Internet Freedom Meet in North Macedonia: Solving Challenges Requires Society’s Involvement

Educating citizens about the sharing of data on the Internet, where gender-based violence, disinformation and other harmful narratives abound, is a necessity, BIRN’s Internet Freedom Meet conference in Skopje heard.

The Internet Freedom Meet (IFM), organised by the Balkan Research Network (BIRN) with the support of the European Union, brought together experts from different spheres of society this year to discuss ongoing and new challenges in the online sphere.

David Geer, Head of the Delegation of the European Union in North Macedonia, said solving Internet challenges requires the involvement of the whole of society. “They are not just challenges for governments to tackle but for all of us and all relevant addresses of Internet governance, from the private sector, government, academia, technology companies, to civil society and the media,” Geer said.

Speaking about foundations, consequences and solutions for the misuse of data on the Internet, Kosovo’s Commissioner for Information and Privacy, Krenare Dermak, said the first step is to teach citizens the basics of Internet searches. He suggests we should never agree to give access to all cookies, because that means giving access to all of our information, while at the same time, the user usually does not know where that data goes and to whom.

Journalists at the Internet Freedom Meet drew attention to gender-based violence, which is common online and mostly aimed at the sexual freedom of women. They stated that thousands of men are sharing intimate content on girls and women without their permission. The victims are often minors, which is an additional motive for the involvement of prosecutors. Recently, several leaders of Telegram groups were arrested in one action.

Telegram, it was noted, is an attractive app for those who intend to break the law, participate in creating or joining extremist groups, or are part of huge disinformation networks. Anonymity, protection of exchanged messages, and the lack of cooperation from Telegram owners with local prosecutors, all contribute to the popularity of the application.

While it can be used benignly and positively, it has also caused significant damage to individuals and society as a whole, experts concluded at the conference. Strict regulation of the use of artificial intelligence (AI), expert Arvin Kamberi mentioned, may not be the best solution. However, in the long run, AI’s monopoly on knowledge could become problematic.

Participants in Skopje also discussed the need for and reasons behind the use of public surveillance cameras, which must be strictly regulated, as well as the way in which camera data is used.

Finally, panelists touched on the problem of elections and pre-election campaigns, which are increasingly challenged by misinformation and the use of artificial intelligence, AI, to undermine the integrity of institutions or political opponents.

The IFM concluded with the presentation of BIRN’s project “Reporting Digital Rights and Freedoms”, emphasizing how cooperation with independent experts and institutions can be achieved.

BIRN Contributes to First Global Index on Responsible AI

The first edition of the Global Index on Responsible AI 2024 was launched on June 13 at the closing keynote panel of the USAID Global Digital Development Forum. The forum included various hybrid events worldwide.

The Global Index on Responsible AI, GIRAI, is the first tool to set globally relevant benchmarks for responsible AI and assess them in countries around the world.

This study constitutes the largest global data collection on responsible AI to date. In its first edition, the Index represents primary data collected by researchers from 138 countries, including 41 countries from Africa, between November 1, 2021 and November 1, 2023.

During the panel, the 1st edition report and an interactive portal providing open access to all the data gathered as part of the project were made available online at global-index.ai.

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN HUB, contributed to the Index, leading the research for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Greece, Hungary, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Romania and Serbia.

“Working on the first edition of GIRAI was both a privilege and a challenge. As we delved into the data and sought relevant evidence, we observed a significant discrepancy between countries. While some nations lead in AI use and initiatives, much remains to be done regarding ethical AI development,” said Ivana Jeremic, BIRN’s Digital Rights Programme Content Lead and GIRAI Southeast Europe Research Team Leader.

“The index will become a valuable tool for tracking progress and an excellent resource for journalists and researchers. This process has been a learning experience, and I believe the next round will be even better, hopefully including more countries, given the importance of this topic,” she added.

The GIRAI is a flagship project by the Global Center on AI Governance that tracks and measures countries’ commitments and progress towards responsible AI. The tool is comprehensive and multidimensional, involving data collection and analysis from 138 countries to provide a comprehensive understanding of how nations are addressing the ethical, social, and regulatory challenges posed by AI technologies.

The Index highlights global trends and gaps in responsible AI, serving as a critical tool for policymakers, researchers, and stakeholders to understand the current landscape and drive improvements. It promotes international cooperation, encourages the adoption of human-centric AI frameworks, and fosters a sustainable and ethical future for AI.

Training Enhances Balkan Journalists’ Skills in Data Analysis and Visualization

Journalists from six Western Balkan countries participated in a specialized training session on Data Analysis and Visualization led by regional and international professionals.

