BIRN Albania Holds Roundtable on Human Rights

On November 7, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania held a roundtable on the state of human rights in the country.

The roundtable was moderated by human rights activist Xheni Karaj, who presented a review of the uphill battle human rights defenders and journalists often face in Albania to advance causes and report abuses.

Two dozen journalists, civil society activists and experts in the field of human rights attended the roundtable in Tirana as part of the project: “Promoting Accountability through Investigative Journalism,” financed by the National Endowment for Democracy, NED.

This project aims to build bridges between journalists, experts and civil society activists, so that they can strengthen the fight against corruption and impunity through investigative journalism.

The aim of the roundtable was to identify important issues or problems that civil society believes should be investigated in the respect of human rights and freedoms in Albania.

The findings of the roundtable will guide the main areas of BIRN Albania’s upcoming open call for three journalists to produce investigative articles focused on human rights.

During the roundtable, the participants discussed the following themes and topics: sexual violence and off-line bullying of children in school; digital rights violations; smear campaigns against journalists and media disinformation against human rights activists; labour rights; marginalized communities’ and migrants’ access to healthcare; reintegration of victims from conflict areas; lack of institutional capacity; migrants’ access to social services; human rights in prison and other closed institutions; access to vaccines for children’ access to information and digital services; sexual harassment, etc.

Meet the People Behind BIRN: Lamija Grebo

Each month, BIRN introduces you to a different member of its team. For October, meet Lamija Grebo, a BIRN BiH Journalist.

Lamija joined BIRN BiH in January 2014 as a web archive assistant and intern. She wanted to contribute to the betterment of society and to changes in the postwar country and was recently awarded by the EU. Let’s meet her!

  1. Why did you decide to become a journalist?

I became a journalist probably because I wanted somehow to contribute to the betterment of society and to the changes we faced as a postwar country. I guess that’s something that motivated most of my colleagues in those early days. Love for this job, even with all the difficulties, is something that still makes me want to do my job the best I can.

  1. What was the most challenging situation during your career so far?

I can’t think of a specific one, but I think it is normal that now and then, with the situation in the country, region, or even on a global level, you ask yourself, is it all in vain, is it worth it, if they come, then why are the changes so slow? The stories that we do are worth it. They matter and should be told. The people we talk about within our stories should have a way for their voices to be heard, and we can give them that space and tell their stories in the most professional way.

  1. What are the three words that should describe journalism?

Truth, freedom, professionalism.

  1. You recently won the EU Investigative Journalism Award for an investigation into court verdicts over the past ten years for hate crimes (but that’s not the only award you won). Can you tell us more about this and its importance?

This is my first individual award that I share with my deputy editor, Džana Brkanić. For its groundbreaking work in covering transitional justice topics, BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina was given the European Press Prize Special Award for 2020, so that is the one that I share with all my coworkers.

When it comes to the EU Investigative Journalism Award for 2023, Džana and I appreciate that the jury recognized the importance of our investigative story. Many hours of browsing through hundreds of court and prosecutorial decisions, numerous queries, and interviews with experts, but also with our fellow citizens who have still not seen justice after 20 years, stand behind this investigation. The value of the award is reflected in the additional visibility of investigative stories, which bring changes to society.

The awarded investigative story is a multimedia data research, which showed that hate crimes were mostly sanctioned with suspended sentences, with only one-quarter of those convicted being imprisoned, and investigations in some cases taking more than 20 years.

Suspended Sentences Do not Prevent the Spread of Hate” was based on verdicts passed down before all courts in Bosnia over ten years. It also revealed that there was no unified system for registering such crimes, which has made the monitoring and investigating of those cases more difficult.

