BIRN Launches Online Community to Connect Journalists

BIRD Community is BIRN’s new, secure online platform for our alumni and for journalists reporting on South-East and Central Europe, allowing them to share story ideas, data and information, collaborate and utilise a document archive and contacts database.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network launched a new cross-border journalism platform on Wednesday, aiming to connect more than 1,000 journalists who took part in BIRN’s programmes as fellows, trainees and grantees, as well as other journalists reporting on South-East and Central Europe.

BIRD Community offers a unique secure online environment in which to exchange information, as well as a comprehensive database and a rich contacts directory of experts across the Western Balkans.

The idea was the result of more than 15 years of experience in connecting journalists across the Balkans and beyond to produce complex regional analyses and cross-border investigations, as well as BIRN’s experience in providing comprehensive training in investigative reporting.

The aim of BIRD Community is to make journalistic work much easier and take journalistic networking to the next level. By joining BIRD Community, journalists will get:

  • A secure environment in which they can easily reach out to BIRN’s team members and other colleagues from our alumni network across South-East and Central Europe.
  • Free access to BIRD Source, an easily searchable and comprehensive database with thousands of documents collected by BIRN over the years and exclusive data scraped from public registries and state institutions’ websites as well as information obtained through Freedom of Information BIRD Source also offers journalists the opportunity to share their own documents and leaks, and has a tool that allows them to sketch a diagram online to summarise investigative findings with other journalists.
  • Access to BIRD Directory, with around 1,400 names and contacts of experts from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.
  • Access to the Forum in which journalists can easily communicate with other members, privately or publicly.
  • The opportunity to send requests for help, information and advice from other journalists by posting them in the Bulletin Board section. The responses from other members can be made visible to all users or can be kept private.
  • Updates on grants and training opportunities.

Members can create public or private topics in the Forum section – the former will be visible to all members, allowing any of them to join the discussion, while with the latter, the creator can choose which members will be able to participate.

The Bulletin Board section is a place to share opportunities with others, ask for help, swap contacts or find a journalist who specialises in a particular topic. In the Bulletin Board section, members can leave posts which can either be private or be seen by all other members.

Once members subscribe to the posts and topics they want to follow on the Forum and Bulletin Board, they will receive an email each time there is an updates.

BIRD Community is part of a broader platform that BIRN introduced last year, BIRN Investigative Resource Desk (BIRD) – an innovative interactive platform created for professional and citizen 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.

The link that takes you directly to the registration page is here.

Edward Szekeres

Edward Szekeres is a Reporting Democracy correspondent reporting from Bratislava, Slovakia, with an occasional scoop in Budapest, Hungary.

He’s been walking the freelance trail for several years now, contributing to a string of media outlets in all V4 countries.

Edward is set to obtain a Masters in International Journalism from the University of Groningen. He speaks and reads Slovak, Hungarian, Czech, English and French and speaks beginner Dutch.

Call for Applications for Training in Fundraising

Media representatives from six Western Balkans countries with or without previous knowledge of fundraising are welcome to apply for the two-day online training.

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, is organising a training in fundraising for media representatives from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia within the regional “Media for All” project. The two-day training should help financial managers, project managers/coordinators and other media professionals in charge of media development to gain practical insights about fundraising processes.

Raising money to build and scale-up media organisations in today’s world is particularly challenging. They need to maintain their independence while securing financial sustainability. Finding new approaches to media viability, diversifying revenue streams and investing in quality journalism in the digital age is especially difficult.

Therefore, this training will provide concrete assistance to media organisations/CSOs on how to communicate the purpose of concrete fundraising projects and campaigns with relevant stakeholders, how to approach donors and maintain cooperation with the community. It should also demonstrate that grants and donations from different donor organisations and individuals are one of many available sources of funding.

Lead trainer Petar Subotin, BIRN Regional Development Officer, has extensive experience in fundraising and donor coordination. He supports cross-regional projects implementation and serves as a worldwide liaison with key stakeholders, including private donors and governments. He has also worked at the Novi Sad School of Journalism where he was in charge of writing and implementing projects related to politics, media, human rights and conflict resolution.

Who can apply?

Media outlets representatives (financial managers, project coordinators, employees at senior positions in charge of the development of the organisation/media outlet) with or without previous knowledge of fundraising, who wish to develop skills in this sphere and contribute to the financial growth and stability of their respective media organisations.

