Meet the People Behind BIRN: Gordana Andric

Gordana Andric is executive editor at BIRN Serbia.

She first joined BIRN as a journalist in 2010 and later worked as the managing editor of BIRN’s flagship English-language website Balkan Insight.

Before embarking on a journalistic career, she was preparing for university entrance exams to study history and psychology. She says she doesn’t know why she eventually opted for journalism, but is glad she did. Recently, she won the prestigious Dejan Anastasijevic Investigative Award and received a special commendation from the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia.

  1. Did you always know that you wanted to be a journalist?

You caught me off guard – I can’t even remember why I decided to study journalism. I remember I was also preparing for entrance exams in history and psychology, but I don’t know how and why I eventually opted for journalism. I am, though, glad I did.

  1. You and our colleague Aleksandar Djordjevic were recently awarded first prize at the prestigious Dejan Anastasijevic Investigative Awards for your reporting on a network of fake NGOs that got millions of euros from the state budget that were supposed to help vulnerable groups in Serbia. Can you tell us more about this investigation, which you worked on for years?

Yes, it was literally years in the making, as my colleagues from BIRN and our partner organization, Civic Initiative, have been monitoring state transactions to civil society for years. About three years ago, they were alarmed to see that unusually high amounts were being awarded to the same group of completely anonymous organisations over and over again. We started writing about them soon after and eventually, last year obtained reports and uncovered data revealing that a network of fake NGOs that got millions of euros from the state budget, envisaged to help vulnerable groups in Serbia, was linked to Aleksandra Camagic, a senior Belgrade official and close associate of the Belgrade mayor, for almost a decade. The network was submitting fabricated financial reports and pretending it had organised mass lectures across the country, mainly on school and domestic violence. The story is based on an enormous amount of data that we have been sorting for quite some time with colleagues Lada Vucenovic, Tara Petrovic, Dejana Stevkovski and Ivana Teofilovic. Although we spent an unhealthy amount of time in Excel sheets, I really enjoyed working on this one, because I was spending all this time with some of the funniest and wittiest women I‘ve met.

  1. This investigation’s publication had a major impact on the Serbian public, but the government has still not responded. Did you expect this lack of reaction by the Serbian authorities? How does it make you feel?

The instances when someone either took political responsibility and resigned or has been prosecuted are almost non-existent, so I knew this would not be an exception. While two prosecution offices have opened some sort of investigation into the case, I do not have high hopes someone would actually be held responsible. But I am ok with writing simply to expose wrongdoings; it’s like a testament of time – regardless of how politicians are trying to paint themselves and our reality, we are here to show and preserve how people actually lived and what this state really was.

But in this specific case, I do believe our work can bring a change in practice. Pressure from the public and international donors – who provide part of the fund to the Serbian government – can enforce the state to award money to proper civil society organisations for projects that can bring change.

  1. BIRN also received special commendations from the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia for the story ‘Domestic Violence Against Children: Invisible Victims’. It was written by Dragana Prica Kovacevic, Teodora Curcic and yourself in collaboration with media outlets 021, Juzne vesti, Bujanovacke, Glas Sumadije and Ozon. What do awards like these mean to you?

It’s nice to get praise from and with people you respect and whose work you hold in high regard. For this specific story, I was quite proud of the whole team – a group of absolutely awesome women – who put it together. What makes this commendation a bit more special than any other is that it went to a story done in collaboration with local media. Dragana, whose byline stands first, is working for 021, local media from the Serbian city of Novi Sad. Journalists from local media and their achievements are often overlooked while facing complex pressures and obstacles in their work.

  1. As we can see, you work on various topics. Which do you prefer? And which of your stories are you proud of?

In the last decade, I wrote quite rarely, as I primarily work as an editor. This also means I work on all the topics my team is interested in covering. As a newsroom, our policy is to cover stories that are in the public interest, so I do believe I am rather privileged to be able to work only on stories both my colleagues and I find important. However, for me personally, the stories of the most vulnerable are the stories I would invest most.