  1. Do you have a story that you feel especially proud of, and what do you like most in your job?

Over the past almost ten years, there have been a lot of stories, and I take special pride in all of my stories. Most of my stories are about transitional justice, war crimes, and how the war affected and still affects people’s lives 30 years afterward. Every time I do a story and see that I have justified the trust that the people I’ve talked to gave me, I feel very proud. These are very delicate stories, and their importance for our society is enormous. After some of my stories were published, some indictments were filed for war crimes. A permanent exhibition is opened in Srebrenica Memorial Center as a part of the project I was involved in called “The lives behind the fields of death,” where we filmed testimonies of surviving witnesses of the 1995 genocide – a project BIRN BiH did with the Srebrenica Memorial Centre.

  1. What is your advice to someone who wants to work as an investigative journalist in our region?

Working on investigative stories is not an easy job, but with a lot of professionalism, courage, and knowledge, it is a rewarding one. Ask for help from your coworkers and editors, stick to our professional standards and ethics, tell those important stories, and try to make a tiny shift in our society.

BIRN Serbia Holds Training Course on Reporting Digital Rights

During the three-day course, the participants gained new knowledge and acquired skills to report on digital rights and issues related to the violation of freedoms in the online sphere in Serbia.

BIRN Serbia brought together 13 journalists and representatives of civil society organisations at Serbia’s Divcibare mountain resort from October 26 to 28 to help them improve their skills in investigating and reporting on digital rights violations, online manipulations, propaganda in the digital arena and the use and misuse of artificial intelligence.

“According to a 2022 survey by the Freedom House, 64 per cent of countries violated digital rights. This included censorship, surveillance, and restrictions on online access. Media play a vital role in holding governments and corporations accountable for digital right violations. By reporting on these violations, media can raise awareness, put pressure on decision-makers, and support victims.

“However, many journalists lack the training and resources to report on digital right violations effectively. This is due to a number of factors, including the complexity of the issues, the lack of access to information, and the threat of reprisal,” said Milorad Ivanovic, BIRN Serbia’s editor-in-chief.

“Training media in digital right violations is essential for ensuring that these violations are reported on accurately and comprehensively. This training should cover topics such as the different types of digital right violations, the impact of these violations on individuals and society, and how to report on them safely and responsibly,” he added.

Mila Bajic from the SHARE Foundation opened the training course, introducing participants to the concept of digital rights, explaining what these rights cover, how they are protected and how they are violated.

Tijana Uzelac from BIRN Serbia presented participants with BIRN’s database of digital rights violations in Serbia and the region, and BIRN journalist Aleksa Tesic spoke about how he investigated the dangers of biometric surveillance and internet scams.

Ivanovic, along with BIRN journalists Miodrag Markovic and BIRN Serbia executive editor Gordana Andric, gave practical advice on how to use open databases, fact-check, apply OSINT methods and artificial intelligence.

“A 2022 report by the Global Disinformation Index found that 80 per cent of the world’s population is exposed to high levels of disinformation online. Journalists must be trained to do fact-checking effectively in order to combat online manipulations and ensure that their reporting is accurate and trustworthy, and fact-checking has become one of the necessary tools for journalists to fulfil its role of providing reliable information to the public,” said Andric.

BIRN journalist Jelena Zoric shared her experiences of reporting on stories based on correspondence via encrypted communication, and journalist Andjela Milivojevic spoke about how she reported on revenge pornography.

On the last day of the training course, Aleksandra Krstic, a professor at Belgrade University’s Faculty of Political Sciences, and Marija Babic, a lawyer at the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, talked about digital security for journalists and introduced participants to the protection mechanisms and legal framework that regulate the security of journalists in the digital arena in Serbia.

Sonja Kovacev, social media manager at BIRN Serbia, along with Ivanovic, then gave practical advice about digital security and finding a balance between freedom and security on social networks.

The training course was organised as part of the ‘Reporting on Digital Rights and Freedoms’ project implemented by several BIRN offices in the region and funded by the European Union.

BIRN’s Sasa Dragojlo Receives Prestigious ’Dusan Bogavac’ Award

Created in memory of Yugoslav-era journalist Dusan Bogavac, the annual award is given in recognition of ethics and courage in journalism.

