BIRN and Scoop Hold Conference on Investigative Reporting

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Over 130 journalists from the Balkans and Eastern Europe attended BIRN’s conference on investigative reporting in Budapest on November 9-11.

Organised in cooperation with SCOOP, the Danish-based support structure that gives direct help to investigative reporting, the event brought together the largest gatherings of journalists in the region who specialise in uncovering difficult-to-report stories.

The conference, hosted by Hungary’ Centre for Independent Journalism, provided an opportunity for participants to meet fellow-journalists who have been involved in tracking terrorists, worked undercover in an orphanage or exposed university lecturers who issued false diplomas.

Leading practitioners from the United States and elsewhere in the world shared their experiences in investigative reporting.

Mark Schapiro, Editorial Director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, California, spoke about the role of the media as a watchdog.

Professor Sheila Coronel, Director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, New York, described the challenges facing investigative journalists in her native Philippines and other transition societies across the world.

Hu Shuli, Managing Editor of China’s Caijing business magazine, voted International Editor of the Year (2003) by the World Press Review, focused on the very different problems facing investigative journalists working within her country’s more restrictive media environment, but noted that 95 per cent of topics were no longer taboo.

David Kaplan of the organisation Investigative Reporters and Editors, detailed some of the ground-breaking investigations he had carried out for U.S. News and World Report, about terrorists and the war on terror around the world.

Kaplan’s presentation and a talk by Milorad Ivanovic, deputy Editor-in-chief of Blic daily in Serbia, prompted a lively discussion about the rights and wrongs of using the term „terrorist”.

The arguments pitted supporters of the principle that journalists should avoid using value-laden or emotional language against those who believe that reporters should not be afraid to “call a spade a spade”.

The former was exemplified by the editorial guidelines of the BBC and Reuters, which warn against use of the term on the grounds that “one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter”, while the latter argued that denying that an act of violence against innocent civilians was terrorism was simply pandering to the terrorists’ supporters.

Participants had many opportunities to broaden their knowledge and improve their skills in advanced computer-assisted research, working undercover, investigating terrorism and dealing with the often sophisticated financial aspects of corruption.

“This conference was a much-needed positive contribution to promoting professional standards in investigative reporting in the Balkans and beyond”, Gordana Igric, BIRN’s director said about training event.

Over 20 journalists gave personal accounts of successful investigative reports. These ranged from the impact of gold mining on the environment in Bulgaria to the issuing of fake documents in Macedonia, from the recruitment of Balkan mercenaries for Iraq to the financial machinations of energy suppliers in Romania.

There were lively debates about the ethics of working undercover, protecting the confidentiality of sources, reporting violence and its impact both on audiences and the journalists themselves.

“Many journalists came here believing lack of resources or up-to-date technology made some forms of investigative reporting impossible”, SCOOP’s conference organiser, Henrik Kaufholz, said after the event. “ gone away knowing it’s all possible.