  1. What do you like most in your job, and what is the most challenging thing?

As I mentioned in the previous answer – I think it’s quite a privilege to be able to work day in and day out on something relevant (or at least relevant to you personally), so I would say that privilege and the great people I spend my time at work are what I like most. The most challenging things are all the obstacles we face in obtaining information and answers from people or institutions that are actually legally obliged to provide those answers… One of the rather frustrating things is how normalised these difficulties are – it’s normalised for the institutions to ghost journalistic questions and for politicians to call us liars, disregard our work and ignore findings.

  1. What would you advise young journalists from the region – what is most important when it comes to investigative journalism?

Preparation, pre-research and persistence. In other words, I think it’s crucial to learn and read as much as you can about the topic you are researching, and once you have a rather clear picture, it can take quite some persistence to get all the data and answers one might need. But in our line of work, it’s usually worth it.

Gordana Andric

Gordana Andric is a Belgrade-based journalist and editor.

She first joined BIRN as a journalist in 2010 and later worked as a managing editor of BIRN’s English language website Balkan Insight.

After spending four years with BBC World Service, she now works with BIRN Serbia.

Andric has managed teams of journalists, investigative reporters and editors from more than ten countries across the Balkans and Black Sea region.

Millions Spent on Public Competitions Poorly Controlled, BIRN Serbia Report Reveals

Serbia spent millions of euros on thousands of projects with little control over spending, no evaluation of projects’ impacts and no oversight if projects were implemented as agreed, a new report by BIRN Serbia shows.

Serbia’s state institutions and local governments distributed around 6.5 billion dinars [€55 million] to finance 13,407 projects carried out by 7,788 civil society organisations, companies and associations in 2023.

The data are published in BIRN Serbia’s new annual report “Publicly about Public Competitions” that highlights some of the key issues and shortcomings of state project financing processes.

“State funds are one of the main sources of financing for civil society, and many [organisations] are financed with small sums of money. What we recognise as systematic problem is the lack of evaluation – we almost never see reports on how the money was spent and whether it was spent as intended,” said Tanja Maksic, program coordinator of BIRN Serbia.

This is the fifth year in which BIRN Serbia and Gradjanske inicijative (Civic Initiatives), together with a team of 16 researchers from local civil society organizations, have been monitoring the spending of state funds on projects in four fields – media, civil society, culture and youth.

The report is based on data collected in a database that provides insight into state spending on projects in these four sectors between 2019 and 2023. This is currently the largest public database of this type.

In procedural terms, the report says, the biggest problems are: the lack of evaluation of projects’ accomplishments; lack of audits of narrative and financial reports; non-standardised decisions on allocation of funds; an inadequate appeals mechanism that cannot prevent abuses; and non-transparent work of committees that decide on the allocation of money.

Zarko Stepanovic, from the Ministry for Human and Minority Rights and Social Dialogue, said an analysis and amendment of the regulations on public financing of CSO projects is expected in 2024 and 2025. “This process should be completed by the end of 2025,” said Stepanovic, adding that he expects that many shortcomings will be addressed and amended with new regulations.

BIRN’s research into 396 organisations that received more than one million dinars from state ministries revealed that a third of them are so-called phantom organisations, meaning that almost no information can be found about them or their projects. The same research showed that 27 organisations meet one or more criteria for qualifying them as „governmental non-governmental organizations” (GONGOs).

These GONGOs have ties to the ruling parties and government or support their agenda through their actions.

The financing of phantom organisations and GONGOs, a trend BIRN has been following for years, endangers the financial sustainability of legitimate organisations that are active in their communities and provide real services to citizens, often members of some of the most vulnerable groups, the report says.

Ministries, provincial secretariats and local governments are obliged to finance projects through public calls, in order to help local civic society or companies to implement tasks and activities in public interest that the state cannot implement on its own.

In addition to the media, civil society, culture, and youth, the state also finances many other fields, such as education or sports. There are no centralised data on the total amount that Serbia distributes annually through public calls.

BIRN Serbia Presents Fresh Media Ownership Database

New data on ownership of 43 media with the largest audience share in Serbia, published by BIRN Serbia and Global Media Registry (GMR) reveals a high risk of ownership and audience concentration and political control.