How to apply?

Applicants should complete and submit only one application attached to this CfA. All applications should be submitted in English to aida.ajanovic@birn.eu.com along with the applicant’s CV.

DATE OF TRAINING:  February 10-11, 2021

TRAINING VENUE: Online

LANGUAGE: Working language of the training is English

CALL FOR APPLICATIONS: Download here

APPLICATION FORM: Download here

DEADLINE: January 31, midnight Central European Time.

Share Your Experience: Violations on Social Media

Have you ever reported any violations on Facebook or Twitter? Was your report processed, content deleted or suspended, or the harassment, violence or hate speech continued? Tell us your story.

We’re looking for people who are willing to share their experience with us to help in a story we’re currently working on. Scroll down for information on how to take part.

The key things we want to know:

  • What type of violations have you reported?
  • In what language was the content?
  • How was the report processed?

What do we consider to be violations of social media community guidelines:

  • Violent threats (direct or indirect)
  • Harassment, which entails inciting or engaging in the targeted abuse or harassment of others
  • Hateful conduct, which entails promoting violence against or directly attacking or threatening other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability or disease.

Things to note:

We are looking for social media users that reported content in the Bosnian, Serbian, Montenegrin, Albanian, and Macedonian languages. We want to hear as many different experiences from all around Southeast Europe.

Your stories will be used to help us with an ongoing investigation.

How to take part?

To submit your experience, all you need to do is fill out this form.

You can also contact us via email: readerstories@birn.eu.com.

Or you can reach us on social media…

FB: @balkaninsight

TW: @balkaninsight

We’ll need to receive your application by midnight, January 15, 2021.

EU Investigative Journalism Awards Announced in Serbia

Adam Santovac, Jelena Veljkovic, Aleksandar Djordjevic, Nemanja Rujevic, Sanja Kljajic and Ajdin Kamber were announced on December 29 as the winners of this year’s EU Awards for Investigative Journalism, given for stories published in 2019 in Serbia.

The first place for the best investigative story published in 2019 and a cash prize of 5,000 euros went to Adam Santovac for the documentary ‘Super Graduate’, which was broadcast by N1 TV.

The jury said that ‘Super Graduate’ was a very important investigation about corruption in the higher education system, “an area in which the consequences are long-term and unforeseeable, and essentially affect all segments of life in the country”.

The jury praised Santovac for his “in-depth research of numerous, difficult-to-access data outside the borders of Serbia”.

“I think the key to the success of the documentary ‘Super Graduate’ is in its simplicity,” Santovac said in a recorded acceptance speech.

“So, working on this documentary, I managed to fulfill the most basic journalistic function, and that is not only to ask, but also to help people find answers to certain questions,” he added.

BIRN Serbia journalists Jelena Veljkovic and Aleksandar Djordjevic were awarded second place and a cash prize of 3,000 euros for the series of articles about the so-called Krusik affair, which centred on alleged corruption at the state-owned Krusik arms company.

The jury said that Veljkovic and Djordjevic “managed not only to point out direct links between top public officials and serious abuse, but also to prove the existence of the entire system in which the state appears as a guarantor in dirty business”.

The two journalists dedicated the award to Aleksandar Obradovic, a whistleblower from the Krusik factory who first spoke out about the alleged wrongdoing.

The third place and a cash prize of 2,000 euros went to Deutsche Welle journalists Nemanja Rujevic, Sanja Kljajic and Ajdin Kamber for their story ‘The Industry of Leaving’, which dealt with the emigration of health workers and the corrupt practices that are rife in labour emigration.

“The authors, through a very detailed and comprehensive research, discovered and proved the existence of a whole new industry in Serbia which is export-oriented and does not bring benefit to the people living in that country, but takes away quality health workers and care,” the jury said.

Paul-Henri Presset, the head of the Information, Communication and Press Department at the EU Delegation to Serbia, said in a video message that the media plays an even more important role in disseminating reliable information in times of crisis, such the current pandemic.

“At the same time such vulnerable times inevitably open large space for disinformation, a trend that societies will be combating increasingly in the time to come. This is why it is particularly important that we have strong and capacitated media and journalists putting additional efforts in investigating facts on topics important for society,” said Presset.

