€ 1.5 million postponed

The European Parliament allocated € 1,5 million to investigative journalism research grants in 2010 and 2011. However last week the money has been withdrawn following a long struggle about editorial independence and editorial confidentiality. But the MEPs behind the project vow to continue the work in 2011.
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EU-money to the mafia, the tobacco industry and multinationals?

Journalists have dug out the beneficiaries of EU-farmsubsidies for citizens to see them at Farmsubsidy.org.

Now a new team of journalists has dug out the recipients of the other large lump on the EU-budget: The regional funding. In a unique cooperation and 8 months research the new London Bureau for Investigative Journalism and the Financial Times have cooperated and followed the money – resulting in important stories.
The team behind has made accessible the underlying database for everyone to search.

Today the Watchdog Blog is happy to present a guest comment by Annamarie Cumiskey, senior journalist at the London Bureau and highly experienced in European affairs.

By Annamarie Cumiskey

It’s a myth that the Italian mafia puts a horses head in your bed if it doesn’t like you. They put a dead dogs’ head in front of your door instead.

And, I know this because while working with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, www.tbij.com in London, in collaboration with the Financial Times, I had chance to meet Colonnello Pierone, the man whose job it is to put mafia bosses behind bars in Southern Italy.

We met to talk about EU structural funds, as part of an eight month long investigation that is being rolled out this week, when the dead dogs’ head came up.

The dead dog was found in our new online database, not literally, but through one of the many ways the Italian mafia has found to get its dirty hands on European taxpayers money.

We brought together all the lists of beneficiaries of the ERDF and ESF under the current €347bn spending round – over 650,000 projects.
One project, the modernisation of the Salerno – Reggio Calabria highway in Southern Italy, has been allocated €400,000, and since then the local mafia have been putting dead dog heads in front of construction workers doors to frighten them into paying extortion money.

Some of the gang members are more sophisticated white-collar criminals, and they really have collared EU grant aid – €1.2bn in recent years according to a report by the Italian financial police.

Don’t worry they can always seek repentence for their sins at the EU grant aided Church of Madonna di Polsi nearby that also happens to be their spiritual home.

The Italian mafia makes it look so easy, and that’s the problem it is.
The Italian mafia, fortunately, is an extreme case of how EU funds are abused, but it shows how impotent the EU institutions are to stop this.  And, this will stay the same due to the inherent nature of the EU – 80% of its budget is spent at national level, and the EU can’t control what happens there.

Al Jazeera, BBC Radio 4 File-on-Four, BBC World Service and France 2 will also broadcast programmes based on our research.

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Uncut: Revolution Televised

In Moldova, an immediate neighbour of the EU, last year three young people died in protests against election fraud.

The election had to be repeated, but the violence remains a national memory. Now a journalistic project asks the Moldovan public to help analyse, what really happened. 16 hours of protests captured in 300 clips recorded by 13 different surveillance cameras, documenting the entire so-called “Twitter Revolution” in Moldova.

The project got technical support developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and works with a journalist research grant from Danish-Eastern-European Scoop.

The Watchdog Blog has been in touch with Stefan Candea from the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism. The journalist team behind the story asks those, who may have knowledge about the events, to help analyse the files. This is a task too big for individual journalists to analyse. Below I would like to quote from the website, where the surveillance clips are available. If you want to read more, you can go to the refering website of the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalism.

Text from the website:
In April 2009, about 15,000 people went to the streets of Chisinau, Republic of Moldova. The protests started with a flashmob on April the 6th, and grew bigger the next day on April the 7th. International media called it the “Twitter Revolution” and communist rulers called it a “Romanian provocation”. The demonstrators themselves claimed that elections were rigged and demanded the resignation of the communist government or the recount of votes. Events soon escalated out of control.

President Vladimir Voronin and the communist regime reacted violently to the protests, suspending the constitution starting with that night. The results: at least three dead youth, almost one thousand young people illegally arrested and tortured, over one thousand days of arrests issued, a president and prime-minister threatening to shoot the protesters and ordering the sequestration of students in schools.

The government tried to control any information related to the riots, so while one journalist was placed under house arrest, eight other journalists were picked up from the street and kept captive for hours or days, tens of reporters were beaten, harassed, threatened, almost 30 foreign journalists expelled or denied access into the Republic of Moldova. Internet connections were blocked, phone conversations jammed.

More than a year and a half after, nobody knows the names of people responsible for the abuses committed during those days. Nobody knows how many of the crowd were protesters or how many were actually working for the Moldovan Government. The repetition of the elections brought the communist regime to an end. Nevertheless, only one police officer and three judges were brought to justice. Less then 50 victims sued the government. Many of the other hundreds of victims felt intimidated by police not to press charges, or don’t have evidence.

