Prebreza, who have extensive experience in investigating, reporting, training and advocating these issues.

Guest speakers included Hekuran Nikçi, Chief Inspector of the Labour Inspectorate and Agim Millaku, Deputy Chief Inspector of Safety at Work.

The Labour Inspectorate said it would increase the number of inspectors to up to 100 by the end of this year. This year alone, nine workers died at their workplaces. It noted healthy cooperation between the Kosovo Labour Inspectorate and international labour organizations.

Labour Inspectorate Chief Nikci added that there is still no database recording workers working without contracts, or if their overall rights are being violated.

Kreshnik Gashi, editor-in-chief of the anti-corruption platform Kallxo.com, spoke about the use of whistleblowers and about building cooperation with institutions that deal with workers’ rights. He stated that some 50,000 workers in Kosovo have no work contracts and that Kallxo.com has received more than 500 reports from workers claiming their rights have been violated.

Visar Prebreza, Managing Editor at BIRN Kosovo, spoke about the topics that journalists can cover regarding labour rights.

Of the 20 journalists participating, from different media, 13 were women and four from minority communities. All participants will be asked to send story pitches to BIRN. Ten will be selected to win a bursary of 500 euros to write stories related to such important topics.

BIRN Kosovo’s journalists and editors will provide editorial support to the winning journalists in the process of identifying their topic of interest, the drafting of their editorial work and the final publication of their media products. These will be published on BIRN’s flagship anti-disinformation platform, Kallxo.com., in a TV/online format.

The bursary and the one-day training module are organized in the framework of the EU-funded project, “Protecting and promoting labour rights of vulnerable groups in the labour market”, which is implemented by ATRC and BIRN Kosovo.

The project aims to improve the working conditions of vulnerable categories of employees, notably within the private sector, including their workplace health and safety, through the promotion of social dialogue between workers and duty bearers.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Tirana Internet Freedom Meet Hosts Journalists and Activists From Region

BIRN Hub held a working conference in Tirana on September 24-28 for activists and journalists from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia focusing on digital rights challenges.

The event, designed to both inspire and raise the capacities of participants in current digital rights challenges and kick-start new partnerships brought together over 30 participants. Sessions focused on three major pillars – experiences of vulnerable communities in the digital landscape; capacity building on current topics; and team-work and joint activity planning to counter the growing abuse of new technologies and improve the regional tech eco-system.

The first session, a panel discussion entitled “Black Mirror: Who are the people (ab) using the Internet to violate human rights?” brought together regional Digital Rights Monitors working on documenting digital rights violations on the BIRD Monitoring Database in an attempt to “reverse-engineer” the process of committing digital rights violations and provide a profile of the perpetrators.

This was followed by another panel, “Making it real: How online violence against LGBT groups leads to offline Violence”, focusing on human rights violations against the LGBT community taking place online, and their implications and consequences in the real world, especially having in mind the latest violence seen during Belgrade EuroPride. The speakers were Ana Petrović (Da se Zna, Serbia), Elena Gagovska (independent journalist, North Macedonia), Xheni Karaj (Aleanca LGBT, Albania) and Branko Ćulibrk (KVART, Bosnia and Herzegovina). Both panels were moderated by Matteo Mastracci, Digital Rights Researcher at BIRN Hub.

On day two, Gilbert Beyamba from Pollicy (Uganda) presented the Feminist Principles of the Internet and a Ugandan perspective on fighting for women’s rights. The day ended with a remote knowledge-transfer session held by Carlos Antonio Guerra Merlo (Internews) focused on data protection.

The third day kicked off with Mila Bajić, from SHARE Foundation, presenting their Cybersecurity Toolkit. It continued with a panel discussion about the regional research of corporate accountability of telecoms, carried out in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, Kosovo and Serbia using the methodology developed by Ranking Digital Rights. The session hosted the people conducting the research: Gjergj Erebara (Albania), Matteo Mastracci (Bosnia and Herzegovina), Bojan Stojkovski (North Macedonia), Xhorxhina Bami (Kosovo) and Tijana Uzelac (Serbia) and was moderated by Besar Likmeta from BIRN Albania. Leandro Ucciferi, Global Partnerships Manager at Ranking Digital Right, provided the introduction to the session.

Day 4 of the Tirana Internet Freedom Meet was more topic-focused and centred around issues of privacy. Lucie Audibert, from Privacy International, provided insight into the work and experiences from PI regarding this issue. After the session, the participants visited the infamous House of Leaves, once the headquarters of the Gestapo and later of the Sigurimi, the Communist-era Albanian secret police, and now a museum. The last session of the day was focused on Artificial Intelligence and on cases of its misuse in Latin America. This was held by Michel Souza from Derechos Digitales.

The final day of Tirana Internet Freedom Meet was focused on the activities of the South-East Europe Digital Rights Network, a regional coalition of CSOs working on improving the digital rights landscape.

The Tirana Internet Freedom Meet is a part the Greater Internet Freedom (GIF) project, funded by USAID and implemented by Internews and its regional and local partners.