The shortlisted investigative stories were evaluated by an international jury consisting of Predrag Blagojevic, founder and former editor-in-chief at Juzne Vesti, Valerie Hopkins, south-east Europe correspondent for the Financial Times and Bojan Pancevski, Germany correspondent for the Wall Street Journal.

The EU Awards for Investigative Journalism in Serbia is part of an ongoing EU-funded project entitled Strengthening Quality News and Independent Journalism in the Western Balkans and Turkey, implemented by BIRN Hub in partnership with Thomson Media gGmbH (TM), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Broadcast Union (EBU), Central European University (CEU CDMS), the Media Association of South-East Europe (MASE), the Center for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro (CIN CG), the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers (SSNM), BIRN Albania and BIRN Serbia. The aim of the project is to empower and support independent journalism and investigative journalists.

BIRN Serbia, as part of the consortium, provides technical support to the project but is not involved in the selection of awarded articles.

Montenegro Renews Push to Extradite Fugitive Ex-President

New government in Montenegro has renewed a request to extradite Svetozar Marovic, ex-president of the former State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, who fled the country to avoid prison – after a BIRN investigation revealed the family’s business activities in Serbia.

Montenegro has renewed its request to extradite the ex-president of the former State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, Svetozar Marovic, from Serbia. It comes after a BIRN investigation revealed the Marovic family’s lucrative business interests in Serbia.

On Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Dritan Abazovic said the government had renewed the request, stressing that it expected cooperation on the matter with the Serbian government.

“I hope we will find a common language with Serbia and bring Marovic to justice. It is unjustified that Marovic walks freely in another country and that his son also performs activities in business [there],” Abazovic told a press conference.

In 2015, Marovic was accused of being the kingpin of a criminal group in his hometown coastal resort of Budva, and in May 2016 he signed two plea bargains under which he agreed to serve a prison sentence.

Under the first plea bargain, Marovic agreed to serve 30 months in prison and pay 50,000 euros to charity. Under the second, he agreed to an additional 20 months, a fine of 1.1 million euros, and to pay another 50,000 euros to charity. After he fled, an Interpol Red Notice was issued for his arrest.

Podgorica has been seeking his extradition from Serbia for three years, with two requests filed this year alone.

Montenegrin Minister of justice Vladimir Leposavic said the state would guarantee him fair treatment in Montenegro.

An investigation by BIRN showed that Marovic’s 37-year-old son, Milos, has since developed business interests in Serbia, having pleaded guilty to involvement in Montenegro to an illegal land sale in a village near Budva that prosecutors said cost municipality 1.4 million euros. In 2016, he was sentenced to one year in prison and ordered to repay 380,000 euros.

Both father and son have since fled, however, and have reportedly lived untouched in neighboring Serbia.

The BIRN investigation showed Milos Marovic owned thousands of acres of land in Serbia with an estimated value of over a million euros. Until early 2020, he also owned an agribusiness with assets of several hundred thousand euros, according to BIRN, and is registered as living in a luxury apartment block in the elite Vracar district of the Serbian capital Belgrade.

Svetozar Marovic was a co-founder of the Democratic Party of Socialists, DPS, which lost power this year after three decades of uninterrupted rule in Montenegro.

Between 2003 and 2006, he was president of the former State Union of Serbia and Montenegro, the last incarnation of an almost century-old union between the two countries that ended when Montenegro voted for independence.

Milos Marovic now holds Serbian citizenship. He had asked to spend his one–year prison sentence in Serbia, but has never served a day. Under Montenegrin law, the deadline for him to serve his penalty expired on September 16, 2020, pending a final decision by the Higher Court in Podgorica.

BIRN Trains Media on Engaging Citizens in Reporting

Journalists from across the Balkan region participated in a series of online workshops and trainings to learn about the best practices in engaging citizens in the reporting process.

Balkan Investigative Reporting Network organised three intensive seven-day trainings for media outlets from six countries – Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia – within the regional “Media for All” project. More than 80 representatives of 23 media outlets from the region attended different workshops during the last week of November and two weeks of December.

For the first three days, each group heard from ProPublica’s engagement editor and lead trainer Ariana Tobin on how to motivate citizens to engage, suggest topics, share their experiences, evidence and tips, helping journalists and editors produce more comprehensive stories.

“Many engagement projects start because communities have gathered much of the evidence themselves. They need a journalist’s muscles and our megaphone. Our work can lead to impact,” Tobin explained, adding that crowdsourcing should only be one part of reporting, while research, interviewing, factchecking and all other journalistic procedures remain the same.

