Report: Pandemic For Digital Rights

The latest report published by BIRN and Share Foundation sheds further light on the trends in digital rights violations in Central and Southeastern Europe during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The report presents an overview of the main violations of digital rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Hungary, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania and Serbia between January 31 and September 30, 2020, and makes a series of recommendations for authorities in order to curb such infringements during future social crises.

In the report, BIRN and Share Foundation conclude that technology, especially in a time of crisis, should not be seen as the solution to complex issues, be that protection of health or upholding public order and safety. Rather, technology should be used to the benefit of citizens and in the interest of their rights and freedoms.

To read the full report click here. For individual cases, check our regional database, developed together with the SHARE Foundation.

BIRN Albania Publishes Report on Internet Governance

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania has published a report entitled ‘Internet Governance in Albania and its Role in Media Freedom’.

This report was produced as part of the project ‘Towards Improved Labour Relations and Professionalism in the Albanian Media’, funded by the European Commission, represented by Delegation of the European Union to Albania and implemented by the partnership of the Albanian Media Institute (AMI) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).

Through this study on internet governance, BIRN Albania aims to provide a realistic and easily-grasped review of the current legal landscape for online media and content providers, as well as explore the primary issues and processes that overlap between media development and internet governance, in order to inform stakeholders and the public debate.

The report explores a number of topics where internet governance and regulation intersect with online media, market conditions, financial regulations, ownership and competition, access to information and data protection, and copyright and cyber-security, while providing real-world examples of situations in which the abuse or poor definition of these regulations leads to restrictions on freedom of the media and freedom of expression in the country.

For an English-language copy of the report, click here.
For an Albanian-language copy of the report, click here.

Media Reporting on Corruption

Organised crime and corruption are regular topics in the Serbian media, but BIRN Serbia’s monitoring, carried out in cooperation with the Centre for Judicial Research (CEPRIS) NGO shows that only a small number of articles reported on the court cases, indicating that the media often do not follow such cases to their judicial conclusion.

The monitoring sample contains 186 pieces – articles and TV reports published or broadcast during 2019. Topics covered include conflict of interest, misuse of public finances, influence peddling, and corruption in certain specific fields, such as the education system.

To read more about the monitoring, click here.

Democracy after Coronavirus

Reporting Democracy’s first annual trends report shows that democracies in Central and Southeast Europe need intensive care to survive an unprecedented time of crisis.

Across Central Europe and the Balkans, democracy is deteriorating. Even before coronavirus, the patient had underlying conditions, including allergies to good governance and a weakened immunity to populist excesses. Now, in some countries at least, the pandemic has turned chronic malaise into a democratic emergency.

To read the full report, click here.

Report: From Cures to Curses, Digital Rights During Pandemic

From January 26 to May 26, 2020, during the coronavirus pandemic in Central and Southeastern Europe, the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, and SHARE Foundation uncovered 163 cases of digital rights breaches in Hungary, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Serbia, Romania and North Macedonia, of which 68 were linked to manipulations in the digital environment, while 25 were related to publishing falsehoods and unverified information with the intention to damage the victims’ reputation.

According to these monitoring findings, more than half of the digital rights violations were related to propaganda, disinformation, falsehoods and the publication of unverified information, while citizens were the affected parties in almost 80 per cent of the cases.

To read the full report, click here.

BIRN Investigative Resource Desk

BIRN Investigative Resource Desk (B.I.R.D.) is an innovative interactive platform created for journalists who want to keep up-to-date with the fast-changing world of technology without sacrificing their ethics or the standards of professional journalism.

BIRD provides investigative journalists with various types of assistance and a set of tools and resources relating, but not limited, to freedom of information, data access and protection, cyber security and open source datasets. Assistance is free and provided on a needs basis.

An integral part of BIRD is the digital freedom-monitoring database covering the state of digital rights in Southern and Eastern Europe. Recognising the open and global nature of the online arena, the database stresses the importance of a human rights-based approach towards people in the digital environment.

Technical sabotage, stifling freedom of expression and opinion, personal attacks and campaigns of hatred in the digital sphere have all increased as the role of online media, social networks and other platforms has become stronger in Southern and Eastern Europe – societies where traditional media actors are largely controlled and used as political tools.

In this new environment, the role of investigative journalists remains decisive – but how to handle big data, and stay secure and ethical in the open space run by algorithms, is a challenge for all of us. Through BIRD, we want to take an active role in shaping the future of journalism.

BIRN Database Shows Bosnia Pays Dear for Officials’ Limos

Unique database compiled over months shows how the cash-strapped country spends millions of euros a year on pricey limousines for government officials.

Over 10.6 million KM – equal to 5 million euros – was spent on purchasing 329 official limousines in Bosnia in 2018 whose price averaged 32,000 KM, or about 16,000 euros, a BIRN database reveals. In total, it recorded tenders to procure 1,666 official vehicles, worth about 46 million euros, in 2018.