You can change that!

Here are the uncut 16 hours of a revolution. This is the CCTV footage from 7th of April and the night that followed, recorded by government surveillance cameras located on the buildings of the Government, the Parliament and the Presidency in downtown Chisinau. These are the relevant hours captured in 300 clips recorded by 13 surveillance cameras starting on April the 7 at 10 am and ending at 2 am next morning. Moldovan authorities never released these videos.

We ask Moldovans to identify people and situations that were not reported in the media and to post a detailed comment under the video you are screening. Agents provocateurs? Violent protesters? Please log in to leave your observations, especially ones that might allow victims to hold perpetuators accountable. International lobby groups, organizations, artists or whoever is interested in the raw material, download all the videos in complete, uncompressed form.

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1,1 million euro to journalists

Journalists with a good idea for an investigative story with a European angle can now apply for research grants from the European Union. 1,1 million Euro will be distributed in two rounds of applications. The first deadline is on January 15th 2011.

The EU offers research grants for investigative stories, which involve two or more EU countries. Journalists with a good idea for a European or a cross-border story must team up with a colleague from at least one other EU country, find ¼ of the funding for their project and then they can apply.

The independence of the money will be safeguarded by an external “Assistance Body”. It will appoint a jury, maintain a website, administrate the grants and make sure that the experience from the projects is gathered.

A jury of “5-7 independent, reputed experts in journalism, investigative journalism and/or edition in those fields” will decide the awarding of the grants, following predefined rules.

The first round of applications has to be sent to the Commission, while the Assistance body is selected in a call for public tender. However the envelopes with the applications will not be opened by the Commission itself but handed over to the jury via the Assistance body once it is established.

The 1,1 million Euro were granted by the European Parliament as a pilot project, which is now scheduled to run until late 2011.  Among the involved MEPs behind the initiative were German green Helga Trüpel, Danish liberal Anne E. Jensen and since his election last year Danish liberal Morten Løkkegaard.

Read more on Journalismfund.eu.

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Latvian brides

Fraud, rape and sexual exploitation as a result of EU rules combined with national, legal loopholes? An obvious question for journalists to look into. This weekend and today Jamie Smyth from the Irish Times publishes a series of articles about sham marriages in Ireland – and how Latvian women systematically are lured into them.

At the same time at the other end of the EU in Latvia his colleague Aleksandra Jolkina is finishing her book about the Latvian part of the story. Both journalists had been working on the story from each their country. Thanks to a research grant from Journalismfund.eu they could cover travel costs and cooperate.

“Working together enabled both of us to identify contacts in each other countries that would have been difficult or impossible to source while working on our own,” says Jamie Smyth about the cooperation.

By cooperating they could overcome language difficulties and penetrate subjects and environments, they could not have accessed without the other. Read more about the common research efforts here – including Aleksandra’s report about how she set up a job seeking profile.

The story still goes on: Hundreds of women come to Ireland each year to marry non-Europeans – with the sole aim of securing visas for their new husbands. Most of them are from poor Eastern European states such as Latvia and Lithuania, where the offer of a few thousand euros is enough to lure women into a “sham marriage”. These women are entering not only a fake marriage but also, often, an underworld of crime and abuse.

All links to articles in the Irish Times and in Latvia here.

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Sandcastle Europe

A writer and a photographer from Belgium have spent several years to document the migrants on their way to the EU and inside the EU. There is no fortress Europe, they conclude – it is rather a sandcastle. Because “you cannot secure a continent against newcomers”.

Right now the EU is paying Libya millions of euro to keep refugees from the promised European coasts of the Mediterranean. How can journalists cover the question appropriately?

For a year and a day this subject has occupied the minds of writer Michael De Cock and photographer Stephan Vanfleteren. Frequently together, sometimes on their own, they visited the furthest outposts of Europe – Malta, Slovakia… They talked to people on the coasts of Africa who were all ready to emigrate, and they followed the fortunes of those venturing from Ostend to London.

Stephan Vanfleteren, an award winning Belgian photographer, and Michael De Cock, a writer and theatre director from Mechelen north of Brussels, did yearlong work to trace the immigrants and follow their arrival and their moves in illegality.

A photographer and a theatre director unite to do a job that traditionally would have been done by journalists. They observe people on the move in n search of a better life. “Europe is bursting at the seams with new citizens,” it says in one of their statements. “The old continent is struggling with the immigration phenomenon; and handling it with amazing ineptitude. The question is not: who is welcome and who is not? The question has to be: how are we to accommodate all these newcomers?”

The two have produced a book Aller/Retour, which has been published in Dutch and is currently translated to English. The team decided to get the work done not via traditional media but with the help of research grant by the Belgian Pascal Decroos Fund and in the format of a book.

