Western Balkans Media for Change

BIRN HUB

The project focuses on getting more citizens of Western Balkan countries to become engaged with credible sources of information, providing them with narratives that respond to their interests and priorities.

Summary

The Western Balkans Media for Change project is being delivered in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

It aims to support independent media outlets and individual journalists, as well as to engage with women, young and underrepresented journalists and their networks, to help improve their operational capacities and capabilities as well as their business sustainability and innovation potential. It also aims to increase their audience reach and foster local, regional and thematic collaboration across the Western Balkans.

The project will support the strengthening of resilience to threats to media freedom and better equip media to produce more high-quality, fact-checked, engaging and gender-sensitive content that will reach wider audiences, particularly those susceptible to disinformation.

Donor

UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO)

Main activities

  1. Engaged Citizens Reporting:
  • Grant funding (audience engagement and content production support)
  • Mentoring support provided for production of audience engagement content.
  1. Mentorship support for production including cross-border production provided to journalists, teams of journalists, particularly women journalists and young journalists.
  2. Pioneering Journalism Excellence Program: Learning circles.
  3. Networking event for media and journalists.

Target groups

Independent media outlets and individual journalists, women, young and underrepresented journalists and their networks from Western Balkan countries.

Main implementer

The British Council

Partners

Thomson Foundation and INTRAC

International Free Media Advocates Condemn Cyber-Attack and False Copyright Claims Against BIRN

International Press Institute, and Media Freedom Rapid Response condemn cyber-attack and false copyright claims against BIRN’’s flagship website Balkan Insight.

The International Press Institute, IPI – a global network of editors, media executives and journalists, with a mission to defend media freedom and the free flow of news – and the Media Freedom Rapid Response, MFRR – a Europe-wide mechanism that tracks violations of press freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries – on January 10 condemned the cyber-attack and false copyright claims that BIRN received in December 2023.

“International Press Institute, IPI condemns the recent DDoS cyber-attack and two allegedly fraudulent copyright claims filed against BIRN which comes after it refused to delete public interest reports on convicted Turkish fraudster Yasam Ayavefe,” stated IPI.

MFRR included the attacks against BIRN on its Mapping Media Freedom map.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network’s website, Balkan Insight, on December 22 received a major distributed denial-of-service DDoS attack after it published news about false copyright claims made over two of its articles concerning convicted Turkish fraudster Yasam Ayavefe.

A DDoS attack is a malicious attempt to disrupt the regular functioning of a targeted server by overwhelming it with a flood of internet traffic.

BIRN on December 19 had published a news article, “BIRN Texts on Turkish Fraudster Falsely Reported over Copyright,”  about two false copyright infringement complaints it had received concerning two of its articles.

The first article, published February 15, had been about a cyber-attack on the Greek media outlet Documento, after it reported that Ayavefe’s wife had secured fake ID papers from an organised crime gang.

The second article, published July 26, had been about the request of an Ayavefe representative for BIRN to remove its reports about his client.

“These kinds of posts affect the business life of my client [Ayavefe]. He has invested in so many countries and posts like this cause my client material and moral damage,” Bener Ljutviovski, who introduced himself as Ayavefe’s representative, told BIRN in an email.

BIRN received the copyright infringement complaints via a hosting company that leases out servers, submitted by two people under the name of Rocky Paul, purportedly based in Colorado, US, and from an individual named Sharon Henkel, purportedly based in France.

The complaints claimed that a blogspot page titled Global News Express and a Tumblr account called “mindbluray” had originally published the BIRN articles.

However, the alleged authors had merely republished the BIRN articles, changing the dates from February 26 to February 1 and from July 26 to July 21.

It is not the first time cyber-attacks have buffeted BIRN; in September 2022, BIRN and its Greek partner media outlet Solomon’s websites came under a DDoS attack after publishing an investigation on how Ayavefe – despite being convicted by a Turkish court in 2017 of defrauding online gamblers and arrested in Greece in 2019 trying to cross the border into Bulgaria on a false passport – got honorary Greek citizenship.

The investigative outlet Inside Story first wrote about Ayavefe’s Greek citizenship – and came under a DDoS attack after publishing its report on him.

In the meantime, Ayavefe managed to get 201 online content items in Turkey removed under three court orders. The removed content included news articles, social media posts and even the official website content and social media posts of the Turkish Police.