The BIRN database, which has proved a talking point for the public in Bosnia, shows how Bosnian politicians enjoy overpriced luxury vehicles on a scale without comparison in Europe. It also shows that most of the tenders for the vehicles also had only one bidder, indicating corruption, besides the issue of a serious lack of control of budget spending on cars.

BIRN has meanwhile published dozens of articles of specific cases that have highlighted two important things: first, that there are numerous examples of such overspending, but secondly that stories soon begin to repeat and look the same to the audience, lowering their impact.

By late 2017, BIRN Bosnia was already collecting all tenders related to cars from the public procurement website, the centralized Bosnian government portal where institutions and public companies are obliged to published their tenders. It then published analysis in December showing that around 5 million euros was spent on vehicles in 2017.

After reporting about various violations of public procurement practices, several institutions amended their tender specifications. BIRN then decided it would be more effective to make a complete database, with every tender related to official cars.

It took around six months to work with an IT company to develop the database structure and manually input hundreds of tenders for car purchases and data on more than 3,000 cars into our car registry – where BIRN publish data on existing cars owned by institutions.

In mid-2018, BIRN published the database and the data for first half of that year. After wrapping up the database for whole year, the final figure of more than 93 million Bosnian marks, or more than 46 million euros of total tenders for car purchases in 2018, was a surprise.

The data showed that there is no competition in tenders to buy cars for officials; the vast majority of tenders had only one bidder. It also showed who bought the most expensive cars and how they did it, as well as the preferences in terms of models and brands.

The database also contains a register of vehicles already owned by institutions and public companies, which shows that the average cost per vehicle is around 25,000 euros.

Another important part of the database was a car registry, that now has more than 3,500 cars from numerous government institutions. It is a unique database in Bosnia, as no official data is available in the country on which institutions own what cars, and how much they are worth.

Western Balkans Have Yet to Embrace Freedom of Information

Liberal-sounding access to information laws – vital for a free media – have yet to bring real transparency to the traditionally secretive countries of the Balkan region, a BIRN report shows.

Between January 2017 and June 2019, BIRN journalists submitted 854 official requests to access public documents in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Montenegro, and Serbia. With the aid of the information gained from these requests, BIRN produced numerous investigative pieces and so exposed wrongdoing by governments, companies and powerful individuals.

On the basis of the submitted FOI requests, BIRN has also published an in-depth analysis of institutions’ openness to FOI requests across the countries of the Western Balkans. This shows that while Freedom of Information laws in the region are among the most liberal in Europe on paper, implementation of these laws is well below European standards.

Implementation also varies between the Western Balkan countries themselves. Some countries are showing an improvement, for example, by public institutions publishing large amounts of data and documents.

Others, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, lag behind. It is now the only country in the Balkans that does not even offer access to public records in electronic form. In some other countries, like Montenegro and Serbia, there has been a decline in implementation, as a result of legislative changes and political pressure.

Of the 854 official requests that BIRN submitted to access public documents, less than half of them, 408, were actually approved; 224 were partially approved, meaning the institutions provided only technical information, while 221 requests were either rejected or no answer at all was received, despite repeated follow-ups from the journalists.

Looking at the ratio between requests that were submitted and answered positively, in Albania the score was highest, at 61 per cent. It was followed by Kosovo, at 56 per cent. In Serbia, institutions provided the requested information in 40 per cent of the cases, while in North Macedonia the figure was 33 per cent. The worst response rate was in Bosnia, where institutions replied to only 25 per cent of requests sent.

For many journalists in the Western Balkans, where independent media are often under attack and pressure, Freedom of Information laws are often an important pillar of their own freedom, and are sometimes the only way to obtain information.

In recent years, however, there has been a certain tendency among institutions to close the information door and experiment with new ways to deny public information, especially to journalists, who have been traditionally the most frequent users of these laws.

To withhold information, institutions often either ignore requests or mark the requested information as classified.

In many cases, BIRN journalists have been forced to file complaints in order to get the data they want, or a decision on their request.  This process often lasts long, disrupts journalists’ daily activities and prolongs the whole investigative process, which can end up using outdated data.

In Kosovo, BIRN journalists submitted the majority of their 337 requests to municipalities, ministries, the Telecom Company, the Prosecutorial Council, Judicial Council, the President’s Office, the Prime Minister’s Office and the Procurement Review Body. Of these, 188 were approved, 27 were partially answered and 122 were rejected.

BIRN Kosovo repeatedly submitted complaints about denial of access to public documents. In all cases, the Ombudsman asked the relevant institutions to grant access. But only 45 per cent of these requests resulted in BIRN gaining access to the requested documents. Another 20 per cent of requests resulted in BIRN gaining partial access. The remaining 35 per cent is still pending.

In North Macedonia, BIRN submitted 233 information requests, of which just over a third were approved.

