Balkan FOI laws empower watchdogs

Liberal information regimes have made possible journalistic exposés such as this story published in Kosovo.

There’s much pessimism these days about the state of the Balkan media. In a recent panel held at the BIRN Summer School in Mavrovo, Macedonia, Balkan editors said the noose was tightening around the region’s press, citing as examples rising financial pressures on media owners and threats of layoffs of independent journalists. Yet at the same time, some outstanding investigative reporting is being done in the Balkans, thanks not only to a growing and increasingly savvy community of watchdog journalists but also to the robust freedom-of-information laws that many countries in the region have adopted in the last decade.

A global rating of right-to-information laws ranked Serbia, Slovenia, Croatia, Macedonia and Kosovo among the countries with the best FOI laws in the world, and many journalists are taking advantage of the openness to do groundbreaking reporting. It helps that in some countries – Serbia and Slovenia were cited as particularly good examples – reform-minded information commissioners have interpreted the laws liberally, releasing documents that would not have come to light in previous regimes.

In Slovenia, for example, the blockbuster “In the Name of the State” trilogy exposed the illegal arms trade involving Slovenia and neighboring countries during the Yugoslav wars. Journalists Matej Šurc and Blaž Zgaga spent three years researching the project, which benefitted from the release of 6,000 pages of documents obtained through the Slovene Freedom of Information Act. They exposed how weapons from the former Yugoslav People’s Army warehouses were seized and sold and also how Croatia and Bosnia and Herzogovina obtained arms and munitions from overseas despite a UN embargo. 

Elsewhere in the region, reporters are using FO laws to expose corruption and organized crime. At the Summer School, Kosovo-based journalist Lawrence Marzouk showed how reporters have found evidence of malfeasance in the expense receipts of officials, tender records, the correspondence of government ministers and other documents.

Marzouk has written the helpful Follow the Paper Trail guide for Kosovar journalists, which provides practical tips on making information requests from government bodies. It also has case studies describing how public records were used for investigations. My favorite is the story of overpriced and underperforming fire engines that were purchased by the city of Kosovo. Marzouk and his team filed an FOI request and obtained documents related to the purchase from the Office of the Auditor General. They found evidence of a rigged and collusive tender that explained how Kosovo ended up buying fire engines at 30 times what they actually cost:

Among the documents, we found a list of the firms which had submitted tenders for the fire engine. A search of these businesses, combined with a search of other contracts they had been awarded, began to reveal a worrying pattern – many phone numbers, addresses and names were common to all four bidding companies. We then requested all documents related to the tender process from the municipality. After much delay, the municipality released most of the information, confirming our suspicion – the four bidding companies were so tightly related to each other that there was a serious risk of price fixing. Our information has now been passed to the Anti-corruption Agency.

Another story for the Prishtina Insight was based on tender documents from the Kosovo Ministry of Transport and Post-Telecommunications. This one one involved some data crunching: the reporters got a list of every tender the ministry held since 2007 and sorted the companies that won the most lucrative contracts during that period. They then went to Kosovo’s official register of businesses to find out who owned those firms, the dates of the companies’ creation and the size of their workforces. They found that companies owned by friends and relatives of the transport minister got some of the biggest and  most lucrative projects. Some of these companies, it turned out, did not have a track record in the lines of business for which they got contracts. But all of them profited immensely from Kosovo’s massive, foreign-funded public works program.

All over the Balkans, there is much agonizing about the corrosive impact of crime and corruption on media and democracy. Yet there are small triumphs. Steven Dojcinovic of the The Overseas Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) spoke about using corporate and land registers to trace the assets of organized crime figures. Many of these  registers are online as part of the information reforms that Balkan countries have been required to implement during the democratic transition. (Links to these registers can be found in Digging Deeper, a manual for investigative reporters in the Balkan. Legal Leaks, published by Access-Info Europe, is a really useful guide to using FOI laws in the 40 countries of the Council of Europe. )

The OCCRP, which covers the Balkans and the former Soviet states, has also used records obtained from FOI requests to write trailblazing exposés. One such story request revealed how the Serbian Ministry of the Interior issued gun permits to a security firm associated with a well-known drug dealer who had tried to import 2.7 tons of cocaine from South America. Another story on the illegal cigarette trade along the Ukrainian-Romanian border used information obtained from the Romanian Border Police.

For sure, there are problems. Government bodies are often reluctant to release information while many journalists continue to rely on leaks and anonymous sources rather than on over-the-counter information requests. But the Balkans provide  enough examples to show how a legal entitlement to information access can be a boon to watchdog reporting.

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