Ayavefe’s representative in July, besides asking for the removal of the articles, offered BIRN financial incentives in return for compliance. “My client Dr Yasam Ayavefe has an advertising company, if you help us in this case we can provide advertising services to your organisation, so you can grow to a bigger organisation. We would love to cooperate with you,” he wrote.

BIRN rejected Ljutviovski’s offer and his repeated demands to remove the articles about Ayavefe.

BIRN Kosovo publishes report on justice system’s handling of terrorism and corruption cases in 2023

BIRN Kosovo published the report titled “The Justice System’s Handling Cases with Terrorism and Corruption Charges in 2023”, which is based on the monitoring of the justice system and presents a detailed analysis of how cases of terrorism and corruption are handled by the justice system in Kosovo during 2023.

BIRN monitored 7 terrorism cases and 16 corruption cases that remain active in 2023, which are handled by the Special Department of Basic Court in Prishtina, and also gathered data from public documents on cases of terrorism and corruption.

This report highlights the lenient sentencing policy and non-involvement of all institutions as the main weaknesses of the system, especially in corruption cases. It also reveals the courts’ serious issues with the delays in handling cases, by showing data from prolonged cases handled by the Special Department of the Basic Court in Prishtina and the Special Department of the Court of Appeals in 2023.

As per the terrorism cases, data from this report shows that the justice system had a quicker approach to dealing with such cases. However, considerable delays are also observed between the time when the crime is alleged to have been committed and the time when the indictment is filed and when the trials are held. As for punishments, this report finds the sentencing policy inadequate. Revealing that in 3 out of 7 monitored cases that have been issued a conviction, sentences appeared in the lowest threshold of the sentence envisaged.

The report also provides recommendations intended to be a useful aid to justice institutions to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of Kosovo’s justice system and contribute to developing the necessary justice reforms.

The main recommendations of this report focus on the improvement of Prosecution from addressing the mistakes made in the application of investigative techniques, to considering the court’s findings when prosecutors failed to establish the intent of the accused in committing criminal offenses and ensuring prosecutors are provided with skills and updated knowledge to investigate violent extremism and terrorism cases.

Other recommendations include the further strengthening of KJK and KPK collaboration with international organizations, civil society, and other relevant institutions, as well as the media, with the common goal of strengthening the efforts against corruption and increasing the public’s trust in the justice system.

Click here for the report on Albanian and English.

This activity is implemented as part of the “Media as a means to improve the transparency of the justice system and the fight against terrorism and extremism” project, supported by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation through the Italian embassy in Prishtina.

Western Balkan Journalists Tackle Challenges of Sustainable Development in Awarded stories

As climate change and environmental disasters increasingly dominate the concerns of Western Balkan countries, a significant need remains to raise awareness of future sustainable development.

Once again, media outlets have underscored their crucial role in addressing this urgent matter, with the current edition of the Western Balkans Sustainable Energy Journalism Award acknowledging outstanding stories.

The focus of this year’s Sustainable Energy Journalism Awards centred on energy transition, featuring stories on environmental corruption, greenwashing and the social inequality of green transition.

The 24 applications received for the award came from all six countries in the region – Kosovo, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, North Macedonia, and Albania – reflecting the widespread interest of journalists in shedding light on these issues. The awarded stories were chosen by three international and independent jurors.

The two awardees brought attention to unjust practices in their countries’ solar transitions. “Solar Blossoms”, the winning story by journalist and academic researcher Lirika Demiri, portrayed the challenges faced by citizens transitioning to solar energy in coal-dependent Kosovo, revealing broader obstacles and power interests impeding the solar industry’s full potential.

The third-placed investigative story “Solar Boom in Stolac”,  by Naratorium journalists Alena Beširević and Harun Dindarević, focused on energy transition, exposing how laws in Bosnia and Herzegovina favour investors at the expense of citizens.

Themes like climate change, decarbonization and green energy can be difficult to acknowledge. But storytellers like Katerina Topalova made it easier. Her story, “Hard Winter”,  in five short videos, explained problems and solutions related to food and energy after the war in Ukraine and Covid-19 in a way that’s easy to understand. She used videos, graphics, and animation to make it interesting – and won second place in the selection.