On June 10 and 11, 23 journalists attended an online training on Data Analysis and Visualization, part of the Western Balkans Media for Change project’s learning circle.

Representing media outlets from six countries – Albania, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Kosovo – the journalists acquired skills essential for contemporary newsrooms.

Data analysis is a cornerstone of investigative journalism, enabling journalists to uncover hidden stories. In today’s media landscape, data visualization is equally critical.

The online training was led by Jonathan Stoneman, a journalist and trainer with extensive experience at the BBC, where he served as a researcher, producer and director for the Macedonian and Croatian language services. Following his tenure with the BBC World Service in Zagreb, Stoneman dedicated his expertise to training journalists, with a focus on data analysis.

“Think about your data like interviewing a person,” Stoneman advised the trainees. “If you think of data as a source, you ask it questions.”

The first day concentrated on data analysis techniques, including filtering, sorting, summarizing, and refining data, using accessible tools like OpenRefine. The second day shifted focus to data visualization and producing stories from data using different angles and types of information display. Participants were introduced to various user-friendly tools suitable for any newsroom.

In addition to the primary trainer, investigative journalists from BIRN Serbia and BIRN Macedonia presented case studies. Goce Trpkovski and Miodrag Marković showcased how utilizing tools can facilitate in-depth exploration and presentation of investigative topics in the region. Complementing the training, Fokus from Sarajevo demonstrated their own example of effective data visualization.

The training underscored the importance of incorporating diverse communities and gender-sensitive data into analyses. This learning circle is part of a broader editorial and mentoring support initiative for journalists and media outlets. The project also provides financial assistance to enhance operational capacity, business sustainability, and innovation potential. Its goal is to equip media professionals with the skills needed to produce high-quality, diverse, fact-checked, and gender-sensitive content that engages wider audiences.

The Western Balkans Media for Change project is funded by the UK government and implemented by the British Council in partnership with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Thomson Foundation and The International NGO Training and Research Centre, INTRAC.

It supports the work of media outlets and individual journalists from the Western Balkan countries.

SEE Digital Rights Network Members Meet in Bjelasnica

Network members met in Bosnia to discuss strategic improvements of the network’s activities and its future.

Members of the Southeast Europe Digital Rights Network, SEE Digital Rights Network, met in Bjelasnica, Bosnia and Herzegovina, for a two-day retreat on May 28 and May 29, discussing the future of the Network and ways to improve communication and increase its impact and visibility.

The aim of the discussion about shared objectives and effective governance was to enable impactful collaboration on digital rights issues in the region. The agenda was designed to establish a solid foundation for the future operations of the SEE Digital Rights Network, including practical steps for collaboration in the form of a task force that will work on drafting key documents and defining strategic goals.

Orkidea Xhaferaj from the Center Science and Innovation for Development, SCiDEV, who joined the Network’s task force, said: “The task force as a temporary body is charged with providing options for the organisational governance and development of the regional network to support future advocacy initiatives, networks capacity building and increasing the impact of national organisations on the regional level in terms of digital rights protection.”

As digital rights violations increased, more than a dozen rights organisations agreed in 2020 to work together to protect individuals and societies in Southeast Europe. Over time, the SEE Digital Rights Network has expanded, forming a coalition of 39 civil society and media organizations.

Network members from Albania, Bosnia, Croatia, Slovenia, Serbia and North Macedonia gathered to help further define the Networks’ mission, vision and values, as well as the structure and decision-making process.

“SEE Digital Rights Network is an important initiative to contribute to advancing digital rights in the region with the ultimate aim of safeguarding human rights throughout the region, considering democratic backsliding and human rights violations both offline and online. The Networks serve as a setting for organisations throughout the region to increase the impact on local and national level and then jointly advocate for regional protection, safeguarding,” said Xhaferaj.

Denas je nov dan is one of the newer members of the Network and the Bjelasnica meeting was their first. Maja Cimerman, their representative, said they saw a benefit in joining the network.

“We joined the network because we follow the work of its members and we think that we can support each other with organizing, and with regional connections our work achieves a greater impact,” Cimerman said.

The Institute for Democracy and Mediation, SCiDEV, Media Development Center (North Macedonia), Politiscope, Mediacentar Sarajevo, Drzavljan D, Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, Partners Serbia, Youth Initiative for Human Rights Serbia, Denas je nov dan Slovenia, SHARE Foundation and Zašto ne attended the meeting.

Call for Journalists to Participate in BIRN’s Regional Camp on Legally Safe Reporting and Crisis Reporting

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) opens a new call for applications for the three-day Regional Camp on Legally Safe Reporting and Crisis Reporting.

