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State-Of-Play of Investigative Journalism in South East Europe

Investigative journalism is one of the best tools to fight back against organised crime, corruption, and abuse of power. This is especially true in regions like South East Europe where corruption has eroded all aspects of society for decades and other democratic institutions besides an active press remain weak.

In recent years, however, established media outlets have noticeably retreated from quality investigative journalism. Financial pressure and lack of funding are partly to blame, but often a growing timidity to tackle investigations has resulted from the sway of political interests or businessmen close to ruling parties wield over media outlet owners and their editors. Skilled journalists displeased by the conflict of interests and determined to maintain independence have left mainstream outlets to form new investigative reporting centers or to join existing ones.

These centers are flourishing and are responsible for much of the important investigations into corruption at top levels of government: collusion between politics and special interests, bribery, public spending, and theft of national resources.

Not surprisingly, the powerful and influential are striking back against these self-appointed watchdogs. The idea of being held accountable and answerable to informed citizens apprised of their dishonesty and incompetence holds little appeal. So they have worked to turn journalists into public enemies.

There are many cases where investigative reporters in the region are openly harassed by officials who regard them as enemies of the state. Government-controlled media outlets are utilised to scrutinise the private lives of journalists and to denounce or ridicule them. The powerful also harass investigators through the courts with frivolous lawsuits that are nonetheless expensive and time-consuming to fight. And finally, regional reporters have been verbally threatened and physically attacked.

These efforts may be having an effect opposite to what the powerful intend. Journalism except in war has seldom been difficult or dangerous in South East Europe. Instead of compliant silence, the result is that there has never been more investigative journalism.

Journalists have discovered the power of collaboration. Many have joined a growing community of investigative journalists through membership in global networks such as the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ,) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). A number of regional networks, notably the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) and European Investigative Collaborations (EIC), have formed to share risks, resources, and information.

The new unity among colleagues is in large part due to technologies that have enabled secure and efficient communication and exchange. ICIJ and OCCRP have developed collaboration platforms on which journalists compare notes, share findings, and report together in secret and in real time.

Global investigative journalism conferences and numerous European and regional events have given journalists wider opportunities to meet face-to-face, learn to trust each other, and to discover stories together. Criminals long ago figured out how to transcend borders, and journalists in different jurisdictions have found out that they are targeting the same criminal rings if not the same types of schemes. Such cross-border exchanges were not possible before and have led to more sophisticated reporting on subjects like money laundering, smuggling, and arms dealing.

Importantly, journalists in the region have gotten better at their jobs. Training and cross-border exchanges of skills are largely to thank. The BIRN Summer School, as one prominent example, brings some of the best international trainers into the area to teach journalists advanced reporting and new technology skills. There is increased demand for trainers to visit newsrooms and for fellowships that allow journalists to spend time in foreign newsrooms or in the field with experts on particular topics.

South East European journalists are also teaming up with NGOs to gain more attention and clout. The two camps feed each other with information, assist each other in gathering and verifying evidence and then in distributing reports. The collaboration increases the clout of each. These kinds of joint campaigns have been especially well done by investigative reporting center in Serbia (CINS) and Bosnia and Herzegovina (CIN) working on abuse and exploitation of tenders and public spending.

Journalists have focused in on collecting data and creating databases they then open to the public. For the first time citizens are getting detailed glimpses into everything from politician’s assets to spending on special interest subsidies. The painstaking work done by data reporters has become source material for ongoing reporting on governmental and business wrongdoing, putting together information never before collected or put together in one place. Collaborations and data journalism have brought numerous international awards and prizes to the region’s journalists.

The Serbian Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK) received the prestigious Global Data Journalism Award for an online database tracking the assets of Serbian politicians. BIRN Macedonia’s database, Foreign Investments Uncovered, was shortlisted for the same award. CINS in Serbia took a European Press Prize, the European equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, in 2017 for reporting on corrupt officials.

Better writing and storytelling also contributes to increasing attention being given to investigative journalism out of South East Europe. Reporters are increasingly fluent in English as well as their native languages and thus are more easily grabbing international attention. They are also paying attention to new, non-lineal, digital ways to tell stories, to explain complex business machinations in lively and comprehensible ways, and to connect high-level corruption with bad roads, struggling pensioners, and poor school children of their countries. Graphics have gotten colorful and animated. CINS created an interactive game ‘The Good, The Bad and The Corrupt’ to make learning about corruption in public procurement fun. CIN produces short videos about each of its investigations with the aim of hooking Bosnian viewers.

Only a few years ago, South East Europe was a backwater in the world of journalism, the profession decimated by wars and poverty that scattered practitioners and shut down media outlets. In that devastation traditional journalism disappeared, to be replaced with a new cutting edge version that has been shaped by technology and adaptations inspired by international trainers. The tables have turned. South East European journalists are increasingly being seen as experts to copy and learn from.