Numerous journalist stories adopted an informative approach, such as podcasts on solar energy panels, while one media from Bosnia educated citizens about energy prosumers and opportunities for electricity self-sufficiency.

Other narratives investigated the environmental impact of hydropower plants, such as collaborative efforts by media from Bosnia and Albania, shedding light on the complexities of small hydro plant construction in Albania and their repercussions on communities. Journalists from Montenegro documented local efforts to preserve rivers from destructive mini-hydropower plants in their stories.

Several stories underscored social injustice and energy poverty, exposing challenges faced by impoverished families and marginalized communities in accessing sustainable energy services.

The Green Agenda for the Western Balkans designates this region as among the most severely affected in Europe by the repercussions of climate change, a trend expected to persist.

A 2022 survey in the Western Balkans found that 67 per cent of respondents consider climate change a problem, while 31 per cent do not. An EU survey showed 93 per cent of EU citizens regard climate change as a serious problem.

Through their stories, journalists disseminated information about environmental issues, educated society, demanded accountability and transparency, and advocated for mobilization. This was made possible through the active engagement of stakeholders, communities, activists, experts and local governments.

The Sustainable Energy Journalism Award has emerged as a significant motivator for journalists committed to addressing the challenges of sustainable development facing the future of the Western Balkans. BIRN is committed to furthering the capacity building of journalists and media outlets as they strive to investigate topics related to sustainable energy.

BIRN Kosovo publishes report on the procedures of release of individuals convicted of terrorism

On December 28, 2023 BIRN Kosovo has published a report titled “Conditional Release and Supervision of Persons Convicted of Terrorism” based on its direct monitoring of the advantages and disadvantages of the management of the process of the release of individuals convicted of terrorism.

Kosovo ranks among the countries with the highest number of foreign fighters per capita who have joined the terrorist organization ISIS in the war in Syria and Iraq.

Kosovo also is one of the first countries to accept the repatriation of its citizens who had sided with terrorist organizations in conflict zones. In 2015, Kosovo adopted a specific law to prevent its citizens from participating in foreign conflicts. The justice system responded quickly to the issue, swiftly prosecuting, investigating, and adjudicating individuals involved in terrorist acts.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) has analyzed the conditional release process of individuals convicted of criminal acts related to terrorism. BIRN selected a random sample for analysis, comprising of five cases handled between 2015 and 2020 by the Conditional Release Panel.

Based on the methodology, the analysis focused on five cases of individuals conditionally released, convicted of committing criminal acts related to terrorism, including terrorism with religious motives and other forms of terrorism.

In its analysis, BIRN looked into the conditional release procedure of individuals convicted of terrorism from the initial report of the Correctional Service, the Conditional Release Panel’s decision, to the final report of the Probation Service after the supervision period was concluded.

For the compilation of this report, BIRN utilized the archives of the Probation Service of Kosovo and the Conditional Release Panel.

Data analysis on the processes carried out for conditional release encompassed the entire chain of institutions, including the submission of requests for conditional release, to the compilation of the case file by the Correctional Service, processing of the file, decision-making by the Conditional Release Panel, and the supervision process and the drafting of the final report on the supervision process by the Probation Service of Kosovo.

The report also includes individual summary analyses of all analyzed cases, chronologically detailing the key moments in the handling of each case.

At the end of the report, BIRN included recommendations to justice institutions, such as the Ministry of Justice, the Conditional Release Panel, Probation Service, courts, etc.

Click here for the report on Albanian and English.

This activity is implemented as part of the “Media as a means to improve the transparency of the justice system and the fight against terrorism and extremism” project, supported by the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation through the Italian embassy in Prishtina.

Meet the People Behind BIRN: Aleksandar Djordjevic

Aleksandar Djordjevic has worked as a journalist since 2009, mainly covering politics and public finance.

He joined BIRN in February 2012. Since then he has mainly worked in the field of data journalism and investigative journalism, specialising in public finance reporting.

In 2016, he won first prize in the EU Investigative Journalism Awards for Serbia and an award for best investigative story in print media by the Independent Association of Serbian Journalists and the US embassy in Belgrade.

He was also awarded the best media report on monitoring of public spending in Serbia organized by the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP.

If he wasn’t a journalist, he would be doing some higher-paying but less stressful job. The only condition is that is not morally compromising in any way. Two stories that he worked on recently greatly impacted the wider Serbian public.