BIRN journalist Sasa Dragojlo was awarded the prestigious ‘Dusan Bogavac’ Journalism Award for Ethics and Courage at a ceremony on Thursday, October 26, at the Belgrade Media Centre.

Zeljko Bodrozic, president of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, IJAS, said Dragojlo had been recognised for “courageously and professionally investigating and informing the public about important topics of general interest for years, such as the corrupt business of selling ammunition production machines, the war between smugglers in the north of Vojvodina, money laundering through the construction of residential and commercial buildings throughout Serbia, and the recent armed conflict in Banjska.”

Accepting the award, Dragojlo said it was “the best I have received in my short but intense career in journalism”.

The honour, created in memory of the prominent Yugoslav-era journalist Dusan Bogavac, has been awarded by the Dusan Bogavac Foundation and the IJAS since 1991, the year after Bogavac’s death.

“Dusan Bogavac is known for the solidarity fund and, considering the situation in the media in Serbia and globally, I think that solidarity is the key for us,” Dragojlo said.

“Few of us do this job professionally and well, and we need to stick together, considering that no one will help us survive in this job and that professional media are not required in this world,” he told the audience in the Belgrade Media Centre. “We have to fight for our place.”

Dragojlo dedicated the award to “my colleagues from BIRN”.

Bogavac’s sister, Branka Bogavac, said: “We need to emphasise the importance of consistent, courageous, and moral journalists who, with their unwavering engagement, not only save the profession’s image but set an example for all of humanity”.

“That is why I sincerely believe this year’s laureate, investigative journalist Sasa Dragojlo, will also be classified among such personalities and bright examples.”

Besides Bodrozic, the jury members were previous award winners Dragana Peco and Snezana Congradin, as well as Branka Bogavac and Filip Mladenovic on behalf of the Dusan Bogavac Foundation.

BIRN’s Sasa Dragojlo Wins ‘Dusan Bogavac’ Award for Ethics and Courage

Sasa Dragojlo, a BIRN journalist, won this year’s “Dusan Bogavac” Journalism Award for Ethics and Courage, which has been awarded by the Dusan Bogavac Foundation and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, IJAS, since 1991.

The announcement on the award said: “Sasa Dragojlo has been courageously and professionally investigating and informing the public about important topics of general interest for years, such as the corrupt business of selling ammunition production machines, the war of smugglers in the north of Vojvodina, money laundering through the construction of residential and commercial buildings throughout Serbia, and the recent armed conflict in Banjska.”

“I am really happy with the ‘Dusan Bogavac’ award I got since I was nominated by a jury made up of really respectable colleagues. It was a shock, since I was unaware it was happening; I learned about it half an hour before it got published. When I see all the people who got it before me, it is really an honour and a privilege.

“Working hard in a stressful job like journalism, every now and then I feel depressed, asking whether it is worth living a poor life with many pressures without much real effect in changing the deeply corrupted societies we live in. Awards like this are at least a glimpse of hope that someone cares and that our work matters,” Dragojlo said.

The jury members were previous award winners Dragana Peco and Snezana Congradin, as well as Branka Bogavac and Filip Mladenovic on behalf of the Dusan Bogavac Foundation, and Zeljko Bodrozic, president of the IJAS.

Recently, Dragojlo won third prize as part of a team of BIRN and the Centre for investigative journalism of Serbia, CINS, for an investigation into Serbian arms exports to Myanmar following the army coup in that country. He also won third prize in the EU investigative awards for a story on a Serbian police translator who led a people-smuggling gang.

As Dragojlo stated: “When I got my degree at the Faculty of Political Science, the future in journalism was not so clear. I wrote columns, essays and free-form prose in multiple online media but could not live off it, so I worked multiple ‘real jobs’ – from call centres to warehouses. I thought I would never find a media that wanted me, had enough money, or where I wanted to work (I would not want to work in 90 per cent of the media; a construction job looked more attractive). But in April 2015, I got a chance to work for BIRN, and since then, I have never quit this nutjob profession.”

The “Dusan Bogavac” Award ceremony will be held on Thursday, October 26, in Belgrade.