BIRN Serbia and Global Media Registry (GMR) have presented data on media ownership in Serbia. The database, Media Ownership Monitor Serbia, MOM, offers information on media, their publishers and individual owners in English and Serbian.

Serbia is one of 26 countries included in media ownership monitoring; this was the second time the monitoring was done in the country. This year, MOM databases have been published by BIRN in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kosovo, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Serbia.

Nafisa Hasanova, head of research at Global Media Registry, said that the MOM is an excellent diagnostic tool.

“This is an X-ray of a media system. We are not demonising any particular publication but are trying to understand the risks of different media players and their closeness with the state and regulators. This is a good starting point for local actors to introduce or launch changes and see if media have enough resources for media pluralism in a democratic society,” Hasanova said, presenting the database in Belgrade.

The research is based on open-source information and official sources. It shows that, in Serbia, the public broadcaster RTS and the media companies Pink, Kopernikus, United Media and Maksim Media are the source of information for 90 per cent of people, and that many of them have significant roles in different fields – television, radio, print and online.

Presenting the media pluralism indicators, Tanja Maksic, BIRN Serbia’s project manager, said the fact most of them are in red clearly shows that political control over media in Serbia is high.

“The only indicator in green is net neutrality, as we luckily live in a part of the world where there are no internet shut-downs or control,” said Makic.

She added that a new indicator, included into monitoring this year, reveals that less that 30 per cent of managing roles in Serbian media are held by women.

The Media Ownership Monitor, or MOM, has been developed as a mapping tool to create a publicly available, continuously updated database that lists owners of all relevant mass media outlets – press, radio, television sectors and online media.

The MOM sheds light on the risks to media pluralism caused by media ownership concentration.

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

In 2019, the project grew into the Global Media Registry, GMR, an independent non-profit organisation registered under German law. In Western Balkan countries, GMR cooperates with BIRN. The project was co-funded by the EU in 2023.

Serbia Buying More Video Surveillance Equipment, BIRN Report Reveals

State institutions and public enterprises are increasingly buying video surveillance systems, including equipment with face recognition and detection features, BIRN Serbia reveals in its new report based on public procurement data analysis.

BIRN Serbia’s analysis of public procurements conducted in 2022 and 2023 found 61 purchases of surveillance equipment and softwares, worth over 17 million euros.

The findings were presented in a new report, “Public Procurements of Surveillance Equipment: The Thin Line between Security and Privacy“.

“Procurements of video surveillance equipment are by far the most numerous. There are 48 such contracts with a total value of over 12.8 million euros. The purchasers of this equipment are local government units (19 procurements), public and public utility companies (22 procurements), hospitals (3), and correctional institutions (2),“ the report states.

A sample revealed 13 public procurements of equipment with the capability of biometric face recognition. Such procurements, emphasized the analysis, not only violate the right to privacy but also contradict Serbia’s laws.

„In addition to local government, some less expected entities have procured face-recognition equipment – elementary and high schools in Požega, a hospital in Sombor, Belgrade markets and the Directorate for Urban Planning and Construction of Belgrade,” the report states.

In addition to video surveillance, institutions also procured cryptographic devices, such as the Office for Information and eGovernment. The analysis of public procurements revealed two procurements for equipment that enabled monitoring and control of employees.

The report states that the Administration for Joint Affairs of Provincial Bodies purchased personnel record software „which includes personal information of employees” and envisages gathering health conditions, chronic illnesses and religious beliefs.

The largest supplier of video surveillance equipment was the company Maccina Security. During the research period, this company concluded 14 contracts for the procurement of video surveillance equipment, totaling almost one billion dinars.

According to the Public Procurement Portal, Maccina Security signed at least 103 contracts with state institutions, local government units and public enterprises from October 2020 to now.

„The analysis also noted several problems in the public procurement procedures, primarily the lack of consistent application of the General Vocabulary of Public Procurement, with public institutions and companies ordering different types of goods or services under the same code. Secondly, the lack of competitiveness, as only one bidder appeared in 75 per cent of the analyzed procurements,“ the report states.