Let’s meet him!

  1. Why did you decide to become a journalist? What is it like working in BIRN?

I always wanted to know what was going on around me, questioning what was served as the truth. In this region, the official version of the truth rarely coincides with reality.

Unfortunately, we cannot be proud of our journalistic tradition in the Balkans.

As a child in the 1980s, I heard people arguing with the TV and disputing what they heard there, and with good reason. At that time, there was only one television station, and it did not report in the public’s interest but in one party’s interest.

In the 1990s, we got media pluralism but also the most brutal propaganda. In the noise of war, however, the first free media were born, which I eagerly listened to, read, and watched. That is perhaps the moment when my deeper connection with journalism was born, because I saw that even in the most difficult circumstances, it is possible to report objectively and truthfully.

To this day, in this region, and especially in Serbia, propaganda and the [ruling] party’s version of the truth have absolute dominance over objective journalism. BIRN is one of the few media organisations in this region that maintains professional standards and from which you can hear a version of the reality that is neither propaganda nor directed by interest groups. That’s why I’ve been working in BIRN for 12 years; here I have the freedom to work on stories that are important to the public, which you can’t hear on other media.

  1. A story that you and Gordana Andric worked on regarding how millions of euros for the vulnerable ended up in other people’s bank accounts (people close to the authorities or who are part of it) greatly impacted the country. Tell us about working on that story. What was the most challenging thing?

Behind this journalistic story stands a team of over 20 people who worked on it for four years. Of course, not every day, but starting in 2020, BIRN has been working, together with another non-governmental partner organisation, on a project monitoring state competitions grants.

During that time, the team collected data on 50,000 projects that the state financed with more than 180 million euros in competition grants. All these data are combined in one online database. It is a huge and important undertaking that BIRN has done in order to make the spending of this public money more transparent because the state does not have this data consolidated in one place.

But also in order for the non-governmental sector to be more efficient and spend this money for the general benefit. Imagine the effect on society of almost 200 million euros spent on social protection and improvement of environmental policy, which is what this money was primarily intended for.

Unfortunately, our research shows a significant part of this money was allocated to non-governmental organisations exclusively on a political basis.

BIRN published the first story on this topic two years ago. A month ago, a new story was published where the mechanism of misuse of state money, which was intended for the prevention of peer violence, was thoroughly dismantled and explained.

I think the public recognized our venture because the corrupt mechanism was presented to them in detail. They could also see the face of corruption. Principals of primary schools are shocked by the fact that the state gave more money for fictitious projects than the annual budget of their schools – while their schools have no money for heating.

  1. Another story was about Milan Radoicic’s involvement with marijuana labs in northern Kosovo. Tell us more about this.

Milan Radoičić is an example from the beginning of our story of how state propaganda misleads the public. He was presented in the state media and by state officials as one of the fighters for [Serb] national interests [in Kosovo].

BIRN, on the other hand, has published dozens of stories in the last couple of years in which it can be seen that Radoičić and Zvonko Veselinović are the opposite of that. The two of them have been labeled by international diplomatic organisations as part of an organised criminal group that is cooperating with the state ruling structure to enrich themselves at the expense of the public interest, not in favour of national interests.

You will not hear that version of the story on national frequencies; it is largely hidden from the Serbian public.

  1. What would you be working on, instead of journalism?

Some higher-paying but less stressful job. The only condition is that it is not morally compromising in any way.

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

Arm yourself with patience. Investigative journalism is a marathon discipline, not a sprint. The strength and endurance necessary for a marathon are acquired through study, work and constant curiosity, and an open mind.

But curiosity must not turn into obsessive digging into the dark holes of other people’s inaction because over time, defeatism and cynicism will overwhelm you. That will have a negative impact on the quality of your work.

Curiosity must be directed towards learning new skills but also towards learning about values. Journalists are not there just to convey dry facts and information (soon artificial intelligence will do that), but to represent values. Only in this way will journalists maintain the capacity and strength to deal with the ever-increasing challenges of distorted values and disinformation.

Digital Rights Violations Surged in Balkans in 2023: BIRN, Freedom House

In a joint X Space event, BIRN and Freedom House digital rights research teams reported a worrying a spike in digital rights violations in the region this year, comprising different types of online threats and methods.