Given the delicate state of democracy in the Western Balkans, it is crucial for journalists to possess skills in crisis reporting, which include covering riots, protests, and elections. These skills are vital for upholding professional standards and ensuring the safety of journalists. Journalists frequently face defamation in tabloid media and on social media for their professional conduct. They also encounter challenges in maintaining their digital security and safeguarding their work and sources.

This regional training, within the project “Strengthening Quality Journalism in Western Balkans and Türkiye II,” is tailored to address these challenges through a multi-sectoral approach, engaging experts from various related fields to share their knowledge and skills. The training will include practical simulations to showcase effective techniques for countering attacks and proactive measures.

The goal of the regional training camp is to equip journalists with specialized knowledge that enables them to protect themselves and their newsrooms from various threats, including physical, digital and psychological attacks. The training sessions will be led by a diverse group of trainers and guest speakers, including BIRN managing editors and other distinguished external speakers.

Who can apply?

To apply for the programme, journalists are required to meet the following criteria:

  • Be a resident of one of the six Western Balkan countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.
  • Journalists with at least one year of working experience, or a final-year journalism students, recent graduates, and young and professional journalists from the six Western Balkan countries may apply for the course.
  • Demonstrate a strong motivation and commitment to participation in the exchange programme.

BIRN is dedicated to promoting and achieving diversity in terms of gender, nationality and culture, so we encourage individuals from minority groups, indigenous groups, and those with disabilities to apply.

How to apply?

Applicants interested in this regional camp should fill in the Application Form in English language by 24 June 2024.

Selection Criteria

Criteria for Selection of Participants  Scores
Journalists with residency in one of the six Western Balkan countries 10 points
Working Experience 10 points
Demonstration of strong motivation and commitment to participation in the exchange programme. 30 points

Language

The training will be held in English.

Location

The training will take place in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Details about the agenda, travel and accommodation will be provided to the selected participants.

Deadline for applications: Thursday, 24 June 2024, 23:59, Central European Time.

Tentative date of the training course: 8–10 July, 2024.

Remarks

Travel and accommodation costs will be covered by BIRN.

Training participants will have access to a content production fund available through this project.

Call for Applications: Production Support for Western Balkan Public Broadcasters

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) invites teams of individuals, including journalists, editors, producers and other media workers from Western Balkan public broadcasters to submit applications for production support and receive up to €8,000 for production of their TV stories.

ABOUT THE PRODUCTION SUPPORT

The Production Support aims to enhance the quality of news and investigative reporting across all public broadcasters in the Western Balkans through supporting teams of journalists, editors, producers and other media professionals from these broadcasters. This call, within the project “Strengthening Quality Journalism in Western Balkans and Türkiye II,” will support the production of at least two television stories in each Western Balkan country, totalling 12 stories across all six countries.

Six Production Supports will be awarded through this call, each for a gross amount of €8,000 for the production of two television stories per country. These funds can cover the following costs related to the production of TV stories: travel costs, rent of additionally needed equipment, design and visualization, translation, honoraria for the individuals involved in the production of the stories and others. All costs are subject to approval after the applications are selected.

The selected teams of journalists will receive mentorship from BIRN`s editors/mentors in the production of their stories and will be invited to contribute to the production of one cross-border documentary.

WHO CAN APPLY?

This call is designed for teams of 3-5 members of journalists, editors, producers and other media professionals from public broadcasters in Western Balkan countries. Applicants are required to complete an application form, propose ideas for the topics to be covered in the two television stories they wish to produce through this grant, and designate a team leader. A variety of topics for production of stories are eligible for this call, such as topics affecting national and regional economies, struggles and challenges to countries; EU integration processes, societies and countries; human rights violations, including those in the digital sphere, education, environment and health challenges and others.

Within this call, a total of six teams, one from each of the Western Balkan countries, will be chosen.

Each team is anticipated to:

  • Consist of 3-5 journalists, editors, producers and other media professionals from the same public broadcaster in one of Western Balkan countries. Teams can consist of team members working in the same or different public broadcasters in the same country.
  • Propose a clear idea and financial plan for the production and publication of two TV stories.
  • Produce at least two TV stories that will be aired by the public broadcaster to which they are affiliated during 2024.
  • Be involved in mentorship sessions and work closely with BIRN`s editors/mentors.

BIRN is dedicated to promoting and achieving diversity in terms of gender, nationality, and culture, so we encourage individuals from minority groups, indigenous groups, and those with disabilities to apply.

HOW TO APPLY?

Please fill in the Application Form in English by Friday June 21 by 14:00 and upload all the requested documents. A detailed financial breakdown will be requested only from pre-selected applicants before signing the agreement.