BIRN Serbia Report Highlights Privacy Rights Violations in Media

The majority of the most-read online media in Serbia regularly publish personal data of individuals they report on, violating their right to privacy, a new BIRN Serbia report reveals.

The latest BIRN monitoring report „Invasion of privacy: Analysis of media coverage” shows that privacy rights violations in media reporting are common and that journalists often base their reports on personal data.

Behind such widespread violations of privacy are various interests, from editorial policies and tabloid approaches to content processing, to the demands of the digital environment favouring speed, clickability and content virality.

The report says it’s particularly concerning that a large number of privacy violations came from state institutions.

In addition to monitoring privacy violations in the regular media, the report presents a special case study analysing privacy violations in reporting on the school mass killings that shook Serbia in May last year.

Key findings include:

  • The more media outlets produce, the more frequently they violate privacy rights.
  • Privacy rights are most commonly violated during coverage of murders and other forms of violence, especially domestic violence, as well as searches for missing persons.
  • In almost half of the analysed articles, personal data is found in the headlines, accompanied by sensationalism and frequent use of amplifiers, ensuring an emotional audience reaction and clickability.
  • The most commonly published personal information include: full names, health status, home addresses, information about past crimes, etc.
  • During 2023, one of the groups whose privacy rights were most often violated were minors.
  • Media that breach privacy rights often do not put bylines on these articles or photos. Access to numerous personal data on social media profiles also contributes to the identification of victims and suspects.

The report covers seven media outlets that previous studies by civil society organisations and the Press Council have found to frequently violate media laws and journalistic ethical codes.

These are: Alo, Blic, Informer, Kurir, Nova, Novosti, and Telegraf. All these media outlets are among the top 10 in terms of visits (source: Gemius Audience), and so have a significant influence on public opinion.

BIRN Serbia Holds Training Course on Reporting Digital Rights

During the three-day course, the participants gained new knowledge and acquired skills to report on digital rights and issues related to the violation of freedoms in the online sphere in Serbia.

BIRN Serbia brought together 13 journalists and representatives of civil society organisations at Serbia’s Divcibare mountain resort from October 26 to 28 to help them improve their skills in investigating and reporting on digital rights violations, online manipulations, propaganda in the digital arena and the use and misuse of artificial intelligence.

“According to a 2022 survey by the Freedom House, 64 per cent of countries violated digital rights. This included censorship, surveillance, and restrictions on online access. Media play a vital role in holding governments and corporations accountable for digital right violations. By reporting on these violations, media can raise awareness, put pressure on decision-makers, and support victims.

“However, many journalists lack the training and resources to report on digital right violations effectively. This is due to a number of factors, including the complexity of the issues, the lack of access to information, and the threat of reprisal,” said Milorad Ivanovic, BIRN Serbia’s editor-in-chief.

“Training media in digital right violations is essential for ensuring that these violations are reported on accurately and comprehensively. This training should cover topics such as the different types of digital right violations, the impact of these violations on individuals and society, and how to report on them safely and responsibly,” he added.

Mila Bajic from the SHARE Foundation opened the training course, introducing participants to the concept of digital rights, explaining what these rights cover, how they are protected and how they are violated.

Tijana Uzelac from BIRN Serbia presented participants with BIRN’s database of digital rights violations in Serbia and the region, and BIRN journalist Aleksa Tesic spoke about how he investigated the dangers of biometric surveillance and internet scams.

Ivanovic, along with BIRN journalists Miodrag Markovic and BIRN Serbia executive editor Gordana Andric, gave practical advice on how to use open databases, fact-check, apply OSINT methods and artificial intelligence.

“A 2022 report by the Global Disinformation Index found that 80 per cent of the world’s population is exposed to high levels of disinformation online. Journalists must be trained to do fact-checking effectively in order to combat online manipulations and ensure that their reporting is accurate and trustworthy, and fact-checking has become one of the necessary tools for journalists to fulfil its role of providing reliable information to the public,” said Andric.