EU Awards for Best Investigative Journalism in Türkiye Announced

On October 16, the winners of the EU Awards for Investigative Journalism in Türkiye were announced.

Murat Ağırel, Doğu Eroğlu and Çiğdem Toker were selected from many colleagues as this year’s winners for their stories published in 2022 exposing crime and institutional failures to protect citizens’ rights.

The jury consisted of İsmail Bezgin, a reporter and news-broadcasting manager; Mehmet Vecdi Seviğ, a former expert in the Ministry of Finance’s Inspection Board who later transitioned into journalism, with working experience in Yankı magazine, ANKA news agency, Dünya newspaper, Cumhuriyet newspaper and Başkent TV; and Göksel Bozkurt, a reporter, news director and columnist, President of the Parliament Journalists Association and Executive Editor of ANKA news agency.

The first prize went to Murat Ağırel (Yeniçağ Gazetesi) for his story “Türkiye in the Grip of Drugs,” which unveiled the hidden web of crime that stretches from Türkiye to Europe, all while being concealed by influential figures within the country.

Second prize went to Doğu Eroğlu for “BTK-gate with Documents,” a thought-provoking tale that shed light on how constitutionally guaranteed freedom of communication is under siege by the Information Technologies Authority, BTK.

Third prize went to Çiğdem Toker (Sözcü Gazetesi), who uncovered the shocking damage done to the National Garden by dismantling the runway of Ataturk Airport.

Marija Vasilevka, Project Manager from BIRN, greeted all guests and highlighted the importance of BIRN’s partnership with the Association of Journalists from Türkiye.

“Investigative journalism is not an easy job to do, especially in the current situation in the world. But it is an important tool to hold institutions accountable and contribute to the development of democracy. Our project seeks to create a sustainable system for supporting journalists to produce quality and independent news,” Vasilevska said.

She handed the award to the third prize winner. The Vice-president of the Association of Journalists and a representative from the EU Delegation to Türkiye handed the second and first prizes respectively.

The EU Award for Investigative Journalism 2023 is part of the project “Strengthening Quality Journalism in Western Balkans and Türkiye II”, funded by EU. This aims to recognise and promote outstanding achievements in investigative journalism as well as improve the visibility of quality journalism in the Western Balkans and Türkiye.

Calling Balkan journalists: Apply for the Western Balkans Sustainable Energy Award for your stories on sustainable energy

BIRN is calling on Balkan journalists to apply for the Western Balkans Sustainable Energy Journalism Award 2023.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), in collaboration with the European Climate Foundation, will reward exceptional journalistic pieces focusing on sustainable energy in the Western Balkans through the award.

The award’s purpose is to honour journalists whose work published in media outlets from September 2022 to September 2023 has actively encouraged excellence and innovation in the field of sustainable energy.

The award celebrates excellence in journalism and fosters a sense of community and collaboration among those committed to informing the public about critical environmental issues.

Individual journalists, or a team of journalists, from the six Western Balkan countries (Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia) can apply.

Applications should include journalistic pieces published in print, radio, TV or online format. Submissions in other formats, including podcasts, YouTube, TikTok and Instagram investigative series, are also welcome. Cross-border stories in which journalists from different countries collaborate are also eligible for this call. Among the topics expected to be covered are ones related to renewable energy sources, energy efficiency, sustainable urban planning, policy, and regulations related to sustainable energy, and others.

The best three stories selected by the international jury will receive prizes. The total prize fund for this year is €6,000. The first prize winner will receive €3,000, the second will receive €2,000 and the third, €1,000.

To apply, complete the Application Form in English no later than 19/11/2023.

Following the selection process, by the end of 2023, BIRN will organise the award ceremony in one of the Western Balkan countries.

More about the call can be found here.

BIRN Kosovo Holds Investigative Journalism and Fact-Checking Course

BIRN Kosovo held a three-day training course on investigative journalism and fact-checking with regional and international experts in Skopje, North Macedonia from October 13 to 15.