If you have questions about the programme, or the call, please contact Marija Vasilevska at [email protected].

EVALUATION OF THE APPLICATIONS

A selection committee of three senior BIRN editors will independently evaluate all the applications.  There will be two phases of selection:

  1. Administrative and Eligibility Review: Checking whether the applications are filled in the right format and if all required information is provided within the deadline; and
  2. Evaluation by the Selection Committee: Evaluation of the applications that passed the administrative and eligibility criteria as per the following selection criteria:
Evaluation Criteria Scores
Experience of the team members:

–        The application is submitted by a team of 3-5 journalists, editors, producers and other media professionals from the same public broadcasters in one of Western Balkan countries.

–        All team members are working in public broadcasters.

–        At least one of the team members has 3-5 years of working experience as a journalist.

40 points
The story ideas:

–        The topic of the stories and its relevance (priorities will be given to stories that cover human rights violations against women, men, girls and boys).

–        Presentation of the ideas for the stories.

60 points

Applicants will be notified on the status of their application by mid-July 2024 at the latest.

BIRN Kosovo Holds Training for the Members of the Municipal Assembly and Municipal Staff in Gjilan

On May 27, 2024, BIRN Kosovo held a one-day training to present the strategic vision of the National Strategy for Preventing and Countering Terrorism for the Municipality of Gjilan.

The training covered topics including preventing and countering violent extremism (P/VE), radicalization and recruitment (R&R), and other forms of extremism. It also focused on the local implementation of the strategic vision for addressing these issues, with a specific emphasis on the involvement of the Municipal Assembly and Municipal Staff in combating violent extremism and terrorism.

A total of 15 participants, 2 of them women, gathered for this training which started with an introduction of the objectives of the National Strategy for Preventing and Countering Terrorism 2023-2028 and its Action Plan. The training delved into the role of the Municipal Assembly and its Staff in addressing terrorism and forms of violent extremism, presented by Labinot Leposhtica – Legal Office and Monitoring Coordinator at BIRN Kosovo.

Present in this training was also Milot Sfishta – Representative of the Department for Public Safety in the Ministry of Internal Affairs, who emphasized the crucial role of local authorities in meeting the objectives of the Strategy. He presented the current situation with this strategy and the work that has been done, especially within schools with teachers, psychologists, and social workers to create a more acceptable environment for returnees.

During the training session, the participants were very active with discussions, sharing many experiences starting from the way they understand extremism to many cases that they faced  and are related to different forms of extremism, with an emphasis on etno-nationalism. The presentation and subsequent discussions served to enhance their knowledge and awareness regarding this topic, resulting in a more informed group of individuals by the end of the session.

This training was held as part of the ‘Resilient Community Programme’ funded by GCERF.

BIRN Kosovo Holds Training on Gender-based Misinformation and Issues Related to Sexism

On May 23 in Pristina, 2024 BIRN Kosovo held a training for journalists and journalism students on how to report about gender-based issues and sexism, and how to debunk misinformation regarding such sensitive reporting.

One of the main goals of BIRN is to educate new generations of journalists on how to report about gender-based issues and sexism, as a step toward building an unbiased society in the future. Moreover, the training focused on the crucial role of the media and journalists in creating a collective perception when reporting about women-related topics.

The training module was delivered by BIRN’s local team of award-winning journalists and editors, who have extensive experience in investigating, reporting on, and advocating for such issues.

The first session was held by Kreshnik Gashi – Editor in Chief of KALLXO.com who spoke about the identification of the challenges in treating disinformation on gender-based media reporting. In addition, he talked about the sources of disinformation on gender-based issues and disinformation narratives against the LGBTQI+ community and the handling of hate speech from community standards of social media.

Moreover, Jeta Xharra – Executive Director of BIRN held a session on how to create editorial politics that promote gender equality and avoid hate speech towards women during live reporting.

The third session was held by Alban Zeneli – Lecturer at the University of Prishtina, Department of Journalism who spoke about the importance of fact-checking while reporting on actual stories.

This training was attended by 27 participants of whom 21 were women.

The training was held as part of the project “Promoting Fact-Based Reporting and Media Literacy in Addressing Mis- and Disinformation” funded by UNMIK.

Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence – Winners Chosen

Polish journalist Tadeusz Michrowski was awarded the first prize in the Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence at a ceremony held in Vienna on May 22.

Michrowski won the 3,000-euro award for his story about the decline of coastal fisheries in the Baltic – focusing specifically on the Polish coast. There are several theories about why the fisheries are in decline, but no single compelling explanation. Tadeusz’s story captures all these conflicting truths and mysteries, holding the reader’s attention with colour and literary style.

