Digital Rights Action: Enabling Free Flow of Information and Media Integrity

BIRN Serbia
The main goal of the project is to contribute to creating an enabling online environment for the free flow of information, in line with the standards of digital rights and media freedoms.

Summary

Donors: Balkans Trust for Democracy, MATRA Programme.

Information Sheet

Main Objective

The project’s overall goal is to contribute to creating an enabling online environment for the free flow of information, in line with the standards of digital rights and media freedoms.

Specific Objectives

  1. Public knowledge and understanding of the nature and impact of breaches of digital rights and freedoms are improved.
  2. Media policy framework advanced with new legislative solutions, responding to risks for media freedom and rights in the digital environment.
  3. Media improve standards of security, integrity and privacy protection in the digital environment.

Main Activities

  1. Providing the public with new information to instigate follow-up actions (including reactions, republications, and quotations) by relevant institutions, CSOs, other media outlets, and the public at large. Activities within this cluster include journalistic research, production, and publishing of in-depth articles, accompanied by data and document sets and multimedia material (visuals, video, audio). Based on the gathered material and findings ongoing public informing campaign will be implemented, including production, publishing, boosting and moderating a debate on social media channels
  2. Advocating and sustaining policy changes in domestic media regulatory framework includes the following activities: monitoring, consultations with beneficiaries and stakeholders, productions of policy solutions and amendments, participation in working groups, and other fora where media or related policies are discussed to advocate for its implementation.
  3. Raising capacities of media to implement standards of safety and integrity in the digital environment and their awareness of the potential risks – includes direct support to media outlets and journalists through service centre which will provide on-demand support in order to increase standards of privacy protection and the resilience of media and journalists in cases of digital rights violations and online attacks. In addition, a set of tools and internal procedures will be produced and promoted within the media community.

Target Groups

  1. Media community – Journalists, media outlets and media organisations.
  2. Independent institutions – Commissioner for Information of public importance, Ombudsman, Commissioner for Equality, RATEL/ National CERT.
  3. Civil sector – CSO dealing with human rights and data protection.
  4. Institutions – Ministry of Culture and Information and other relevant ministries and institutions in charge of various aspects of digital infrastructure and services (such as Ministry of Telecommunications, IKT office etc.)
  5. Public at large, especially computer literate.

Lead implementer

BIRN Serbia

Partner / Associate implementer:

SHARE Foundation

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.

BIRN Serbia Publishes Report on Media Financial Sustainability

BIRN Serbia published a new report on financial media sustainability in the digital environment on December 24 as a part of a project entitled Where is the Place of Media in New Internet Governance Policies?

One of the most significant issues for media financial sustainability in the digital environment is the influence of social media networks on the media economy and the crisis of traditional advertising models.

The digital environment brought new actors to the market, new production technology, new content distribution methods and new business models, and also threatened the financial survival of some media, the BIRN Serbia report finds.

Besides selling advertising space and producing media content, the state in Serbia still plays a crucial role in the media market, having a negative influence on market relations.

The digital ad market has had constant and stable growth but the most significant revenues have not gone to media outlets but to companies such as Google and Facebook for advertising on their platforms.

The value of the digital advertising market, according to data from the AdEx survey by IAB Serbia rose from 20 million euros in 2015 to 47.05 million euros in 2019.

Mobile advertising recorded the largest growth – a 60 per cent year-on-year rise from 2018 to 2019. Video advertising meanwhile recorded an increase of 45.67 per cent.

In 2019, 11.79 million euros was also spent on advertising on social networks, of which 10 million euros was spent on Facebook advertising alone.

An additional challenge to media is how to motivate the public to pay for the content it produces, bearing in mind the amount of free content that people can access online.

Local media are in a difficult situation facing the limited local advertising market, insufficient capacity to adjust to the online sphere, and non-transparent funds distribution by local self-government.

Financial sustainability plays a critical role in rethinking media policies directly correlated with media freedoms and editorial independence – the poorer media is, the more significant financial pressure it suffers. The third BIRN report encompasses the public direct financing model, online advertising, and copyrights issues.

Two other reports related to media and new internet governance policies and media policies in the digital environment are available on www.birnsrbija.rs.

Human Rights House Award BIRN’s Natalija Jovanovic

Human Rights House in Serbia, marking International Human Rights Day on December 10, awarded BIRN journalist Natalija Jovanovic for her outstanding commitment to the protection, respect and promotion of human rights.

Jovanovic authored an important exposé of data concealment in Serbia on the real COVID-19 death toll.

The article, Serbia Under-Reported COVID-19 Deaths and Infections, Data Shows, published on June 22 this year, showed that the COVID 19 death toll from March 19 to June 1 was significantly higher than was officially reported.

Human Rights House in Serbia said it wanted to encourage journalists’ work that does not accept censorship and always questions official truths, which is why it awarded this journalist this year.

“One of the foundations of the democratic order of every community, which the government and centres of power in Serbia have for years tried to silence and overthrow is freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

“There are no free peoples or free society without freedom of speech. The right to freely express one’s opinion without the fear of retaliation or sanction, is, as well, the right to objective and timely inform,” it said.