While most countries in the region, such as Serbia, Albania and North Macedonia, have liberal Freedom of Information laws, at least on paper, there is a worrying trend in Montenegro, where latest changes to the law allow the head of an institution to decide which information shall be marked “classified”. This change has been widely criticized, as it contains a series of exclusions that are not in line with international standards or the country’s own constitution.

In Albania, meanwhile, a new law includes a number of novel concepts, including the possibility of re-classifying secret documents, the release of partial information and the use of information technology to make information held by public institutions more available to the public.

In Serbia, BIRN submitted 95 requests. Of these, 13 were fully answered, 25 were partially answered and 20 were rejected or no answer was received. Another 37 requests were still pending by the time of publication. Although the legal deadline for institutions in Serbia to respond to such requests is 15 days, in some institutions, like the Interior Ministry,  the average response timeframe is a month or longer.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, BIRN filed 12 requests and it took regular follow-ups and reminders before the authorities ever responded, even though, as in Serbia, the legal deadline to respond is 15 days. In reality, it takes a month or more.

Looking at the annual reports of regional Commissioners, Serbia’s received the highest number of complaints, 64 per cent, during 2018. Albania came next, with 13 per cent, followed by North Macedonia, on 10 per cent and Montenegro, with 7 per cent. The lowest number of complaints reported by the Ombudsperson’s Office was in Bosnia and Herzegovina – 5 per cent – and in Kosovo, only 1 per cent.

BIRN’s analysis also showed that local government institutions are more responsive to requests for information while central government institutions are more likely to postpone decisions and eventually reject journalists’ requests. Possible reasons for this could be the nature and exclusivity of the information that these institutions possess.

The lowest positive response that BIRN journalists had, in term of individual institutions in the region, was with the Civil Aviation Authority in Albania, the Ministry of Foreign Trade in Bosnia, the Post in Kosovo and the Interior Ministry in Serbia.

As part of BIRN’s drive for openness, it has established a free, user-friendly, searchable online library of public documents and scraped database, called BIRN Source. To increase access to open data for journalists, in January 2020 BIRN will also launch a new online platform, the BIRN Investigative Resource Desk, BIRD, which will provide a digital space and user-friendly tools for better and stronger investigative journalism.

BIRD will provide journalists with various types of assistance, including a set of useful tools and information in one place related to freedom of information, data access and protection, cybersecurity and open-source datasets.

Read the full report here.

Download Albanian version here.

Download Serbian version here

BIRN Kosovo, Democracy Plus, Publish New Report on Kosovo Tax Office

The 2019 monitoring report on the Kosovo Tax Administration, TAK, from BIRN Kosovo and Democracy Plus concludes that most of the recommendations from the previous year’s report were fulfilled but also identifies numerous other management and disciplinary problems within the institution.

Political employments, the involvement of TAK officials in political activities, weak disciplinary sanctions, and TAK officials’ links to accountants are among the key findings of this year’s monitoring report, which was discussed a few days ago at a roundtable with TAK officials, and released in full online on Monday.

Monitors also discovered that, in September, 30 officials within the institution were holding positions in political parties while also working for TAK.

As part of the monitoring process, researchers met with over 19 accountants and discovered numerous instances of improper links between TAK officials and accountants. The report also outlines unclarities in the process of TAK’s restructuring and administration reform.

Kosovo citizens assisted the monitoring, reporting irregularities through the KALLXO.com platform. According to the report, they submitted 68 reports related to tax evasion, the informal economy and political and nepotistic appointments between January and December 2019.

Over the same period, 53 legal letters were sent to TAK, passing on information about tax evasion, the informal economy, and illegal betting stores, as well as requesting access to documents related to employment, and information on political activities involving senior TAK officials.

As a result of these legal letters, inspections were carried out on 107 different businesses throughout the territory of the Republic of Kosovo, after which over 50,000 euros of fines were imposed.

BIRN Kosovo and Democracy Plus will continue to monitor TAK’s work throughout 2020.

Report is available for free download in English, Albanian and Serbian.

BIRN Albania Launches ‘Urban Renaissance’ Database

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania on December 19 published its comprehensive database of the Urban Renaissance projects financed from 2014 until 2017 by the country’s centre-left government through the Fund for the Development of Regions.

Urban Renaissance was a pet project of Prime Minister Edi Rama to renew the image of local towns and squares across Albania after years of neglect. Its critics maintain the project was aimed at extensively funding municipalities controlled by Rama’s Socialist Party in order to guarantee its success at the polls.

The database contains the records of 573 projects with a total value of 359.8 million euros, as well as the documents and photos of the projects taken by a network of 12 reporters across the country.

Using the data collected in the database, BIRN Albania was able to publish over the past year dozens of pieces of news, features and investigative stories focusing on the Urban Renaissance project, offering a critical perspective and informing public opinion.

The database contains hundreds of contracts signed by contractors, subcontractors and overseeing companies for each project, as well as data on their completion status, obtained over a period of one year through freedom of information requests from 61 municipalities.

The database is accessible online in Albanian and English at: rilindjaurbane.reporter.al