Speakers from Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN’s digital rights programme and Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net project said in a joint X Space event on December 21 that digital rights violations increased in the region this year.

“We saw a rise in different types of violations. This year, we determined 1,427 different types of violations compared to last year’s 782,” Ivana Jeremic, Balkan Insight’s Deputy Editor and one of the editors of BIRN’s recent BIRN Digital Rights Violations Report, said.

Jeremic added that the most common digital rights violations were hate speech and discrimination, digital manipulation and computer fraud.

“Some of the key findings were that regional and international crises increased digital rights violations in the region, such as the war in Ukraine and the ongoing Kosovo-Serbia dispute, which led to a lot of misinformation but also to attacks based on someone’s ethnicity,” Jeremic said.

Jeremic highlighted the need for effective legislation to counter digital violations that most countries in the region lack.

Hamdi Firat Buyuk, a Balkan Insight journalist and one of the editors of BIRN’s recent BIRN Digital Rights Violations Report, said Turkey is using draconian laws to target free speech. “Turkey is one of the countries that passed draconian laws and regulations to target freedom of speech and internet freedoms,” Buyuk said.

Gurkan Ozturan, from the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom and Turkey country author at the Freedom on the Net report of Freedom House, said Turkey was regressing fast in terms of digital rights.

“Unfortunately, I am here to talk about one of the first countries in terms of regression in the field of digital rights and liberties in the past decade” Ozturan said, recalling that only a month after Turkey’s disinformation law was passed in October 2022, authorities limited access to social media platforms following a terror attack.

“Then there were earthquakes [in February] and then the election period [in May] which brought Turkey further down in Freedom House’s internet freedoms index. That was a horrible year,” Ozturan said, underlining access blocks, misinformation campaigns and data leaks from government agencies on citizens’ private data.

Tijana Uzelac, a BIRN Serbia journalist and country monitor of the BIRN Digital Rights Violations Report, said there were more than 100 registered digital rights violation cases in the reporting period from September 2022 to September 2023.

“The most frequent targets of these violations were citizens in more than 50 cases,” Uzelac said and added that the majority of violations in Serbia fell under “threatening content and endangering security”.

Uzelac said a massive school shooting in Serbia had also marked the year. “The number of digital rights violations spiked drastically in May after two mass school shootings in Belgrade and in villages near Mladenovac,” Uzelac added.

Mila Bajic, from SHARE Foundation and Serbia country author at the Freedom on the Net report of Freedom House, said the election campaigns provided an example of the climate in online media in Serbia.

“The online media ecosystem is essentially just an extension of the traditional media and the majority of the things we have been seeing is everything we can see on the public broadcasters and in the printed tabloid media. It is essentially copy-pasted to the online environment, which means that the online environment is very biased and in favour of the ruling majority [led by President Aleksandar Vucic],” Bajic said.

Bajic underlined that a lot of intimidation tactics online were deployed against journalists and civil society members, including an attempted spyware attack on civil society using Pegasus-like spyware. “That was thankfully not a successful attack but it does indicate that it was a state-sponsored attack,” Bajic said.

Azem Kurtic, Balkan Insight’s Bosnia correspondent and country monitor of the BIRN Digital Rights Violations Report. In Bosnia, said: “The most common victims [in Bosnia] are unfortunately citizens due to a quite specific ethnic, historic and current political context. For instance, during the commemorations of the 1995 genocide in Srebrenica, you saw a surge in hate speech and discrimination but also genocide denial, which is a criminal offence in Bosnia.”

Kurtic added that an online femicide had also shocked the country and the region. “We had a shocking femicide in August when a man killed his ex-wife in a livestream on Instagram. The video stayed online for more than three hours and it was seen more than 70,000 times,” Kurtic added.

Cathryn Grothe, from Freedom House, underlined a new emerging threat: the malicious use of Artificial Intelligence, AI.

“One of our big findings is generative use of AI supercharges online disinformation space. For decades governments have been deploying methods to manipulate online discussion, whether through pay commentators or automated Twitter bots or trolls or things like that kind, or more of those traditional forms of spreading disinformation, and with the growing power of AI tools those tactics are able to be automated and they are able to spread so much further,” Grothe said.

The joint X space organised by BIRN and Freedom House can be listened to on this link.