Human Rights House Foundation is an Oslo-based network of 17 CSOs across Europe in 11 countries dedicated to building democratic and open societies founded on unconditional respect for human rights and the rule of law. Network members in Serbia are Civic Initiatives, the Belgrade Centre for Human Rights, the Helsinki Committee, YUCOM – Lawyers’ committee for human rights and Policy Center.

BIRN Serbia Journalist Wins CEI SEEMO Investigative Award

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

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

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

The awards ceremony was held on Thursday online in Belgrade.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Serbia Hugely Underestimated COVID-19 Death Toll, Official Admits

Confirming the substance of BIRN reports on this issue, a Government Crisis Staff member has admitted that the COVID-19 death toll in June was far higher than was officially reported, blaming a new information system.

A member of the Serbian Government’s Crisis Staff, Predrag Kon, has admitted that the number of deaths related to COVID-19 by June officially announced by the government was three times less than the real number.

Kon blamed the new informational system being used for the first time, which had not been not accurate, saying subsequent analysis of the data revealed a big difference between the real and announced numbers.

“We were using an information system for the first time. That information system at one point, at one time, was not precise enough and I cannot say why, so, somewhere from mid-June, it was not accurate,” Kon told NewsMaxAdria TV on Tuesday.

“Examining everything that happened, it is clear that there is a difference between what we, at the level of Belgrade, determined as cases and, especially deaths,” he added.

“Deaths cannot be accurately reported unless a certain period has elapsed. The data entered in the death certificate is only returned in two months… I processed the data by June. By June, in short, there were three times more deaths not only than what was officially announced but also what was reported,” he continued.

Kon said that such things “happen all the time”, and repeated that “we have never worked on that system”.

At the end of June BIRN reported that from March 19 to June 1 this year, a total of 632 people died in Serbia who had tested positive for the coronavirus, which was more than twice the officially announced number of 244 deaths in that period.

By analysing data obtained from the state’s own COVID-19 information system, BIRN also reported that the number of people who had oecame infected in Serbia from June 17 to June 20 was at least 300 per day, which was far more than the officially announced figures. They recorded a maximum of 97 new cases in a single day during that period.

At that point, officials from Batut Institute, which manages the COVID-19 information system, declined to respond to the BIRN reports while state officials, including President Aleksandar Vucic, dismissed BIRN’s revelations.

Serbia was in a state of emergency, with a curfew and strict bans on movement lasting from March 15 until May 6. Soon after the state of emergency was lifted, many of the other bans were lifted, too, so Serbia was among the first states in Europe to again allow mass gatherings, and big audiences for football matches. One between local rivals Red Star and Partisan on June 10, according to Reuters agency, attracted some 25,000 fans. Serbia also held parliamentary elections in June 2020.

Thomson Media Launches an Online Course on Mobile Journalism

As a part of a Strengthening Quality News and Independent Journalism in the Western Balkans and Turkey project, Thomson Media has launched an online course on mobile journalism.

The online course is open for journalists or media professionals from the Western Balkans who are interested in using their mobile phone for complete production of powerful journalistic stories.

Through practical exercises, the online course will enable participants to learn how to take powerful photos, record audio and video and edit journalistic stories on mobile. It will help them think as mobile journalists who use a smartphone and newly acquired skills for independent production of quality media content.

Participants of the online course will learn

  • Mobile journalism basics and its advantages;
  • How to take control over your mobile phone camera;
  • How to take high quality photos and record audio and video with your phone;
  • How to edit journalistic stories on your mobile phone with free applications.

The course was developed in accordance with Thomson Media blended learning approach – it allows participants to work at own pace, and those who successfully finalise it will be awarded a certificate and a chance to participate in an advance course in Mobile Journalism to be held as e-workshop, followed by one on one mentoring by our experts in content production.

The course materials are all available to participants as soon as they enrol and they will need approximately 4 hours to finish the course.

The online course is hosted by Thomson Media lead regional trainer, Aleksandar Manasiev, an experienced journalist and editor of the digital media Vidi Vaka.  It features a special appearance of Glen Mulcahy, the pioneer of mobile journalism who has inspired and championed the growth of mobile journalism across the globe.

The self-paced online courses are available in three languages – Macedonian, Bosnian/Serbian and Albanian. Participants from the region can enrol as of the following dates:

For more information about our online course on mobile journalism please contact Maja Vasic-Nikolic at majavn@thomsonfoundation.org.

The course is organized in the framework of the Strengthening Quality News and Independent Journalism in the Western Balkans and Turkey project, which is implemented by BIRN Hub in partnership with Thomson Media gGmbH (TM), the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ), the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), Central European University (Center for Media, Data and Society at CEU), the Media Association of South-East Europe (MASEE), the Center for Investigative Journalism of Montenegro (CIN CG), the Independent Trade Union of Journalists and Media Workers in Macedonia (SSNM), BIRN Albania and BIRN Serbia.

The Global Forum for Media Development (GFMD)

PARTNER
GFMD, a not-for-profit, Belgian registered organisation, is an international network of around 200 journalism support and media development organisations working across more than 70 countries.

