Vucic Dismisses BIRN Report on COVID-19 Figures in Serbia

Aleksandar Vucic said BIRN report on the real number of COVID-19 victims in Serbia relies on data that are ‘not authentic’ – and again attacked the outlet over its 2015 investigation into the Tamnava mine clearance.

Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic on Thursday criticised the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, over its recent investigation into the number of COVID-19 victims in Serbia, saying the report, published on June 22, used data that was not authentic.

The report said the state COVID-19 database showed that more than twice as many infected patients had died than the authorities announced and that hundreds more people had tested positive for the virus in recent days than was admitted.

But in an interview for Radio Television of Serbia, RTS, on Thursday, Vucic said he was “completely sure that they [the data BIRN published] are not authentic”.

Questioned about the BIRN report, some members of the state Crisis Staff did not deny the information contained in it but said they had not seen the database itself and tried to blame the difference in numbers on methodology.

Vucic on Thursday also again attacked BIRN over an earlier report, from 2015, about clearing flood water from the Tamnava mine, saying it had been made up.

“They made up that story – some of those BIRNs, KRIKs [Crime and Corruption Reporting Network], CINSs [Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia], I do not know exactly which ones – they made up the story that we stole some money from the water extraction in Tamnava,” Vucic said.

The January 2015 investigation showed how the state-owned power utility Elektroprivreda Srbije, EPS, awarded a contract to renovate the Tamnava mine, flooded in 2014, to a consortium that had no experience of such work, significantly increasing the cost.

Vucic, who was then Prime Minister, and pro-government-tabloids, attacked BIRN over the report. In another interview, in 2016, Vucic said he stood by his claim that BIRN had written lies in the investigation.

The Serbian President on Thursday became irritated over questions concerning a report carried by various media outlets that an entire family in southwest Serbia had died of COVID-19.

“You ask me quite seriously to comment on someone who said Refat Suljovic from Tutin lost his whole family to the corona [virus]. You ask me about them?” Vucic asked a journalist.

Local media reported that four members of the Suljovic family in Tutin had died in the pandemic. Vucic said the story was fabricated and that Suljovic’s parents had not died from COVID-19.

Media Reporting on Corruption

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

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

To read more about the monitoring, click here.

BIRN Journalists Win Serbian Prize for Investigative Journalism

BIRN Serbia  journalists Jelena Veljkovic and Aleksandar Djordjevic have won this year’s Dejan Anastasijevic Investigative Journalism Award in the online media category for a series of articles about the father of the Serbian interior minister’s involvement in arms trading.

The prize was awarded on Thursday by the Independent Association of Journalists in Serbia with the support of the US embassy in Belgrade. This year, the award was renamed after the late Dejan Anastasijevic, a highly respected Serbian journalist.

BIRN’s story investigated how the minister’s father was buying weapons at preferential prices from the weapons manufacturer Krusik and then selling them at drastically higher prices.

In 2018, BIRN published the first article based on the testimony of a whistleblower from Krusik, Aleksandar Obradovic, and continued uncovering new facts through 2019. The story became one of the biggest political scandals in the country in 2019.

Vuk Cvijic, a journalist from weekly news magazine NIN, was given the Dejan Anastasijevic award in the print media category, while Adam Santovac was awarded for a documentary made for N1 TV in the broadcast media category. Masina and Juzne vesti’s newsrooms were awarded for making special contributions to investigative journalism.

This year, BIRN was also nominated for the cross-border investigation Illumination of Serbia, Hungarian Style, and Dragan Gmizic’s documentary ‘Predators’ about fish theft, co-produced by Greenfield Production from Novi Sad and BIRN.

‘Lawsuit Filed Against BIRN Serbia’ over Fake Medical Record Story

A law firm from Novi Sad has reportedly filed criminal charges against BIRN Serbia journalists Natalija Jovanovic and Jelena Veljkovic and editor Milorad Ivanovic for allegedly making public confidential business information and recording a conversation with a lawyer from the firm, Nemanja Aleksic, without authorisation.

