Archive for June, 2010

In praise of Bulgarian journalists

Last month it was revealed, that the daughter and the wife of the responsible Bulgarian minister at the time were amongst the top-recipients of EU farmsubsidies. Subsidies that were administrated by the very same minister. €700.000 to the daughter and €1,5 million to the company of the wife, according to Bulgarian newspapers Trud and 24 Casa.  The public prosecutor is looking into the case, and also DG Agri is said to have taken a closer look. According to Bulgarian media, all links below.

“In Bulgaria, the news did not surprise anyone. This tradition of “absorption” of EU funds is long,” was the observation in an article in the Bulgarian weekly Capital shortly afterwards.

After the revelation in the daily newspapers Trud and 24 Hours, the news about the prosecutors investigation, the weekly Capital goes in-depth with the system of “absorbing” EU money and analyses the legislation to prevent conflict of interest.

But Bulgarian journalists are up against strong forces with such questions. Just read this little quote with the debated ex-minister (from Capital/24 Hours):

“Journalist: Is it ethical that the company of your wife and daughter make projects related to agriculture, while you’re in this position?
Dimiter Peytchev: And is it ethical for you to receive a salary?
Journalist: Yes, for work I have done, but not for one of my relatives.
Dimitar Peytchev: Well I do my job. There are European criteria which all must comply with. ”

The article in Capital then points at all the criteria that are still problematic and should be addressed.
That’s exactly the role, journalism should play: Public money? Scrutinize the use of it. Publish your findings. Let the relevant bodies take the next steps. And keep an eye on further developments.

But when journalists salaries are comparably low, and when even scandalous stories with a maximum of alleged conflict of interest do not surprise any of your readers it is a tough job to be a journalist.
This is why I dedicate this particular blog post to the Bulgarian colleagues, who keep going and keep tracking wrongdoings and keep working for the journalistic ideals.

Chapeau !
(As they say in Belgium).

For the farmsubsidy stories, Bulgarian colleagues participated in the European network of colleagues scrutinizing the data, that now are publicly available. Read about the working meeting of a few days after the data were published on April 30th 2010.

May 5th, Trud, Bulgaria, 1,5 million EU farmsubsidies to daughter of a former Deputy Minister

May 5th, 24 Casa, Bulgaria, Daughter of former deputy minister gets EU farmsubsidy

May 10th, 24 hours, Bulgaria, More farmsubsidies – 1.6 million to the wife of the deputy minister

May 10th, Trud, Bulgaria, And the wife of deputy minister gets 1,6 million farmsubsidies

May 13th, Trud, Bulgaria, Prosecutors investigating Peythevs daughter

May 13th, Trud, Bulgaria, Investigate the daughter of former deputy minister

May 21st, Capital Weekly, Bulgaria, Problems in agricultural programs and regulations – and morality

Numerous Bulgarian media quoted the story:

May 5th, Vesti: Daughter of former Deputy Prime Minister took 0.7 million grant

May 5th, BNews: Conflict of interests: Daughter Dimitar Peytchev receives 700,000 euros of subsidies

May 5th, Bulgaria News: Daughter of a minister of the ruling coalition with 700 000 EURO is the champion on the benefitting of European farmsubsidies

May 13th, Standart News: Prosecution pre-trial proceedings initiated against Christina Peycheva for submitting false documents.

May 13th, Dnes: Pre-trial proceedings instituted against the youngest daughter of former Deputy Minister of Agriculture Dimitar Peytchev.

May 13h, Novinar: Youngest daughter of Dimitar Peytchev investigated

May 13th, Dnevnik: Youngest daughter of former Deputy Minister Dimitar Peytchev to be investigate

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Visiting the neighbours

Let’s go visit the neighbours. That’s the starting point for a journalist and a photographer from Romania to do raw-style and deeply fascinating journalism travelling through the countries around the Black Sea.

The immediate result is a highly recommendable Blog taking the reader along to get a fascinating and insightful first impression of this particular region. And what pictures!

“The Black Sea for fresh eyes, some digital technique, Turkish and Russian dictionaries and much curiosity – a three months blind search” they declare on the front page of their Black Sea Blog.

Stefan Candea writes about their experiences along the road. These days the team is in Georgia,  for example, travelling under police protection, as this particular part of the country has been marred by a criminal gang that not only attacked locals but also tourists. Stefan Candea is a double winner of the Global Shining Light Award for investigative journalism and winner of numerous other awards contributes with his observations along their road.