BIRN journalist Jelena Zoric shared her experiences of reporting on stories based on correspondence via encrypted communication, and journalist Andjela Milivojevic spoke about how she reported on revenge pornography.

On the last day of the training course, Aleksandra Krstic, a professor at Belgrade University’s Faculty of Political Sciences, and Marija Babic, a lawyer at the Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia, talked about digital security for journalists and introduced participants to the protection mechanisms and legal framework that regulate the security of journalists in the digital arena in Serbia.

Sonja Kovacev, social media manager at BIRN Serbia, along with Ivanovic, then gave practical advice about digital security and finding a balance between freedom and security on social networks.

The training course was organised as part of the ‘Reporting on Digital Rights and Freedoms’ project implemented by several BIRN offices in the region and funded by the European Union.

BIRN’s Sasa Dragojlo Receives Prestigious ’Dusan Bogavac’ Award

Created in memory of Yugoslav-era journalist Dusan Bogavac, the annual award is given in recognition of ethics and courage in journalism.

BIRN journalist Sasa Dragojlo was awarded the prestigious ‘Dusan Bogavac’ Journalism Award for Ethics and Courage at a ceremony on Thursday, October 26, at the Belgrade Media Centre.

Zeljko Bodrozic, president of the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, IJAS, said Dragojlo had been recognised for “courageously and professionally investigating and informing the public about important topics of general interest for years, such as the corrupt business of selling ammunition production machines, the war between smugglers in the north of Vojvodina, money laundering through the construction of residential and commercial buildings throughout Serbia, and the recent armed conflict in Banjska.”

Accepting the award, Dragojlo said it was “the best I have received in my short but intense career in journalism”.

The honour, created in memory of the prominent Yugoslav-era journalist Dusan Bogavac, has been awarded by the Dusan Bogavac Foundation and the IJAS since 1991, the year after Bogavac’s death.

“Dusan Bogavac is known for the solidarity fund and, considering the situation in the media in Serbia and globally, I think that solidarity is the key for us,” Dragojlo said.

“Few of us do this job professionally and well, and we need to stick together, considering that no one will help us survive in this job and that professional media are not required in this world,” he told the audience in the Belgrade Media Centre. “We have to fight for our place.”

Dragojlo dedicated the award to “my colleagues from BIRN”.

Bogavac’s sister, Branka Bogavac, said: “We need to emphasise the importance of consistent, courageous, and moral journalists who, with their unwavering engagement, not only save the profession’s image but set an example for all of humanity”.

“That is why I sincerely believe this year’s laureate, investigative journalist Sasa Dragojlo, will also be classified among such personalities and bright examples.”

Besides Bodrozic, the jury members were previous award winners Dragana Peco and Snezana Congradin, as well as Branka Bogavac and Filip Mladenovic on behalf of the Dusan Bogavac Foundation.

BIRN’s Sasa Dragojlo Wins ‘Dusan Bogavac’ Award for Ethics and Courage

Sasa Dragojlo, a BIRN journalist, won this year’s “Dusan Bogavac” Journalism Award for Ethics and Courage, which has been awarded by the Dusan Bogavac Foundation and the Independent Journalists’ Association of Serbia, IJAS, since 1991.

The announcement on the award said: “Sasa Dragojlo has been courageously and professionally investigating and informing the public about important topics of general interest for years, such as the corrupt business of selling ammunition production machines, the war of smugglers in the north of Vojvodina, money laundering through the construction of residential and commercial buildings throughout Serbia, and the recent armed conflict in Banjska.”

“I am really happy with the ‘Dusan Bogavac’ award I got since I was nominated by a jury made up of really respectable colleagues. It was a shock, since I was unaware it was happening; I learned about it half an hour before it got published. When I see all the people who got it before me, it is really an honour and a privilege.

“Working hard in a stressful job like journalism, every now and then I feel depressed, asking whether it is worth living a poor life with many pressures without much real effect in changing the deeply corrupted societies we live in. Awards like this are at least a glimpse of hope that someone cares and that our work matters,” Dragojlo said.