Announcing the award, Fellowship jury member and deputy chairman of the European Stability Initiative, Kristof Bender, praised “the captivating portrait of coastal fishermen, their decline, and all the reasons behind it, bringing to life distinct characters with their interests and hopes.”

North Macedonian journalist David Ilieski was awarded the second prize for his story about how the gambling industry has taken over the country. The award was given by Elena Panagiotidis, the jury member and editor for the Swiss daily, Neue Zürcher Zeitung. Panagiotidis praised the story for not only presenting well-researched data on the growth of gambling, but also for “showing how ordinary citizens who have taken up the fight against the industry are being failed by the state”.

The award for the third place went to Andrei Popoviciu, a Romanian journalist who produced a story about how a tech boom in the city of Cluj-Napoca has led to a surge in real-estate prices that is squeezing out everyone who does not work in tech.

Florian Hassel, Central and Eastern Europe correspondent for the German daily Süddeutsche Zeitung, presented the third award. “It is an eye-opening story about a reality you haven’t heard about,” he said. “There is a stark conflict embedded within it, with no clear hero or a villain.”

The ceremony celebrated the successful completion of the 2022 edition of the programme.

Alongside Florian Hassel, Elena Panagiotidis and Kristof Bender, the jury was comprised of Milorad Ivanovic, representative of the FJE alumni network; BIRN editor Gyula Csak, Remzi Lani, the Director of the Albanian Media Institute, and Adelheid Wolfl, correspondent for Austrian daily, Der Standard.

With the conclusion of this year’s programme, the eight fellows join the FJE alumni network, which consists of more than 150 journalists from 14 CEE countries, who promote the highest professional standards.

The Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence was launched in 2007 to promote high-quality, cross-border reporting. The programme provides fellows with financial and editorial support, allowing them to travel, report and write their stories and develop their journalistic skills. In 2020, the Fellowship programme expanded to include journalists from the V4 group of countries: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia.

The Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence is implemented by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network and supported by ERSTE Foundation.

BIRN Serbia’s Gordana Andric and Aleksandar Djordjevic Awarded

The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia (NUNS) gave BIRN the Dejan Anastasijevic Award for its reporting on phantom organisations that extracted millions of euros from the state budget, and specially commended an article on domestic violence against children.

Gordana Andric, BIRN Serbia executive editor and investigative reporter, and Aleksandar Djordjevic, BIRN Serbia investigative reporter, were awarded first prize at the Dejan Anastasijevic Investigative Awards.

They were awarded for their reporting on a network of fake NGOs that got millions of euros from the state budget, envisaged to help vulnerable groups in Serbia. The network was submitting fabricated financial reports and pretending it had organised mass lectures across the country, mainly on school and domestic violence.

BIRN also uncovered that Aleksandra Camagic, a senior Belgrade official and close associate of the Belgrade mayor, had been linked to the group for almost a decade.

“This investigation is actually a result of years of labour, as this is a story BIRN has covered for years, discovering more and more about this network almost every few months,” Andric said.

“Behind findings we published in this article is not just BIRN, but also a group of phenomenal women from our partner organisation Civic Initiative who, together with us, analysed hundreds of documents,” Andric added.

The jury awarded second prize to KRIK for its reporting on police official Nenad Vuckovic who, they reported, commanded the crime group that killed Aleksandar Stankovic.

Third prize went to the Centre for Investigative Reporting Serbia (CINS) for their reporting on Serbia’s ruling Progressive Party’s call centres on the eve of the December general elections, which also won the audience award.

BIRN and CINS received special commendations for their reporting on domestic violence and the mass killing at the Vladislav Ribnikar school, respectively.

BIRN received special commendations for the story “Domestic Violence Against Children: Invisible victims”, written by Dragana Prica Kovacevic, Teodora Curcic and Gordana Andric and in collaboration with media 021, Juzne vesti, Bujanovacke, Glas Sumadije and Ozon.

This year’s jury members in Serbia were BIRN founder and investigative editor Gordana Igric, investigative reporter and founder of CINS Branko Cecen, Radio Free Europe investigative editor Mirjana Jevtovic and reporter, editor and trainer Slavisa Lekovic.

The Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia organised the 18th annual award for outstanding investigative journalism and reporting on issues of public interest with the support of the US embassy in Belgrade on May 16.

Among the 11 nominees were two more BIRN stories: Sasa Dragojlo and Xhorxhina Bami’s “In Kosovo Clash, New Bullets and Freshly-Repaired Mortars from Serbia”, and Dragojlo’s “Albanian-Supplied AKs Fuel Violence on Refugee Route through Serbia”.