More about digital rights violations in the Balkans can be found at BIRN’s Digital Rights Violations Report 2022-2023, “Digital Rights In A Time Of Crisis: Authoritarianism, Political Tension And Weak Legislation Boost Violations” and in Freedom House’s Freedom on the Net 2023 report, “The Repressive Power of Artificial Intelligence”.

Handbook on Reporting on Missing Persons in Bosnia Introduced

The handbook ‘Media Reporting on Persons Missing Due to Conflicts in BiH 1992–1995’ was promoted at the Political Sciences Faculty of Sarajevo University.

Standards on reporting on missing persons, which have been established in Bosnia and Herzegovina, may be applied worldwide, said participants in the promotion of “Media Reporting on Persons Missing Due to Conflicts in BiH 1992–1995” Handbook held at the Faculty of Political Sciences of Sarajevo University.

The Handbook on reporting on persons who went missing during the 1992-5 war is a result of cooperation between the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, INO BiH, the State Prosecution, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network of Bosnia and Herzegovina, BIRN BiH, as well as women and men journalists from all over the country.

The document, as said during its promotion, is intended to assist all journalists in their work: as an incentive for editors and directors of media outlets to bring these topics back to prime time; as a reminder for professors to offer their students practical examples in addition to theoretical lectures; and also for all students and future reporters and journalists.

It is also intended for victims’ families, so they would know what to expect and what obligations the media has, but also for all others willing to learn more about the missing and how the media covers this topic.

Elmir Camic, Head of the ICRC Delegation to Bosnia, said the Handbook was a very high-quality document, which had met a wide response among his colleagues in the Red Cross all over the world, because the question of the missing also concerns areas of the Middle East, Ukraine, Central Asia and South America.

“I am glad that in BiH we are creating new standards that will be applied worldwide in the process of tracing the missing persons,” Camic said.

He recalled that around 7,600 persons, who disappeared due to the conflict are still being searched for in Bosnia, and that the lack of new and credible information on locations of individual and mass graves poses the biggest obstacle to the search process.

“A very high degree of politicization of the issue contributes to that, setting aside the needs and rights of families of the missing persons and coming down to a cheap accumulation of political points at their expense,” said the Head of the ICRC Delegation to Bosnia.

BIRN BiH executive Director Denis Dzidic expressed satisfaction at the fact that his fellow workers, who had been reporting on the missing as one of the segments of transitional justice for years, had a chance to draw up the Handbook to serve as a road map not only to journalists in our country, but also worldwide.

“Last week, a Detektor and Balkan Investigative Reporting Network team went to Ukraine, where we trained a group of journalists on how to report on transitional justice processes and we had a chance to introduce this same Handbook to them. There is a huge interest because journalists around the world lack the experience which Bosnian journalists have in reporting on this topic,” Dzidic said.

INO BiH spokeswoman Emza Fazlic said the Handbook was a leap forward when it comes to reporting on missing persons due to the sensitivity of the topic and its importance in society.

“Regardless of the passage of time and the fact that the families are searching for their missing members for 30 years, many stories have already been told, but, unfortunately, many still remain to be told. Only by covering this topic in the media will the process be accelerated in a certain way,” Fazlic said.

She added that the issue of missing persons falls also within the 14 priorities set for Bosnia on its road to joining the European Union.

Lejla Turcilo, a professor at the Sarajevo Faculty of Political Sciences, also expressed satisfaction that such content could be included in faculty curricula, because it was important to develop responsibility and sensitivity for reporting at the Department of Communication Studies / Journalism, and for journalists to begin their journalistic practice as prepared as possible.

“The Faculty of Political Sciences of the Sarajevo University truly seeks to enrich with practical experience what we teach our students in theory, and this is a good opportunity for our male and female students to hear and get first-hand material from which they will learn on how to report on this important but also very sensitive topic,” Turcilo explained.

During the promotion of the Handbook, which she developed jointly with her fellow worker Lamija Grebo, BIRN BiH journalist Emina Dizdarevic Tahmiscija said the objectives were primarily to save stories from oblivion, but also to leave a trace so those who once lived and were now considered missing could be talked about.

“With this Handbook, we can significantly impact the conscience of people who potentially know the locations of mass graves, so they would reveal their whereabouts. Likewise, it will help journalists achieve communication with families of the missing,” Dizdarevic Tahmiscija said.

