BIRN Albania-Supported Journalists Win Investigative Award

The OSCE Presence in Albania has given Rashela Shehu and Fiori Sinoruka its award for the best investigative story for 2020 for their investigation into the impact of the lack of financing of scientific research on Albania’s public universities.

The OSCE Presence in Albania has given Rashela Shehu and Fiori Sinoruka its award for the best investigative story for 2020 for their investigation into the impact of the lack of financing of scientific research on Albania’s public universities.

The investigation, entitled ‘Lack of Scientific Research Leaves Albania in Ruins’ was published by BIRN Albania’s publication Reporter.al.

The investigation was supported by BIRN Albania as part of an open call for investigative stories, backed by the National Endowment for Democracy.

As well as Shehu and Sinoruka, two other journalists were awarded grants to cover their expenses to conduct investigations and write stories on the education system in Albania.

Fiori Sinokura is a freelance journalist based in Tirana and a former participant in BIRN’s Resonant Voices Fellowship. Rashela Shehu is a television journalist with Albania’s national broadcaster TV Klan.

BIRN Albania Launches New Database on PPP Contracts

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania on December 21st published a comprehensive database on Public Private Partnership Contracts in Albania.

The database contains the records of 220 projects with a total investment value of 4.2 billion euros, as well as hundreds of documents related to concessionary companies.

The database was published as part of the project “Following the Money Trail of Public-Private Partnership Projects in Albania,” supported by the Democracy Commission Small Grants of the US embassy in Albania.

The project’s goal is to support increased transparency on Public-Private Partnerships in Albania through open source databases and data-journalism.

In order to achieve its goal, the project conducted a systematic review of the PPP projects, collecting fiscal data and documents in order to aggregate them in this online database, which will enable journalists, researches and the public to understand and evaluate the true costs and benefits of more than 220 PPPs over the last 15 years.

Through this project BIRN Albania has also raised the capacity of local journalists to analyze and visualize this data in order to inform the public on the hidden costs of PPPs through indepth articles, investigations and videos reports.

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

BIRN Albania and Swedish Embassy Hold Digital Integrity Debate

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania, together with the Swedish Embassy in Tirana, organised an online debate on December 11 that brought together together local, regional and international experts to discuss digital rights violations.

The debate was organized as part of Integrity Week in Albania and was addressed by the Swedish ambassador to Tirana, Elsa Hastad.

“Media, meaning you here today, your role is exceptional in promoting transparency and really demanding accountability,” Hastad said.

“I know that during the pandemic journalists have made sure that citizens receive care, or that procurement of medical equipment is done in a proper way and disinformation is met with facts,” she added.

The panel discussion was moderated by Albanian journalist Blendi Salaj and included Michael J. Oghia, Advocacy and Engagement Manager at the Global Forum for Media Freedom, the investigative journalists Driton Salihu and Marja Grill from Swedish Public Television, BIRN project coordinator Sofija Todorovic, BIRN Albania editor Besar Likmeta, civil rights lawyer Megic Reci from CRD and the chairman of the Albania Media Council, Koloreto Cukali.

The panel was joined by 70 participants from civil society and media and was broadcast live on Facebook.

Integrity Week is a week-long series of activities held in December, organised by the Chamber of Commerce in Albania as a national awareness-raising campaign to draw attention to the importance of integrity and to promote ethical behaviour not only in business, but also in governmental bodies and academia and among NGOs.

BIRN Albania Wins Integrity Award from Chamber of Commerce

The International Chamber of Commerce in Albania has recognized BIRN Albania for its media and journalism as part of its “Integrity Week” activities.

It bestowed this recognition on BIRN Albania for “enabling high quality investigative journalism, full coverage and neutrality of current events in the country related to the implementation of the rule of law, and for contribution to the further development of democracy in Albania by encouraging the accountability of policy makers towards citizens”.

The Integrity Week is a national awareness-raising campaign whose goal is to draw attention to the importance of integrity and promote ethical behaviour, not only in business but also in the government bodies, academia and NGOs.

BIRN Albania Faces Lawsuit from Politically Connected Businessman

Businessman Mirel Mertiri has started a lawsuit against BIRN Albania, seeking damages and the retraction of an investigation that revealed his links to politicians and lucrative Public Private Partnerships, PPS, for the construction of three waste incinerators in Albania.

Mertiri claims BIRN Albania’s reporting of his links to public contracts for waste treatment caused him “serious moral and existential damage”.

