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

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.