As part of the promotion, an expert panel was held on the importance of reporting on missing persons in Bosnia, at which participants presented information on problems and shortcomings facing INO BiH staff members, challenges facing journalists and the fact that a high percentage of families of the missing have expressed dissatisfaction with the reporting on these issues.

The Handbook is available here.

BIRN Holds Digital Security Training for Balkan Journalists

BIRN organised four online training sessions to give journalists and journalism students from across the Balkans the most important tips and tools for staying safe in the digital environment.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network held four online digital security training sessions on December 14 and 15 for around 20 journalism students and journalists from media outlets in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

The goal of the sessions was to equip participants with practical tips and tools on how to stay safe online. They were told how to protect a computer and how to create strong passwords, as well as how to avoid surveillance, how to counter malware attacks, how to safely communicate with sources and how to handle devices in courts, airports and public spaces. They were also taught about ethical considerations in the digital sphere.

The trainer was Milica Stojanovic, an award-winning BIRN journalist and digital security expert. She has also been running digital security sessions at BIRN’s Summer School of Investigative Reporting since 2022.

Stojanovic talked about the importance of using secure communication channels that have end-to-end encryption as standard default mode, meaning communications are completely secure.

She also warned participants about dangerous behaviour on social media that can endanger both journalists and their sources.

“If you are traveling for work, especially to meet sensitive groups of people, you should never post photos on social media, especially not with the location, name of hotels, etc. You are journalists, not celebrities, and dangerous behaviour on social media can endanger not only you but your sensitive sources and others you interview as well,” she said.

Stojanovic also introduced the participants to browsing security and document security, urging them to respect some ground rules such as regularly backing up devices and having several copies of important documents on at least two different devices.

BIRN has been training journalists across south-east Europe about these topics for several years to raise awareness about the importance of staying safe online and about the concepts of secure internal communications and safety while searching and browsing the internet. BIRN also has daily coverage of cyber security across south-east European countries.

This workshop is part of BIRN’s project ‘Paper Trail to Better Governance’, funded by the Austrian Development Agency (ADA), the operational unit of the Austrian Development Cooperation since 2013. Among other things, the project aims to increase the capacities of journalists, media outlets and journalism and communications students in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

BIRN Macedonia Launches Media Ownership Monitor Database

The Media Ownership Monitor (MOM) database for North Macedonia, with information about 11 television channels, five radio stations, 13 online media outlets and five newspapers, was launched in Skopje on December 14 by the non-governmental organisation Global Media Register, GMR and BIRN Macedonia.

The database covering media in North Macedonia is available in English and Macedonian, and will soon be available in Albanian too.

Over the past six months, BIRN’s team, with the help of experts and in cooperation with GMR, collected publicly available data and financial information about the media outlets and their owners, as well as details of the owners’ business connections.

The database findings mapped high, medium and low-risk areas for media pluralism. They indicated that there is a high risk that media ownership, audiences and readerships and markets are overly concentrated.

The findings also showed a noticeable gender imbalance in the industry.The most influential Macedonian media are mainly run by men, for whom the media they own is often not their main business.

David Geer, the EU ambassador to North Macedonia, opened the event with a speech emphasising the public’s right to know who owns the media that produces the news they consume.

This was followed by a discussion moderated by Ana Petruseva, BIRN Macedonia’s director. The speakers included Olaf Steenfadt, GMR’s founder and managing director, Snezana Trpevska, co-founder of the Resis Institute, Dragan Sekulovski, the director of the Association of Journalists of Macedonia, ZNM, and Magdalena Dovleva, a representative from the Agency for Audio and Audiovisual Media Services.

They spoke about the key problems facing the country’s media industry, the legal changes that will bring back state advertising in the media, subsidies for print media and the dilemmas surrounding the announced regulation of online media.

MOM was initiated by the German branch of Reporters without Borders with the aim of defending freedom of the media, as well as the right to inform and to be informed everywhere in the world.

In 2019, the project grew into the Global Media Registry, GMR, an independent non-profit organisation registered under German law. In Western Balkan countries, GMR cooperates with BIRN. Along with North Macedonia, MOM databases have been published by BIRN in Serbia, Albania, Montenegro, Kosovo and Bosnia and Herzegovina. The project is funded by the EU.