The fascinating pictures of the blog are taken by photographer, Petrut Calinescu, a Romanian freelance photographer working for a long list of media all over Europe and in the US.

Going by car from Romania via Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, the Ukraine and Moldova, they explore the EU-neighbouring countries, document their moves in word (English and Romanian) and with fascinating pictures.

As Stefan and Petrut rent a room to stay overnight we hear the story of the old lady renting out the room – she memorates her husband who was so bright and clever a professor, that the state gave them such a nice flat. And as they go up into the mountains we hear the background why police is accompanying tourists in this part of Georgia – to the level that they make sure Stefan is given the right amount of change in a shop.

Do use this unique chance and follow the Black Sea Blog.

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While the ball is rolling Italy works on gagging-law

Blank front page as protest: “The gag-law denies citizens the right to be informed”.

Some weeks ago this blog had to show the blank front pages from major Estonian newspapers in protest against a law against protections of journalists’ sources. Today the Watchdog Blog has to show blank front pages again, this time from Italy. “It is necessary to halt that law which defends power’s privacy,” comments police protected mafia-reporter Roberto Saviano in La Repubblica.
The Watchdog Blog is happy that Italian journalist Leo Sisti, an experienced reporter and author covering the fight against corruption and terrorism, has been so kind to write an article about the situation for the Watchdog Blog.
Brigitte Alfter

The Gagging Law
By Leo Sisti, L’Espresso, Il Fatto Quotidiano

Readers of “La Repubblica” must have jumped casting a glance to the blank front page of the Italian daily newspaper out in the newsstands Friday June 11. In the center of the page they could read the following message reported on a yellow post it: “The gagging law denies citizens the right of being informed”. After turning the page they could realize how deep the protest was against a new bill approved the previous day by the Upper House sanctioning with jail journalists who publish transcripts of  documents or wiretaps stemming from criminal investigations before a case is heard by a judge.

Ezio Mauro, La Repubblica’s editor, explained his exceptional decision with harsh words: the gagging law, doggedly wanted by primeminister Silvio Berlusconi running a center right coalition, “is an authoritarian act of the government on the basic right of citizens -the right of being informed- tied to the journalists’ duties to inform”.

The bill, before coming into force, must be approved by the Chamber of Deputies (Lower House) and signed into law by the President of Italy Giorgio Napolitano. But with a law jeopardizing democracy and freedom of speech the protest immediately spread to other newspapers and media, as well as public opinion.

The Turin daily “La Stampa” reported a blank column in its front page on June 11, while Sky Italia, the encrypted TV channel owned by the Australian tycoon Rupert Murdoch, broadcast the news with a black banner protesting the gagging law. A strike of the Italian journalists is set on July 9.

La Repubblica’s editor Mauro went on to say that “if the law is approved by the Lower House, the Government will decide over the quantity and the quality of the ‘sensitive’ news to be printed by newspapers and therefore known by readers”.

There’s no doubt on what the “sensitive” news are: almost day after day Italian media publish reports on arrests executed against high ranking State officials and politicians in high places on bribery charges. And about Berlusconi pursuing his personal interest in halting leaked transcripts reporting his conversations with high ranking managers of RAI, the State owned broadcaster. According to media reports he repeatedly requested RAI’s general manager, to ban airing critical political talk shows. Moreover during sixteen years since Berlusconi entered the political arena, he promoted up to 40 laws, dubbed “ad personam” (personal laws) that can shield himself from prosecutions and trials.

Berlusconi’s goal appears to be to silence media preventing journalists from reporting information on criminal investigations based on arrest warrants given to attorneys and therefore considered of public knowledge. Until the end of the preliminary investigation it will be possible to publish only a summary of the news. Reporting quotes derived from arrest warrants will be forbidden, unless running risks of being jailed or paying a fine. A time limit of 75 days is set to the duration of eavesdropping, extensions being admitted only in special cases.  Authorization for eavesdropping will come no more from a single judge, but a from a three-judge panel. As a result of the publication of leaked documents publishers will be fined from 300.000 euros up to 450.000 euros. If a priest is investigated or arrested, the prosecutor will be obliged to inform priest’s bishop. If a bishop is investigated or arrested, the prosecutor will be obliged to inform the Vatican. Even reporting names of prosecutors will be banned.

Under the new procedure it will take time, or rather years, before a case is heard by judges. And of course the public will never be acquainted with investigations.

Justice minister Angelino Alfano defends his law saying it is intended to protect people not linked to investigations whose names are sometimes reported in the press. But it’s easy to argue that in this case insignificant parts of the transcripts must be classified and kept in special archives run by prosecutors.