Following up on the provoking thought by Ides Debruyne  about the emancipated journalist, the project of Vanfleteren and De Cock appears to be an obvious example: They consider the subject essential, they decide to cover it, and they find the means to do so in a thorough way.

In the meantime the entire question sandcastle vs fortress is pressing itself upon us. If essentiality still is one of the journalistic criteria, this certainly is a story, we, European journalists, should cover intensely.

Danish researchers (to take some examples from my own country) have been looking into the outsourcing of border control. Or about the sovereignity blame-game in the Mediterraanean. Or about the growing number of unaccompanied children fleeing from war-zones.

Enough to do for journalists.

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Who are the worst?

The Dutch ministry of Economy this week received an award for being the most obstructive authority in the Netherlands when it comes to transparency, it was selected as thee Wob Obstructor of 2010 in the context of the international Right To Know Day, that also was celebrated in Brussels by the European Ombudsman.

The Dutch  “winner” of the anti-award was selected yesterday in the context of the Dutch celebration of the Right To Know Day, which focuses the citizens right to a transparent administration. The Dutch ministry was named and shamed because of a case, where it had delayed the answer on an access to documents request following alleged irregularities in information sharing before the Dutch election this summer, a comment could not yet be obtained.

Naming and shaming was also on the agenda at the Right to Know Day event in Brussels by the European Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros. However the naming and shaming was more politely wrapped in reports and recommendations by the invited speakers.

The European Ombudsman deals with complaints from European citizens. More than one third of his workload are complaints about lacking transparency in the EU system , several of which Diamandouros has found to be right.

“It is with a certain degree of concern that I have noted the consistently high number of complaints alleging lack of transparency during the past years. After all, an accountable and transparent EU administration is key to building citizens’ trust in the EU,” the ombudsman said in his speech at the Right to Know Day in Brussels.

Selected links from the Right To Know Day 2010
www.Woberator.nl – newly launched website to teach people how to wob in the Netherlands

Legal Leaks published an overview over WoBs, click on Country Information

Read the speech by the European Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros or his press-release with a sum-up of his speech

Transparency International published a paper over the differences in European WoBs

Article 19 published an overview over wob-developments in the past year

The magazine Governance published an article about the effect of the British WoB on public administration

The FOI advocates published a map with some of the Right To Know Day activities

Dutch journalist magazine De Nieuwe Reporter published and article about wobbing the EU

Read more about wobbing at www.wobbing.eu.

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Ram raids and sources

Whining engines, smell of rubber, gasoline in the blood and excitement! In January 2002 an illegal street race was held in the town of Hoorn in the Netherlands. Journalists from the magazine Autoweek were allowed to cover the race and take pictures after they promised not to disclose their sources identity.

Of course they journalists intended to keep their promise. But after the editor was held by police for hours and after threats of closing down and sealing the entire publishing house, the editors gave up and handed over a cd-rom with the pictures of the race to the police.

This week a judgment from the highest human rights court in Europe states: This is not acceptable. Decisions on seizure of material on source has to be through judicial evaluation before the seizure.

The case took its beginning a Friday morning, when a police officer turned up at Autoweek’s office at the Sanoma publishing house and asked to get the pictures from the race some weeks previous. This request could not be met, she was informed, the pictures were part of the journalists’ promise not to disclose their sources.

From that morning in early February 2002 the story went all the way to the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where it was decided this week.

The judgment is of high importance according to one of Europe’s leading experts on the protection of sources, Dirk Voorhoof, who is media law professor at the University of Gent and also teaches at the University of Copenhagen.

“The judgment of the Grand Chamber has manifestly added an extra layer of protection for journalistic sources. There is no doubt that to be in line with the Court’s application of Article 10 ECHR in matters of protection of journalistic sources, member states shall now build in additional procedural safeguards in terms of an ex ante judicial review based on clear criteria,” he writes in a blog on the Strasbourg Observers Blog.

Any ex-ante judicial review was not applied that February Friday in 2002. Later that particular two police officers had shown up at the publishing house of Autoweek, this time with a message from the public prosecutor saying, that the editor should release the pictures. In a phone conversation the public prosecutor explained Autoweek’s lawyers, that “it concerned a matter of life and death”. What the content of the concern was, was not disclosed to the publishing house.

Friday evening was approaching, and police threatened to arrest the editor over the weekend, unless the images were handed over to the police. No particularly cosy offer. But what was worse for any good mediaperson was, that police also threatened to close and seal the entire publishing house over the weekend. An absolute catastrophy in a publishing house with magazine production as Sanoma: This particular weekend the Dutch crown-prince Willem-Alexander was to marry his loved one, the beautiful Maxima with the Argentine family.

Friday night the editor of Autoweeek was indeed held by police for foru hours, and in the course of the night Sanoma’s lawyers decided to hand over the cd with the images.