Those attending the training learned that it is essential to select topics people want to participate in, unlike projects where reporters should convince someone to care about.

“If there are stories people want told, journalists should pay attention. You find these stories by listening to people who have been ignored, people who are angry and people who really, really care about their communities… It’s about them, not us,” Tobin pointed out.

Workshops lead by Tobin were followed by sessions delivered by local trainers, award winning BIRN editors, who presented regional context analysis and discussed topics and strategies for engaging local communities, as well as the potential for cross-border collaborations.

Local trainers also presented the Engaged Citizens Reporting tool, a platform designed by the BIRN for the purpose of the “Media for All” project. This enables journalists to develop different kinds of surveys, polls and other ways of engaging citizens. The tool also allows media to analyse collected information and data before incorporating it into their reporting.

The final segment of the training was dedicated to social media platforms to equip journalists with best ways to promote callouts for citizens’ engagement.

The trainings should help the selected media outlets, which were also awarded grants, to implement their nine-month projects successfully and produce quality journalism, taking into account the needs of their local communities.

“We will also provide continuous editorial and mentoring support throughout the project implementation,” said Aida Ajanovic, project manager at BIRN.

The training is part of the regional two-year “Media for All” project funded by the UK government and implemented by a consortium, led by the British Council, along with Thomson Foundation, INTRAC and Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN.

Online Media in Balkans ‘Need Regulation, Not Censorship’

Online outlets in Western Balkan countries need to be better regulated to tackle hate speech and defamation, but restrictions should be crafted to avoid censorship, media and legal experts told a BIRN debate.

Experts told an online debate hosted by the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network on Tuesday that the current regulation systems for online media in the Western Balkans are not good enough, but efforts to curb the publication of hate speech and defamatory comments must not tip over into censorship.

Media and legal experts from Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia who spoke at the debate entitled ‘Case Law and Online Media Regulation in the Balkans’ also said that the application of existing legislation is inadequate.

Authorities often rely on legislation that was developed for traditional media which has not been adapted accordingly, or on self-regulation which is not mandatory.

Lazar Sandev, an attorney at law from North Macedonia argued that “those who create public opinion regarding matters of public interest do not uphold any standards, they do not have any legal knowledge”.

Jelena Kleut, associate professor at the University of Novi Sad’s Faculty of Philosophy, said that in Serbia there is a lack of willingness to apply standards in online media, and noted a difference between rich and poor media outlets as well as responsible and not responsible ones.

“The wealthy, irresponsible media – they have legal knowledge but they don’t care. They would rather see the complaints in court, pay a certain amount of fines and continue along, they don’t care. On the other end of the spectrum, we have responsible but poor media,” Kleut said.

The media experts also debated the controversial issue of reader comment sections on websites, which some sites around the world have removed in recent years because of a proliferation of hate speech, defamation and insulting language.

According to Montenegro’s Media Law, which came in force in August this year, the founder of an online publication is obliged to remove a comment “that is obviously illegal content” without delay, and no later than 60 minutes from learning or receiving a report that a comment is illegal.

Milan Radovic, programme director of the Civil Alliance NGO and a member of the Montenegrin Public Broadcaster’s governing council, argued that this “it is clear that in such a short period of time, if it is applied, will damage those affected, but also damages for freedom of expression”.

Edina Harbinja, a senior lecturer at Britain’s Aston University, warned that there is a conflict between regulatory attempts and media freedom, and that “this is when we need to be careful in how we regulate, not to result in censorship”.

This was the second debate in a series of discussions on online media regulation with various stakeholders, organised as a part of the regional Media for All project, which aims to support independent media outlets in the Western Balkans to become more audience-oriented and financially sustainable.

The project is funded by the UK government and delivered by a consortium led by the British Council in partnership with BIRN, the Thomson Foundation and the International NGO Training and Research Centre, INTRAC.

EU Investigative Journalism Awards Announced in Kosovo

The jury awarded four journalists for “uncovering previously unexplored areas”, stressing that investigative journalism is of great importance for Kosovo and a wider region.

The EU Awards for Investigative Journalism for Kosovo were presented on Monday, December 21, 2020, in an online event on Zoom. The four announced winners were awarded a total of 10,000 euros for stories published throughout 2019.