In the defamation lawsuit filed with the Tirana District Court, Mertiri requests the retraction of the article, “Politika pas plehrave: Kush është biznesmeni në hije i monopolit të inceneratorëve,” as well as 300,000 lek in damages, equal to 2,700 euros. [click here for English translation]

The article, by Aleksandra Bogdani and Besar Likmeta, was published on September 17  2020 and deals with Mertiri’s relationship with the former Minister of Finance and current Minister of Reconstruction, Arben Ahmetaj, as well as his close relationship to the shareholders and administrators of waste treatment companies that were awarded lucrative public contracts – his life partner, Stela Gugallja and a business associate, Klodian Zoto.

BIRN Albania stands the published story and says it is ready to face the claims brought by the plaintiff in court.

BIRN Albania’s Executive Director, Kristina Voko, said that “BIRN’s reporting is in the public interest and fulfils the highest ethical and professional standards, shedding light on concessionary contracts worth hundreds of millions of euros, which taxpayers’ money pays for.”

She added: “It is our assessment that this is a SLAPP Lawsuit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation), which aims to intimidate and censor.

“We stand by the facts we published and will continue to publish journalism in the public interest, whether it is related to the incinerators or to any other concessionary business in Albania,” she concluded.

BIRN Albania and Together for Life Open Call for Investigations on Healthcare

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania and the Tirana-based human rights organisation Together for Life launched a call for investigative stories on December 1, offering grants for five journalists to produce articles on the health sector.

The call is part of the project “Fighting Disinformation and Raising Transparency and Accountability in the Health Sector”, which is supported by the British Embassy in Tirana.

The goal of this project is to contribute to a transparent and accountable healthcare system, particularly in the way institutions and the government face up to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the key objectives of this project is to raise transparency and accountability in the health sector by raising the capacities of civil society, journalists and independent media.

The call is based on topics suggested by civil society activists and journalists during a joint workshop held on November 24 via online platforms.  The workshop was attended by two dozen civil society activists and journalists, who debated about how to better cover the healthcare sector, particularly now in the COVID-19 pandemic.

The journalists will have around three months to dig deeper and research their ideas, and will also have the opportunity to work with experienced editors as mentors to guide them through the process of writing in accordance with BIRN standards.

The call only applies to journalists from Albania and closes on December 15.

Click here for more information (in Albanian) about the application procedure.

Click here to download the application (in Albanian).

BIRN Albania Opens Call for Organised Crime Investigations

BIRN Albania launched a call for investigative stories on November 3, offering grants for three journalists to produce articles on organised crime themes.

BIRN is offering grants for three journalists from Albania to cover organised crime stories, as well as mentoring by experienced editors.

The call is part of the project ‘Raising Awareness and Accountability on Money Laundering in Albania’, supported by the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The goal of the project is to strengthen the fight against organised crime and money-laundering by raising awareness and strengthening the accountability of the system for the seizure and confiscation of the illegal proceeds of crime.

Three journalists will be awarded grants to cover their expenses while conducting investigations and writing their stories about organised crime.

The journalists will have around three months to dig deeper and research their ideas, and will also have the opportunity to work with experienced editors as mentors to guide them through the process of writing in accordance with BIRN standards.

The call only applies to journalists from Albania and closes on November 15.

Click here for more information (in Albanian) about the application procedure.

Click here to download the application (in Albanian).

BIRN Albania Holds Discussion on Organised Crime and Money-Laundering

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network in Albania held on a roundtable discussion on October 27 between investigative journalists and representatives of civil society organisations working to counter organised crime in Albania.

The event, which was attended by more than 20 journalists and representatives of civil society organisations and international institutions working in the field of organised crime, money-laundering and illicit asset recovery, is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands-supported project ‘Raising Awareness and Accountability on Money Laundering in Albania’.

The goal of the project is to strengthen the fight against organised crime and money-laundering by raising awareness and strengthening accountability on the system for the seizure and confiscation of the illegal proceeds of crime.

The discussion was also attended by the ambassador of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Albania, Guusje Korthals Altes, who in opening remarks underlined the important role the media and investigative journalists play in the fight against organised crime.

The discussion was moderated by Redion Qirjazi, the head of the security programme at the Institute for Democracy and Mediation in Tirana. The event produced lively debate about important topics that should be investigated in the field of organised crime and money-laundering as well as the need to build stronger bridges of communication and cooperation between civil society and journalists.

The main topics discussed included the proper implementation of Albania’s law for the integrity of public officials, the reach of organised crime in politics and its possible involvement in the 2021 parliamentary election campaign, the use by the community of confiscated assets of organised crime and efforts made by civil society to turn them into social businesses.

The journalists and civil society experts also discussed the illicit finances of organised crime, including contraband cigarettes, trafficking in narcotics and the laundering of these illicit gains in different sectors of the economy, ranging from tourism and media to the construction sector. Experts asked the journalists to pay more attention to the implementation of strategies against organised crime by the Albanian government and its law enforcement agencies.