The reported lawsuit comes in response to an article that BIRN Serbia published about a falsified medical document, based on official documents obtained through procedures set out by the Law on Free Access to Information of Public Importance.

Aleksic has reportedly pressed charges against BIRN and after initially making accusations and voicing insults during a conversation with a BIRN journalist.

On June 5, BIRN Serbia revealed that in December 2011, doctor Zoran Gojkovic, the Provincial Secretary for Healthcare and an orthopaedic specialist at the Clinical Centre of Vojvodina, compiled a medical report on an examination that he did not perform, identifying injuries that were never sustained, from a person who had never been to his office.

According to BIRN’s findings, he also authenticated the report using the official stamp of a fellow orthopaedic specialist, without his knowledge, and forged the colleague’s signature.

Documents obtained by BIRN show that Gojkovic handed over the false medical report to his friend, Novi Sad-based lawyer Nemanja Aleksic, who used it in a civil procedure at the Basic Court in Novi Sad and thus directly influenced the outcome of the legal procedure.

BIRN Serbia has no detailed information about the charge against it, which has reportedly been filed to the Special Prosecution Office for High-Tech Crime.

BIRN Serbia found out about the lawsuit via a report published by news agency Tanjug.

According to Tanjug, lawyer Aleksic stated that BIRN Serbia’s editor and journalists were spreading misinformation and fake news, causing panic among his law office’s employees, associates and clients, and damaging the office’s reputation.

BIRN Serbia regards the lawsuit and the claims in the Tanjug report to be unacceptable pressure on its work and editorial policy.

BIRN Serbia Monitoring Examines Media Reporting on Corruption

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

Content analysis of media reporting on organised crime and corruption was conducted on a sample of seven media outlets – three daily newspapers, one weekly, two TV stations with national coverage, and one cable TV channel.

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

Analysis shows that the way media report on corruption and organised crime depends on the editorial policy of a particular media outlet – those inclined to the ruling party report in a propagandistic way, praising the state’s fight against corruption, at the same time systematically avoiding reporting on court cases and issues such as conflict of interest, particularly when representatives of the ruling party are involved.

At the opposite end is a critical approach which criticises the judicial system in the country and political pressure on the judiciary.

A genuine public debate at which alternative opinions could be heard, which are supposed to be reported by the media, is missing.

An additional difficulty is the duration of court proceedings – in some cases more than ten years – which makes continuous media coverage of this topic even more difficult.

Tabloid media tend to use a small number of sources of information, and frequently their reports are based only on information from one source or on anonymous sources.

As well as sensationalism and partial reporting, the most frequent ethical problems are the breaching of the presumption of innocence and the spreading of rumours.

 

Three BIRN Journalists Nominated for Serbian Investigative Awards

Investigative articles by BIRN journalists Ana Curic, Jelena Veljkovic, and Aleksandar Djordjevic have been shortlisted for the Dejan Anastasijevic Investigative Journalism Award in the online media category.

Dragan Gmizic’s documentary ‘Predators’ about fish theft, co-produced by Greenfield Production from Novi Sad and BIRN, was also nominated in the broadcast media category.

BIRN journalists Ana Curic and Aleksandar Djordjevic worked with Hungarian colleague Blanka Zöldi on the cross-border investigation Illumination of Serbia, Hungarian Style.

The investigation dealt with companies connected to ruling political parties and their engagement in suspicious public procurements to install new public lighting systems in Serbia and Hungary.

Aleksadnar Djordjevic and Jelena Veljkovic’s series of articles entitled  Firm Linked to Minister’s Father Paid Less for Arms exposed how the Serbian Interior Minister’s father bought weapons at preferential prices from the weapons manufacturer Krusik.