Berlusconi’s critics point out the gagging law is similar to a scheme already worked out in the seventies by Licio Gelli, the founder of the outlawed P2 masons lodge, under the name of “Democratic Rebirth’s plan”. According to some commentators Gelli’s plan aimed at setting up an authoritarian government in politics taming magistrates and journalists. Among the 932 members of Gelli’s P2 there were excellent politicians, chiefs of secret services, generals of Carabinieri and Silvio Berlusconi. In 1978 the current prime minister, whose family owns the most important private Tv empire, was initiated into P2’s secret ritual with the card number 1816.

La Repubblica protest website

Hard debate quoted in Corriere della Sera

News and protest by the International Press Institute

Roberto Saviano, Italian journalist and author who lives under constant police protection because of his coverage of the mafia, warns against the new law in La Repubblica.

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Let’s be inspired

The incoming UK government may have learnt from last year’s scandal about MP expenses. The more optimistic version would be that it simply trusts its citizens.

If the promises by David Cameron & Co made a few days ago are carried out, the British government may well take the lead in Europe for a while: Publishing expenses, gifts and meetings, publishing name, position and income of the 172 officials with the highest salaries and preventing lobby-abuse of inside knowledge of politicians with its new ministerial code.
The fact, that the spell is already broken about the highest salaries and the public spending database COIN, gives an optimistic start, so let’s all keep an eye on this.

Also in the US the government trusts its citizens to judge for themselves. The US provides to its citizens the right to know the figures of who pays their politicians – be that in campaign donations or via lobbyists.

Let the public judge themselves, whether BP means British Petroleum or Big Problem – and how BP is related to politicians and administration. Our readers are, after all, educated and thinking people.

Let’s be inspired, let’s build upon the transparency-push of Siim Kallas and others in the Barroso I Commission and take the next step. Below a rough comparison between some EU transparency rules, some of the new UK rules and some US rules.

United Kingdom (and US) EU
The Ministerial Code published by the Prime Minister sets out the standards of conduct expected of Ministers. In particular, it bars former Ministers from lobbying Government for two years; tightens controls on government cars and numbers of special advisers; and requires the regular publication of Ministerial meetings, hospitality, gifts and travel. This code would be obvious for inspiration to lift the achievements of the European Commission’s Transparency Inititiative to the next level
The list of Cabinet Committees – shows the membership of each committee and shows a significant reduction in the total number of Committees. It includes a Coalition Committee to ensure the smooth working of the Coalition and resolve any disputes. Each Committee has a Chair from one Party and a Deputy Chair from the other Party who can remit an issue to the Coalition Committee. List of expert groups published List of comitology committees published
Former Ministers will be barred from lobbying Government for two years. Ministers’ decisions should not be influenced by the hope or expectation of future employment with a particular firm or organisation. Space for inspiration: Given the job-choices by the previous EU Commission, inspiration on this subject may be worthwhile for the EU: Verheugen, McCreevy, critical article by Corporate Europe Observatory
Gifts received and given by Ministers above a certain value will be published on a quarterly basis. Hospitality received by Ministers will be published on a quarterly basis. Ministers’ meetings with external organisations will also be published quarterly. All Ministers’ travel overseas will be published. Previously, Ministers were only required to publish hospitality valued at over £140. Overseas travel was previously only published annually and for travel costing more than £500 per trip. Space for inspiration: Gifts received in Barroso I Commission – stating neither donor nor value Hospitality received by Commissioners is not stated on the transparency site Ministers meetings with external organisations are accessible through access to documents requests, however a request about one subject and for the relevant commissioners was answered only rudimentary and only with half a years delay. Commissioners travel expenses can be accessed through FOI as was done by Dutch TV RTL
The number of special advisers will be reduced. Let’s be inspired
Tighter controls on the use of official cars – including the code stating that whenever practicable Ministers should use public transport. At present there are in the region of 80 cars allocated to ministers at a cost of £10 million for 09/10. Let’s be inspired
Ministers who occupy an official residence, including the Prime Minister, will not be able to get the Accommodation Allowance that MPs can claim from IPSA.
List of high earners Let’s be inspired
All public spendings in the COINS database, faciliated by the Guardian website Direct spendings, farmsubsidy spendings, European Social Funds
US Lobbyists are obliged to register and submit regular reports including financial information, that are accessible and searchble for the public. For example Let’s be inspired: The EU has a volontary register with widely varying contributions from interest organisations, financial information (if submitted) is not comparable

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