The journalists underlined the wide reach of Albanian organised crime in Europe, including the narcotics trade in the Netherlands and other European countries, as well as the difficulties they face in covering this sensitive and dangerous topic, which requires editorial and financial support that their own media outlets do not provide.

The debate will inform BIRN Albania’s upcoming call for an investigation on the topic of organised crime.

BIRN Serbia Journalist Wins CEI SEEMO Investigative Award

Natalija Jovanovic wins top award for her groundbreaking story on the number of COVID-related deaths in Serbia, which President Vucic initally rubbished, only for it to be confirmed later on.

BIRN Serbia journalist Natalija Jovanovic is the winner of this year’s CEI SEEMO Award for Outstanding Merits in Investigative Journalism, promoted by the Central European Initiative CEI and the South East Europe Media Organisation SEEMO.

She is the  frontrunner for the “Young Journalist” award. Albanian journalist and BIRN contributor Esmeralda Keta won the jury’s special mention.

The awards ceremony was held on Thursday online in Belgrade.

Jovanovic is “a tenacious and brave reporter; the jury valued her story focusing on checking different COVID-19 data from different sources, carrying out her journalistic work through in-depth research,” the jury stated.

Her story “Serbia Under-Reported COVID-19 Deaths and Infections, Data Shows”, drew sharp reactions and comments from politicians, health experts, journalists, international organisations and others, and was quoted by influential media outlets across the world.

The subject of her article, published shortly after the June elections in Serbia, has become one of the main political and social issues in the country in recent months.

In July, after Serbian President President Aleksandar Vucic dismissed BIRN’s revelations, a government Crisis Staff member admitted in September that the COVID-19 death toll in June was far higher than was officially reported, blaming a new information system.

Investigations into health system failings won Albanian journalist Esmeralda Keta the jury’s special mention. Keta is an investigative journalist at Top Story show broadcasted by Top Channel and is a contributor to BIRN Albania’s Reporter.al and to BIRN’s regional publication Balkan Insight.

The jury highlighted the way “her model of journalism focuses on the injustices faced by vulnerable groups and the shortcomings in protecting citizens’ rights”

“I am very grateful for this prize and it means a lot to me. This pandemic placed a lot of challenges on all of us, but it has also encouraged us to be insistent and seek the truth, no matter what price is paid,” Keta said during her acceptance speech.“

Cecilia Anesi, investigative reporter at the online media of IRPI (Investigative Reporting Project Italy), was the winner in the “Professional Journalist” category.

This year’s edition of the CEI SEEMO Award gave priority to works covering issues related to the coronavirus crisis.

Before the awards ceremony, a conference, “(Re)Think the Digital – Reliability of the media, economic aspects of the pandemic, sustainable digital transitions in South East and Central Europe”, was organised simultaneously in Belgrade, Fažana, Podgorica, Sarajevo, Sofia, Tirana and Trieste.

EU Investigative Awards Presented in Albania

Presenting the annual awards, EU delegation commends authors of probing investigations into voting fraud, shoddy new builds and public officials’ extravagant travel expenses.

In a ceremony held in Tirana on Wednesday October 21, three journalists were awarded for their investigative reporting, exposing the involvement of organised crime in voter fraud, the shoddy construction of buildings that collapsed in the November 2019 earthquake and the lavish travel expenditures of public officials.

In his opening remarks, Sylvain Gambert, deputy head of the Political, Economic and Information Section in the EU Delegation in Albania, said the EU was a stanch supporter of media freedom and freedom of expression.

“This indeed is the fifth year that we are doing this award in Albania and it shows our commitment in supporting investigative journalism and freedom of expression,” Gambert said.

First place went to Klodiana Lala, journalist for Albania’s News 24 TV and a BIRN contributor, for the story titled “Wiretaps Reveal the Role of Organised Crime in Vote Buying”, which the jury called a fine example of careful investigation, proper fact-checking and the determination to shed light on a phenomenon that is present in Albanian society but has rarely been properly verified.

“I am happy this article was recognised because in the end it exposed a phenomenon that was often debated but never proved through documents,” Lala said in her acceptance speech.

“We as journalists are bound by duty to be every day in search of facts, proof and evidence of events that institutions are trying to hide,” she added.

Second place went to Merxhan Daci, a journalist for the Albanian fact-checking service Faktoje, for an article shedding light on the questionable use of public funds by officials and public institutions.

The third place went to the TV reporter Andi Malasi, from Top Channel TV, for his investigation into the abuses related to newly built apartments that collapsed in the November 26th earthquake in Albania.

The ceremony continued with a reception. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the events had to be held outdoors with limited attendance