The Independent Association of Journalists in Serbia with the support of the US embassy in Belgrade announced the nominations for the awards on Wednesday.

The awards are named after the late Dejan Anastasijevic, a highly respected Serbian journalist who was also a BIRN contributor.

This year, 38 investigative journalists were entered for the awards.

The winners will be announced on June 11.

COVID-19 in Serbia: Information Resilience

BIRN Serbia
In the current situation, there is a great demand for punctual, accurate and objective information among citizens. The crisis disclosed the negative impact of disinformation and its influence on spreading panic among citizens.

Summary

The COVID-19 global crisis reveals the need for and essential role of independent, objective journalism. Serbian society is additionally burdened by the fact that democratic institutions are weak and independent media are marginalized. The Serbian government introduced the state of emergency in an early stage to combat the crisis coronavirus caused. Yet, as much as this measure seemed justified to stop spreading the virus and protect the healthcare system, it opened a space for potential abuses.

In the current situation, there is a great demand for punctual, accurate and objective information among citizens. The crisis disclosed the negative impact of disinformation and its influence on spreading panic among citizens. In addition, the restrictive measures of the Serbian government demand public attention and serious journalistic work in order to keep them transparent and accountable and to prevent deterioration of democratic values and institutions once the crisis is over. Thus, BIRN will go beyond daily reports in order to offer in-depth analysis and data articles that can provide the context, analyze causes and consequences, as well as trends regarding the COVID – 19 crisis and its implications on the public services, work of institutions and society at large.

While mainstream media extensively cover the Covid-19 crisis through daily informative production there is a lack of analysis of the trends, wider context, and the effects of the pandemic on different aspects of our society. Furthermore, most of the media cover the cases and updates in major cities (Belgrade, Nis, Novi Sad, etc.) while the effects of the pandemic in smaller places are even more striking and are paradigmatic of the systemic response flaws. Lack of in-depth articles and relevant analysis causes the greater negative influence of fake news and disinformation hindering efforts to mitigate the consequences of the crisis. Society is dealing, with the pandemic, but also with infodemic, and the best course of the action is to rely on fact-based, reliable, and objective journalism.

Donors: The Balkan Trust for Democracy and USAID.

Information Sheet

Objective

Increasing the quality of media coverage and public understanding of the current COVID-19 crisis and its consequences.

Activities

1) Production (data and in-depth articles and journalistic reports on a daily basis);

2) Work with local journalists;

3) Online campaign.

Target Groups

Journalists, decision-makers, citizens

BIRN Wins Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Award

To mark World Press Freedom Day on Sunday, campaign group Reporters Without Borders Austria awarded the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network with its annual Press Freedom Award – A Signal for Europe.

The Vienna office of the Reporters Without Borders announced that the BIRN Network has been awarded for its courageous investigative journalism in Eastern and South-Eastern Europe, and for its dedication to the fight for human rights, democracy and justice for the victims of war crimes.

The award also honours BIRN’s founder, Gordana Igric, who served as the organisation’s regional director until May 2018, for her pioneering work in establishing the network.

“We are honoured by this acknowledgment from our Austrian colleagues. It comes at a critical time for our region, where media are often hampered by political or business influences and lack the resources to report beyond their own country’s borders,” said BIRN’s network director, Marija Ristic.

“The award gives us more motivation to continue with our uncompromising reporting despite continuous attacks on our journalists,” Ristic added.

“We are also thankful for the honour given to our founder, Gordana Igric, who had a vision of a free regional media network and paved the way for a new generation of journalists and editors who continue to champion the values of human rights and democracy,” she said.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network was established in 2004 as a network of organisations across the Balkans promoting freedom of speech, human rights and democratic values.

BIRN has country-based organisations in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Romania and Serbia. It also works editorially in Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Greece, Hungary, Moldova, Montenegro, Poland, Slovakia and Ukraine.

BIRN’s structure has the advantage of combining local expertise with unique regional cooperation.