Established in 2005 in Amman, Jordan, and based in Brussels, GFMD’s core value is to support the creation and strengthening of journalism and free, independent, sustainable, and pluralistic news ecosystems. Its main focus is to ensure proper collaboration as well as an exchange of information and experience among its members with a view to creating a strong, independent, and pluralistic media environment, which contributes to the development of empowered societies.

Web: https://gfmd.info/

 

Serbian Authorities Seek Bank Data of Rights Groups, Investigative Media

A department of Serbia’s finance ministry tasked with tackling money laundering and terrorism financing has asked banks to hand over data about the transactions of dozens of individuals and NGOs known for their work on human rights, transparency and exposing corruption.

Journalists and civil society representatives in Serbia have accused the government of trying to silence its critics after it emerged that the finance ministry’s Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering has sought access to bank data dating from January 1, 2019, for 20 individuals and 37 NGOs, including a number of investigative media outlets and high-profile human rights organisations.

The order was first published by TV Newsmax Adria Serbia. It cites the need “to determine whether the listed organisations and individuals have anything to do with terrorist financing or money laundering.”

The list includes Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN, the Centre for Investigative Journalism of Serbia, CINS, Crime and Corruption Reporting Network KRIK, the Novi Sad Journalism School, both of Serbia’s major journalism associations and a host of rights groups including Civic Initiatives, YUCOM, the Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, the Helsinki Committee for Human Right and the Humanitarian Law Centre.

The individuals include a number of BIRN employees, CINS director Branko Cecen, TV Newsmax Adria Serbia head and former BIRN editor Slobodan Georgiev and journalists Biljana Stepanovic and Vukasin Obradovic. Opposition politician Vuk Jeremic is also named.

Cecen told TV Newsmax Adria Serbia that the government, led by the Progressive Party of President Aleksandar Vucic, was “reckoning with its critics”. Zeljko Radovanovic, the head of the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering, said it was simply conducting “regular activities”.

‘Criminalising people’

Civic Initiatives, which was founded by anti-war activists in 1996 to promote democratic values and human rights, called on the government to “immediately stop the abuse of the mechanism for preventing money laundering and terrorist financing in order to intimidate organisations, media and individuals acting as controllers of the government”.

The law, it says, only allows authorities to seek bank data if it suspects an individual or organisation is involved in money laundering or financing of terrorism.

“The confrontation with organisations and critical media in this way is an abuse of the legal mechanism and state resources,” it said.

Milos Nikolic, head of Libertarian club – Libek, which is also on the list, expressed surprise, describing the non-governmental sector in Serbia as one of the most transparent in the country.

“Many of these organisations receive grants through competitions,” he told BIRN. “They cannot spend funds outside the described activities; there are contracts that regulate this relationship, often with very precise budget specifications of costs.”

“I really don’t see how an organisation like Libek or related organisations from the list that operate according to the law, keep proper financial books and have many years of achievements in the field of educational and research work behind them could raise suspicions about money laundering and terrorist financing.”

Georgiev, the head of TV Newsmax Adria Serbia, said the move was “a way of criminalising people”.

“People need to understand that this is what the Administration [for the Prevention of Money Laundering] does when investigating criminals, so now we are all placed in the same basket as criminals,” he told regional broadcaster N1 TV.

“That way you criminalise people when I try to detect crime with my work,” he said. “That Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering has the same donor as BIRN – the European Commission. So I ask the public question: ‘Will the Administration for the Prevention of Money Laundering examine itself’? It’s horrible.”

Are the Public Budgets Misused? Monitoring of State Financing Media Projects

BIRN Serbia
Non-transparent, uncontrolled, and arbitrary allocation of state funds is recognised as one of the most efficient mechanisms of ’soft-censorship’ harming media economic sustainability and, consequently, its independence.

Summary

The long-term objective of the project is transparency and accountability of state financing of media projects and ensuring the quality of public informing. Developed mechanisms of monitoring state budget spending on media will have a positive impact on a manner how the financial resources are allocated ad spent.

Donors: Open Society Foundation Serbia.

Information Sheet

Objectives

BIRN’s advocacy activities focus on public money spending in the media sector and potential corruption and state budgets misuses. Non-transparent, uncontrolled, and arbitrary allocation of state funds is recognised as one of the most efficient mechanisms of ’soft-censorship’ harming media economic sustainability and, consequently, its independence. BIRN, in partnership with IJAS and Slavko Curuvija Foundation implemented the project Public Money for Public Interest and monitored public money spending indicating occurred funds’ misuse. The consortium identified problems which require additional analysis: numerous abuses in the state funding media process (arbitrary selection of commission members, funds allocated to tabloids and media supporting the ruling party, lack of citizens’ participation and scrutiny), accompanied with a low-quality media production; inadequate regulations for individual fund allocations, lack of market and finance analysis before public procurement procedures, increase direct contracts allocation for various media and promotional services directly influencing editorial independence.

Activities

1) Monitoring of public money spending on media production;
2) Report production;
3) Advocacy campaign.

Target Groups

1) Local self-government
2) Ministry of Culture and Information
3) Citizens
4) Media outlets and media associations
5) Civil Society Organisations

Partners

Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia