Balkan Insight in 2018: Stories That Mattered Most

December 31, 2018
In a busy year, with a lot of events and political crises in the region, we uncovered corruption scandals, networks of far-right groups, secret smuggling routes – and brought our readers important but underreported stories about vulnerable groups in society.

We also reported on the devastating effects that negligence and corruption have on the region’s environment – including on rivers and mountains in Albania, Serbia and Montenegro. Human rights remained the core of BIRN’s reporting – from media control in Serbia to refugee rights and war-crimes impunity and lack of accountability in all the former Yugoslav states.

For the end of the year, in a difficult choice, we highlighted the following stories that we consider mattered most.

1. Unsafe Haven: Life and Death for LGBT Refugees

Shunned, abused, murdered. For many LGBT asylum seekers in Turkey and Greece, every day is a struggle for survival. In January, BIRN revealed the challenges that LGBT refugees face when traveling from the Middle East to Greece. Since the closure of well-trodden refugee routes, following an EU-Turkish deal to stem the flow of people into Europe, they have had to pay smugglers for passage.

Sandy, a 30-year-old transgender refugee from Syria, says her murdered friend was ‘buried like a dog’. Photo: Alexia Tsagkari

What unfolded for many was a drama of fear and dashed hopes as the dream of a better life melted into a nightmare of violence and discrimination. Their stories highlight the psychological and physical traumas that many LGBT refugees encounter as stigma and persecution follow them on their quest to find asylum. They also underline the failure of host countries and the humanitarian system to protect some of the most vulnerable people in the biggest movement of displaced people across Europe since World War II.

Alexia Tsagkari’s report won first prize at the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence and was widely republished in the Western Balkans but also by Austria’s Der Standard, Vice in Greece and other Greek media outlets.

2. Ivanovic Named Radoicic as North Kosovo Dark Ruler

In February, BIRN published the last interview ever conducted with Oliver Ivanovic, a Kosovo Serb leader murdered in early January in the town of North Mitrovica by unknown assassins. He named Milan Radoicic – a debt collector and truck owner close to Serbia’s ruling party, later also a politician – as a key figure in the intimidating system of power in mainly Serbian northern Kosovo.

Ivanovic asked BIRN to keep that part of the interview off the record, fearing possible retaliation, but we published it after his death, believing it could contribute to the investigation. Radoicic is currently wanted by the Kosovo authorities in connection with Ivanovic murder case.

3. Toxic Taps: Arsenic in Water Stirs Cancer Fears

In March, BIRN revealed that almost a million people in Serbia, Croatia and Hungary are exposed to carcinogenic drinking water whose arsenic levels are above the legal limit. Milos Stanic’s story sparked heated debate in communities in Serbia and Croatia, including protests, as officials promised significant investments to enable water purification. The story was showcased by the European Data Journalism Network, together with an interactive map that showed the arsenic values in all affected municipalities.

Kikinda resident Jasminka Popov drinks from a public ‘eco pipe’ supplying clean water. Photo: Nenad Mihajlovic

In its elaboration, it says: “Data and investigative journalism can really make a difference in countries where the levels of authorities’ transparency and accountability are not too high. This is especially important where people’s health is at stake. In addition, the article is a good example of combination of data analysis with field reporting. It is also notable for its transnational character, both in terms of the object of investigation and of the languages in which the story is published.”

4. British Nationalist Trains Serb Far-Right for ‘Online War’

When militant Christian campaigner Jim Dowson was banned from Hungary in April 2017 for posing a “danger to national security”, he was able to protest his innocence – and even appeal for funds for his legal defence – across a sprawling network of websites and social media pages that dwarfs many mainstream media outlets and political parties.

Jim Dowson presenting a KTI video, on the Bulgarian-Turkish border in 2016 with groups dubbed “migrant hunters”. KTI donated equipment to some of these groups Photo: Print screen YouTube

In May, we collaborated with the BBC to reveal that, at the centre of this lucrative web of “patriotic” sites is the Knights Templar International, KTI, portal, which is named after the famous medieval Christian crusaders and is closely tied to Dowson, although he denies having any official role in the organisation.

Its jokey memes, nationalist videos and far-right material are shared across 14 Facebook pages, which have earned 2.5 million “likes” from the social network’s users – including three serving British MPs, this investigation found.

In October, Facebook took down at least 14 pages identified in the BIRN and BBC collaboration as linked to the Knights Templar International, KTI.

5. UK Missed Chance to Stop Suspect Bosnian Bullet Deal

The UK authorities suspected that almost 30 million Bosnian-made bullets sold to Saudi Arabia would end up in the wrong hands, but failed to warn Sarajevo before the shipment had flown, we revealed in June.

The deal was brought to the UK’s attention because two British-based brokers had requested – and were eventually refused – licences to mediate the Bosnia-Saudi deal.

 In May 2015, photos emerged of what appears to be Serbian-made mortar shells which had been airdropped by the Saudi-led coalition to is proxies in Yemen (via the Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism)

As a result of our investigation, the British parliament’s committee on arms export controls requested internal correspondence on the shipment of ammunition from Bosnia to Saudi Arabia. The committee said it would write a formal letter outlining the information it needs as part of an inquiry into UK arms licences issued in 2016.

During 2018, we also extensively reported about Balkans arms and weapons spotted in conflict zones, including the Central African Republic, Cameroon and Yemen.

6. Flying Blind: Negligence, Nepotism and Graft at Kosovo Airport

In July, we published a story about Kosovo’s only international airport that revealed allegations of nepotism, corruption and negligence that have led, among other things, to repeated power cuts in the airport.

Kosovo’s international airport. Photo: PIA “Adem Jashari” Limak Kosova/Wikimedia/CC BY-SA 4.0

After this story was published Kosovo Police began an investigation into the findings revealed in it by the two whistleblowers, who they invited for an interview.

The two whistleblowers who spoke with Jeta Xharra about the nepotism, corruption and negligence at the airport have never been allowed to resume work as deputy directors of Kosovo’s Air Navigation Service Agency, ANSA, under this government. However, a new law on whistleblowers that awaits approval in Kosovo’s parliament is designed to offer more protection to future whistleblowers.

7. For Serbian Journalists, Obedience is the Norm

In August, we spoke with journalists in Serbia who described how censorship – and self-censorship – had become rife under the all-powerful President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic.

Fearing for their jobs, they said journalists routinely acquiesce to the demands – brazen or benign – of government spin-doctors or compliant media directors and owners. They operate in a world in which media ownership is opaque, pay is poor and job security almost non-existent.

 illustration “Programme”: Corax

The government controls major advertising budgets through state-run firms and Vucic’s ruling Serbian Progressive Party oversees a system of political patronage that some argue surpasses even that of Slobodan Milosevic’s Socialists at the height of their power in the 1990s.

A proliferation of broadcasters and newspapers, often tools of politicians or businessmen and designed only to promote personal interests, has driven down quality and pay, while the government has a major influence on advertising revenues thanks to its control of big state enterprises.

Politically-affiliated media advertising agencies mean the ruling parties also get a say over where private companies place their adverts as well. The result is collusion between press and politics, traded favours and a generation of journalists cowed into toeing the line.

This year, Serbia fell 10 places to 76th place on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the Reporters Without Borders watchdog, which cited an “alarming number of attacks on journalists” that went unpunished, “aggressive smear campaigns” by pro-government media against investigative journalists and “collusion” between politicians and media.

8. ‘New World Order’: The ‘Natural Family’ Franchise Goes Global

First gay marriage, then liberal democracy… As global ultra-conservative movements bring their war over values to the Balkans, autocrats are paying attention.

Claudia Ciobanu travelled to Bucharest, Warsaw and Brussels to reveal how a little-known group called the Coalition for Family collected three million signatures to trigger a referendum in Romania.

 Romanian men hold Christian icons during March of Normality, an event organised by Noua Dreapta, an ultranationalist far-right movement in Romania and Moldova. Photo by Mihai Stoica

Although Romania’s civil code already forbids gay marriage, the coalition persuaded many people that legalisation to permit it was just around the corner. Once gay couples were legally married, they argued, what would stop them from adopting and “converting” children to homosexuality?

Made up of more than 40 local associations, the coalition depicted itself as a grassroots protector of Romanian traditional values. But far from being a home-grown initiative, the coalition in fact forms part of a worldwide socially conservative movement dedicated to rolling back more than gay marriage, rights groups and academics say. From banning civil partnerships and abortion to assisted reproduction and sex education in schools, the movement is pushing to change laws and policies it sees as undermining what it calls “the natural family”.

And it is getting organised. The investigation by BIRN revealed how a network of ultra-conservative activists, lawyers and consultants is sharing strategies and resources across borders.

The movement draws inspiration and expertise from sources far removed from voting booths and church bulletin boards in the Balkans. These include US evangelical groups close to Donald Trump’s White House and Russian oligarchs with ties to the Kremlin, according to insider documents and media reports.

The story, which was also published by the Nation, won first prize at our Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence.

9. Turks Fleeing a Crackdown Find Haven in Albania 

Dozens of Turks endangered by their affiliation with the man accused of mounting a failed coup against President Recep Tayyip Erdogan have found haven in the Western Balkans.

But “brotherly” ties between Ankara and Balkan leaders keep them on their toes. Despite the concerns of human rights activists and lawyers, some Balkan countries like Kosovo and Serbia have extradited these opponents of the Erdogan regime to Turkey. Other, like Albania and Bosnia, are resisting the relentless pressure from Ankara.

 Esin and Huseyin Sakinmaz. Photo: BIRN

Over several months, BIRN interviewed a number of followers of exiled cleric Fethullah Gulen who had escaped from Turkey to the Western Balkans. Wanted in their homeland, often shunned by their own families, they have not yet sought asylum and fear for their security, given the considerable political and economic clout that Turkey wields in the Balkans.

10. Donbass Brothers: How Serbian Fighters Were Deployed in Ukraine

In the last month of 2018 we revealed that a number of Serbs had carried out combat and counter-intelligence missions for eight pro-Russia paramilitary units in eastern Ukraine, including the notorious Wagner group of mercenaries.

 Photo: courtesy of Stevan Milosevic

The investigation, widely republished in the Balkans and Ukraine, was last in a series of articles revealing the role of Balkan fighters in the battlefield in the East.

We also revealed that 62 citizens of Moldova, mainly from the breakaway region of Transnistria, have also been fighting for pro-Russian separatists in eastern Ukraine. The story broke our record from Moldova in terms of the number of republications – being taken by 142 media outlets.

11. Last Despatches

2018 will also be remembered as a year that saw a rise in attacks on freedom of speech and on journalists. According to the International Federation of Journalists, 94 journalists and media workers were killed this year in the world. That made us remember also the journalists killed in the former Yugoslavia and their families, seeking justice and accountability.

Serbian opposition editor and publisher Slavko Curuvija, killed in Belgrade pn April 11, 1999. Photo: Courtesy of the Slavko Curuvija Foundation

Work on our database of killed journalists, Last Despatches, led us to a striking statistic – of 139 journalists killed, only in one case did the authorities find those responsible. Some were killed while reporting from the front lines of conflicts. Others were gunned down in the streets of their hometowns, or killed in their own offices. In the hysteria of nationalist unrest, some saw these journalists as enemies who had reported inconvenient truths.

The lack of convictions shows that impunity for violence against reporters and other media workers has persisted, decades since the Balkan wars of the 1990s ended.

BIRN’s Last Despatches series tells the stories of some of these reporters, and highlights how attempts to secure justice for them have not yet succeeded – mainly because of official negligence or disinterest, or sometimes because their deaths still raise questions about people with connections to the highest levels of power in the Balkans today.

Marija Ristic