A total of 18 journalists from around the region, 11 of whom were women, attended the course.

Over three days, the participants became familiar with fact-checking and verification tools and studied in-depth investigations from the region.

The first day’s training was conducted by Stephane M. Grueso, deputy coordinator of Spanish fact-checking media outlet, who talked about the current global problem with disinformation.

Grueso also discussed disinformation in democratic states, the pandemic, infodemia and disinformation on social networks and messaging apps.

During the day’s second session, he talked about the various disinformation narratives that emerged during the COVID pandemic and the Ukraine war, the importance of Osint, and what he called the largest disinformation crisis in modern history.

Grueso also talked about fact-checking organisations, their methodologies and how they work, giving examples from, which part of the International Fact-Checking Network and European Fact-Checking Standards.

The course continued with a session held by Marjana Planojevic, a data protection expert who spoke about data protection and privacy in the media. She discussed data protection principles, rules for media publication of personal data and private information, digital service providers, video surveillance, the right to privacy, and highlighted examples from case studies.

The last session of the day was held by Ivana Nikolic, a programme manager at BIRN, who presented BIRN’s innovative interactive platform BIRD, created for journalists who want to keep up-to-date with the fast-changing world of technology.

The second day continued with Grueso from Maldita, who talked about verification tools and techniques to debunk disinformation, giving practical examples. The examples included tool repositories and how to observe photos and video debunking while using reverse search and metadata. He also spoke about geolicalisation and maps, advanced internet searches and how to archive internet materials.

The next session was conducted by Meri Jordanovska, a journalist and deputy editor-in-chief of Metamorphosis in North Macedonia.

Jordanovska spoke about in-depth investigations conducted in North Macedonia and examples of fact-checking and fighting disinformation from BIRN Macedonia’s ‘Skopje 2014 Uncovered’ database, which investigated the government-sponsored revamp of the capital called ‘Skopje 2014’ and could lead to a criminal investigation.

Jordanovska also held a session on the most common types of disinformation in the Balkans, such as fake commercials, conspiracy theories and the selling of various kinds of medicine while using disinformation.

The last day of the training course was conducted by Kreshnik Gashi, the managing editor of BIRN Kosovo’s Gashi spoke about the misinformation and propaganda spread by Russia, China, Iran and Saudi Arabia in the Balkans, citing findings from investigations in Kosovo.

He also talked about the use of whistleblowers while reporting on organised crime in the Balkans, how to protect whistleblowers, and how organised crime functions in the Balkans.

Gashi and the participant journalists from Albania, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia practiced the verification of news reports and shared ideas for future stories using fact-checking and investigative journalism techniques, which could become part of a fellowship programme that BIRN Kosovo will run.

This training course was held as part of the EU-funded project ‘Strengthening Quality News and Independent Journalism in the Western Balkans and Turkey II’.

Three-Day Training on Human Rights in Digital Space in Bosnia

BIRN Bosnia and Herzegovina, BIRN BiH, in collaboration with local and foreign experts, held a three-day training in Bjelasnica on human rights and security in the digital space, online violence, content regulation and reporting on those topics. Over 20 journalists and representatives of nongovernmental organisations attended.

The training was held from September 29 to October 1, 2023. Over the three days, the participants became familiar with the operations of the Internet and its networks and learned from experts about the violations of rights in digital space and questionable policies.

Participants spoke with attorney Aleksandar Jokic about the legal framework for freedom of speech and legal reviews of digital surveillance.

Hvale vale, the Association for Progressive Communications, spoke about gender rights and sexuality in digital space, while the prosecutor of the Bosnian Federation entity’s Herzegovina-Neretva canton, Kemal Kasumovic, shared practical examples that can be used by citizens, journalists and activists.

The training focused on understanding human rights in the digital sphere, such as privacy, safety, violence against women and marginalized groups, content regulation, malign foreign influence through propaganda and manipulation, as well as other relevant topics.