The Press Freedom Award – A Signal for Europe is given every year by the Austrian branch of Reporters Without Borders, a leading international non-profit and non-governmental organisation that safeguards the right to freedom of information. Its mandate is to promote free, independent and pluralistic journalism and to defend media workers.

BIRN Bosnia and Serbia’s Ana Curic up for Sigma Awards

A database of Bosnian government official vehicles, a project of the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has been shortlisted for the 2020 Sigma Awards for data journalism. The BIRN BiH project was shortlisted in the Open Data category. Ana Curic, a BIRN journalist from Serbia, has been shortlisted in the Young Journalist category for her overall work in 2019.

The Open Data category shortlists those projects that best “reflect a commitment to making data open, accessible and relevant to other journalists, researchers and general public”.

Fourteen projects were shortlisted in all, including some by media outlets such as ProPublica, the BBC, AFP, Aljazeera, Yahoo News, Pulitzer Center and HuffPost.

The database of official vehicles in Bosnia contains all tenders for the procurement of official limos from 2018 onwards, as well as data on the vehicle fleets of hundreds of institutions and public companies.

It is regularly updated and contains the technical specifications of the vehicles obtained from tender documents, which are otherwise not available to the public in Bosnia during the bidding procedures.

BIRN BiH entered the competition with its article published in January 2019 concerning the costs of procurement of official vehicles during the previous year.

The database is unique, and is often quoted by the media in Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region.

BIRN Serbia journalist Ana Curic, who is shortlisted for the 2020 awards in the Young Journalist category, has been nominated for her whole work in 2019.

She investigated a network of companies connected to the Serbian and Hungarian governments that won almost all street lighting tenders in towns and cities across Serbia.

She also worked on a data-driven story about money laundering in Serbia, based on data from hundreds of verdicts and on information from the prosecution and courts.

In 2019, she became a contributor to a global investigation of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, ICIJ, called the Implant Files, after collecting and analysing 137 documents about problematic implants used in Serbia, which became part of the International Medical Devices Database.

The Sigma awards are given to best work in the field of data journalism all over the world. Prizes are given for best data-driven reporting, best visualisation, innovation, for best young journalist, open data and for best news application.

There were 510 entries from 66 countries for this year’s awards. The jury of ten international experts picked the best in each category – 82 projects from 31 countries.

The president of the jury this year is Simon Rogers, an award-winning journalist and data journalism teacher at Medill-Northwestern University, in San Francisco and data editor on the News Lab Team at Google.

The Sigma award was instituted by DataJournalism.com, a project of the European Journalism Centre, an international organisation of journalists established in Brussels, with sponsorship provided by Google News Initiative.

The Sigma award winners will be announced by the end of February 2020.

Under the Spotlight: Capital Investments Projects in Serbia

BIRN Serbia
Promoting institutional transparency and accountability through investigative reporting.

Summary

BIRN continues promoting government transparency and accountability through investigative reporting. BIRN Serbia will continue operating its flagship web platform Javno (Public, www.javno.rs), which currently hosts 20 databases that monitor public spending and the work of the judiciary. The watchdog’s searchable databases contain information such as court cases on tax evasion and money laundering, public procurements approved through emergency measures, subsidies distributed to media by local governments, and travel expenses incurred by government officials.

The project will also encourage other media organizations and relevant NGOs to utilize its databases for other investigative, research, and accountability initiatives.

Donor: National Endowment for Democracy (NED)

Information Sheet

Main Objective

Promoting institutional transparency and accountability through investigative reporting.

Activities

1) Production of investigative articles;

2) Creation of two databases on reconstruction projects for health care facilities, public schools, and energy companies in Serbia;

3) Production of a series of multimedia materials, such as videos and infographics, in order to make the investigative stories more appealing and understandable to the general public.

Target Groups

Local media journalists, state representatives, local-government representatives, public at large, CSOs representatives