The jury members were previous award winners Dragana Peco and Snezana Congradin, as well as Branka Bogavac and Filip Mladenovic on behalf of the Dusan Bogavac Foundation, and Zeljko Bodrozic, president of the IJAS.

Recently, Dragojlo won third prize as part of a team of BIRN and the Centre for investigative journalism of Serbia, CINS, for an investigation into Serbian arms exports to Myanmar following the army coup in that country. He also won third prize in the EU investigative awards for a story on a Serbian police translator who led a people-smuggling gang.

As Dragojlo stated: “When I got my degree at the Faculty of Political Science, the future in journalism was not so clear. I wrote columns, essays and free-form prose in multiple online media but could not live off it, so I worked multiple ‘real jobs’ – from call centres to warehouses. I thought I would never find a media that wanted me, had enough money, or where I wanted to work (I would not want to work in 90 per cent of the media; a construction job looked more attractive). But in April 2015, I got a chance to work for BIRN, and since then, I have never quit this nutjob profession.”

The “Dusan Bogavac” Award ceremony will be held on Thursday, October 26, in Belgrade.

EU Awards for Best Investigative Journalism in Serbia Announced

On September 28, in the EU info centre in Belgrade, the winners of the EU Awards for Investigative Awards for Investigative Journalism in Serbia were announced.

KRIK, CINS and a BIRN team of Jelena Zorić and Vuk Cvijić were selected from many colleagues as this year’s winners for their stories published in 2022.

The jury consisted of Tamara Skrozza a journalist who has worked for radio, press and TV productions and engaged with a number of different media outlets; Snjezana Milivojevic, a professor of public opinion and media studies who chaired doctoral and master’s programs at Bayan College in Oman and the University of Belgrade; and Sasa Lekovic, President of the Investigative Journalism Centre, based in Croatia, a reporter and editor and a licensed investigative reporting trainer and lecturer.

The first prize went to the KRIK team (Stevan Dojčinović, Bojana Jovanović, Milica Vojinović and Ana Adžić) for their stories on the Darko Šarić clan.

The second prize was shared between CINS and BIRN. The CINS team (Stefan Marković, Teodora Ćurčić, Jovana Tomić, Ivana Milosavljević and Vladimir Kostić) was awarded for their stories on political party financing.

Jelena Zorić from BIRN was awarded for her stories about medical malpractice in the sensitive area of psychiatric health.

The third prize went to Vuk Cvijić of NIN for his investigations into the connections between criminal circles and state officials, and CINS/BIRN (Dina Đorđević, Marija Ristić, Jovana Tomić and Saša Dragojlo) for “Paths of Serbian weapons”. Part of this series is the investigation “Serbian Rockets Sent to Myanmar Even After 2021 Coup”, a cross-border collaboration between BIRN, CINS, Myanmar Witness and Lighthouse Reports, originally commissioned at the BIRN Summer School of Investigative Reporting in Dubrovnik in 2021.

Manuel Munteanu, Head of Press and Info and Deputy Head of Political Section of the EU Delegation in Serbia, gave a speech highlighting the importance of independent media and extending congratulations to the winners.

Davor Marko from Thomson Media introduced the project and the importance of the EU awa for supporting investigative journalism in the Western Balkans and Türkiye. Snjezana Milivojevic, representing the jury, provided a detailed explanation of the award selection process and announced the recipients of each awarded position.

More information can be found here.

The EU Award for Investigative Journalism 2023 is part of the project “Strengthening Quality Journalism in Western Balkans and Türkiye II”. This aims to recognise and promote outstanding achievements in investigative journalism as well as improve the visibility of quality journalism in the Western Balkans and Türkiye.

The project is funded by the European Union and it is implemented by a consortium composed of Balkan Investigative Reporting Network – BIRN Hub, Central European University (CEU) – Hungary, the Association of Journalists (AJ) – Türkiye, Thomson Media (TM) – Germany, University Goce Delcev Stip (UGD) – North Macedonia, The Independent Union of Journalists and Media Workers (SSNM) – North Macedonia, Media Association of South-East Europe (MASE) – Montenegro, and Balkan Investigative Reporting Network Kosovo (BIRN Kosovo).