The participants were presented with the Second Report on Cyber-Security Threats in BiH, covering the period of the first eight months of 2023, which showed that the country’s Cyber Security Excellence Centre recorded 15.4 million attacks in Bosnia over that timeframe.

Most of the attacks were directed against private telephone networks, which may incur high costs for private companies and slow down the work of state institutions. Institutional response to those attacks was minimal, the report said.

During a training on problems faced while doing investigations and ways for overcoming them, as well as on how to ultimately publish a multimedia story, journalists of BIRN BiH were among the speakers, sharing with the participants information on the use of open-source tools for searching social networks and methods for verifying and fact-checking of stories. The participants were also presented with ways to create multimedia content.

At the end of the training, the participants presented their ideas for stories and other content, which will be implemented with BIRN’s help, with mentor and financial support.

All the training participants were enabled to attend or follow the Internet Governance Forum, which was held in Bosnia following a several-year break.

Forum participants adopted numerous conclusions on internet governance and human rights, cyber-security and ways to counter genocide denial, glorification of war crimes and hate on the Internet. These will be presented at the Global Forum of Japan.

Regional EU Awards for Best Investigative Journalism Announced

On October 5 in Europe House in Sarajevo, the winners of the Regional EU Awards for Best Investigative Journalism were announced. BIRN’s journalist Sasa Dragojlo was among the winners.

The Regional award was created and awarded for the first time this year with the goal of fostering collaboration and supporting stories with regional impact produced by journalists from different countries from the Western Balkans region and Türkiye.

The jury consisted of Brent Sadler, a multi-award-winning journalist, including a BAFTA for Gulf War coverage and an Overseas Press Club of America Award for reporting from South Lebanon, with 18 years of working experience in CNN; Janine Gibson, an editor of FT Weekend, and editor-in-Chief of BuzzFeed UK and Deputy Editor of The Guardian, who oversaw Pulitzer Prize-winning coverage of the Edward Snowden leaks; and Marko Milosavljević, a well-known academic at the University of Ljubljana, Slovenia.

The first prize went the journalists from the Investigative Reporting Lab from North Macedonia – Sashka Cvetkovska, Elena Mitrevska Cuckovska, Maja Jovanovska and Trifun Sitnikovski – for their documentary Bad Blood, which shows the deadly effects of state-sponsored COVID profiteering. This made them double winners; they received the award for best story also on a national level in North Macedonia.

The second prize went to Dragan Stanimirović from Al Jazeera Balkans, Bosnia and Herzegovina, for his story “Battle for Neretva II and III”. This documentary series is about the Bosnian government’s plans to build hydropower plants in the Neretva basin and the struggle of activists and citizens to protect their rivers.

Third prize went to Sasa Dragojlo from Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN,  for “With Police Connections, Serbian-Syrian Translator Turned People-Smuggler”, a story about an organised criminal group that smuggled refugees and migrants of all nationalities, and illegally organised the crossing of the borders of Croatia, Bosnia and Hungary.

“I am really glad that I was awarded for this story. The investigation I conducted was highly demanding and long-lasting, while the scope of evidence was quite diversified – from video evidence, secretly taped audio recordings of criminals, to interviews with insiders in the people smuggling business and security officers,” Dragojlo said.

He said the fact it is a story about the fate of refugees and migrants makes the award even more important, emphasizing that due to global problems migration to Europe will likely not stop but increase in the future.

“Migrants are the most endangered category on the planet. They do not have a territory that they can consider their own, they are not in the system, they have no documents that show they belong somewhere, and they are left to the chaos ruled by violent smuggling gangs and corrupt policemen with a license to beat them,” Dragojlo concluded.

Sadler, as representative from the jury, announced the winners, while the Head of the Delegation of the European Union to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ambassador Johann Sattler, handed the certificates to the winners.

The EU Award for Investigative Journalism 2023 is part of the project “Strengthening Quality Journalism in Western Balkans and Türkiye II”. This aims to recognise and promote outstanding achievements in investigative journalism as well as improve the visibility of quality journalism in the Western Balkans and Türkiye.