Their stories reported on the corrupt practices of the Kosovo government, on important environmental issues in the country, and shed more light on children born from wartime rape in the country.

The head of the EU delegation to Kosovo, Tomáš Szunyog, said all the awarded stories “were very interesting and covered some of the most pressing issues of the Kosovo society.

“Free, diverse and independent media are essential in any democratic society and are key to ensuring an informed and engaged citizenship. In order to achieve that, journalists should be able to exercise their function freely,” the ambassador added.

The jury was composed of chairman Xhelal Neziri, an experienced journalist skilled in broadcasting, storytelling, investigative reporting, news writing, and documentaries; Ervin Qafmolla, a Tirana-based journalist and communication specialist who leads the fact-checking unit at A2 CNN in Tirana; and Sefer Tahiri, a journalist with 15 years of experience who currently serves as a professor at the South East European University in Tetovo, North Macedonia.

Neziri, Qafmolla and Tahiri said they had a hard task choosing between the 14 shortlisted applications. Addressing the public, Neziri said evaluating the applications was “an honour both for myself and other members of the jury.

“Almost all [submitted stories] focused on important issues and uncovered previously unexplored areas that were interesting to read and learn about,” Neziri added.

He also added that the importance of investigative journalism in Kosovo and the region was huge, and requires “commitment, time, skills, and money.” He continued: “Democracy functions in the countries where citizens are well-informed.”

First award went to Serbeze Haxhiaj who works for Radio Television of Kosovo, RTK, and the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network BIRN, for her investigation “Kosovo’s Invisible Children: The Secret Legacy of Wartime Rape.” This story for the first time revealed facts of concrete cases of children born from rape during the independence war in Kosovo.

More than two decades after the independence war, due to the stigma and prejudice against victims of sexual violence, it is still hard for rape survivors to speak publicly about children born as a result of rape. The negative perception of these women in the patriarchal environment of Kosovo has led in some cases victims to commit suicide.

The article provides evidence of how, because of the stigma that makes mothers feel ashamed to tell the truth, children born to rape by Serbian forces during the war in Kosovo have been kept secret, abandoned, given up for adoption or dumped in orphanages. In some cases, they even drowned. The few women who decided to keep these children a secret and raised them remain fearful of public exposure.

Haxhiaj said the award was an honour for her and an act of homage to the victims of sexual violence. “We are still seeing the consequences for these children that are invisible, and women who have survived sexual violence still fear being exposed,” she told the ceremony.

Second prize went to Leonida Molliqaj, a journalist and founder of the Center for Information, Criticism and Action, QIKA, through which a new media platform is being created where, for the first time in Kosovo, journalistic research will focus on gender equality.

Her piece, “Lack of food security in Kosovo threatens public health”, is the first research of its kind to provide readers with an accurate picture of the food security situation in Kosovo. Despite the legal regulations, the research highlighted violations of the right of access to safe food for the citizens of Kosovo, which is a result of the negligence of institutions.

The purpose of the research was to show the risk to public health that arises from the lack of proper control of food safety, as well as the accountability of the institutional chain for the damages caused.

Kreshnik Gashi and Afërdita Fejzullahu of BIRN Kosovo were awarded third place for their story, “Network of AAK family companies, concrete the highway Prishtina-Gjilan.”

This revealed the research of the BIRN TV show Justice in Kosovo, which explained how the family company of the Deputy Minister of Infrastructure, Rexhep Kadriu, was involved in the construction of the Prishtina-Gjilan highway, for which about 66 million euros are earmarked. The investigation has caused a great deal of controversy and the Kosovo Special Prosecutor’s Office launched a criminal investigation to uncover conflicts of interest in this activity. The case was recently entered in the register of targeted cases in the Special Prosecution.

The EU awards have the overall goal of celebrating and promoting the outstanding achievements of investigative journalists from the Western Balkan countries and Turkey, as well as improving the visibility of quality investigative journalism in these countries among the public.

The prizes are awarded through the EU-funded project, “Strengthening Quality News and Independent Journalism in the Western Balkans and Turkey”, in 2019, 2020, 2021 in EU candidate and potential candidate countries: Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Serbia and Turkey, for investigative stories published between 2018 and 2020. In total, 63 awards will be awarded through a three-year period.

The awards in Bosnia and Herzegovina are coordinated by Balkan Investigative Regional Reporting Network, BIRN Hub, which also runs a regional consortium.