A clear breach of journalists obligation to protect their source in the view of Sanoma, the publisher of Autoweek. So Sanoma went all the way through the Dutch court system and further on to the Human Rights Court in Strasbourg. A judgment in Strasbourg creates precedent immediately valid in all countries, who are signatories to the European Convention of Human Rights.

The court in Strasbourg for years had set high standards for the protection of journalist’s sources as an essential part of the freedom of expression. If sources can not feel safe, they will not talk, and possibly valuable information will not be accessible.

But in the Sanoma case things went the other direction in the first instance. In March 2009 the judges in Strasbourg decided, that being forced to hand over the pictures in this particular cases did not constitute a breach of article 10 – the one about freedom of expression. Media lawyers and journalists were concerned.

But Sanoma was willing to go on and along with an alliance of journalist-organisations requested a Grand Chamber hearing – which was decided this week.

Why police wanted the pictures in the first place?

Well, there had been a ram raid nearby, where robbers had used a shovel loader to break an ATM machine out of a wall, and they had escaped in an Audi car. It was this car, the police now was looking for. However the Grand Chamber – contrary to the Dutch prosecutor – did not consider this investigation a question of “life and death”.

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Right to access is fundamental

The EU Ombudsman Nikiforos Diamandouros confirms the Lisbon treaty, the European Medicines Agency respects that: The right of access to information held by the authorities is a fundamental right in Europe. In the most recent case this has a concrete result: Patients now can request access to information about side-effects of their medicine.

Imagine your teenager being embarrassed about pimples. A certain pill is advised for help. But what if exactly the same pill causes your child to be depressive, even suicidal? Would you want to know? Should the public know?

This is the core of the question of a request for access to information held by the European Medicines Agency EMA. For year this has been kept secret in most EU countries, though it is patients’ only option to keep track on side-effects after a drug is on the market.

For years the EMA too refused access, but following a decision by the Ombudsman in April, it now decided to make accessible the so-called “adverse reaction reports” on the anti-pimple medicine Roaccutane, which for years has been under suspicion for its severe side-effects.

“I commend EMA’s constructive approach in this important case,” said Nikiforos Diamandouros, the EU-Ombudsman upon the EMA decision. “EMA’s work has a direct impact on the health of European citizens. It is, therefore, crucial to give the widest possible access to documents and to pursue a pro-active information policy for the benefit of citizens.”

The case was brought by an Irish man, whose son committed suicide after taking Roaccutane, is currently suing the pharmaceutical company Roche over the drug, which has been linked to behavioural problems and birth defects, according to the EUobserver.com.

For those, who want to use the EU rights of access to information the case is interesting not only because the Ombudsman confirms access as a fundamental right, but also for several other details. Read a practical analysis on Wobbing.eu.


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Black Tuesday for transparency

The public until Tuesday had the right to know the names of the officials working on their behalf and of lobbyists trying to influence those officials. However Tuesday the 29th of June the European Court of Justice decided that the strict data protection rules should weigh more than the public interest rules. The outcome is devastating for the public’s right to know: This reverses the burden of proof, says expert lawyer. A ‘depressing judgement’ says key-politician.

Andrew Ronnan from Northern England likes Bavarian beers. So in the 1990ies he intended to import Bavarian beer to his home country for sale there. Many of the pubs, however, had agreements with British breweries and could not serve foreign beers, so the European Commission started to look into this alleged breach of free competition. Ronnan wanted to participate in one of the meetings of the Commission, was refused and followed up by asking access to the minutes of the meeting including the list of participants. This is where it all started.

This week the case came to a conclusion with a judgment by the European Court of Justice, which – in short – forces the applicant to prove, that she or he has a good reason for disclosure of any name.  “Civil servants are only accountable at their discretion,” says lawyer Scott Crosby, a freedom of information expert and partner at Kemmler Rapp Böhlke & Crosby in Brussels after a first look at the judgment.

However for Crosby the real error in the judgment is to consider that merely identifying a civil servant who attends an official meeting in the course of his or her duties would undermine the protection of that person’s privacy and integrity.

“Mentioning the name of a person, who does his duty, is not an infringement of this person’s privacy,” in Scott Crosby’s opinion. After all, there is no mention of “sexual orientation nor bank accounts”, he says.

“This is switching the burden of proof from the Commission to the applicant,” says Crosby.

Andrew Ronnan does not trade beer anymore and found better businesses to make a living. He is an enthousiastic marathon runner, and not one who gives up easily. Obvioulsy he is not happy about the judgment. “As the EU expands, it grows only more essential that there is more openness in commercial discussions,” he comments. “We are not talking about how to make a nuclear bomb here. This is simple commercial business. If they want to keep corporate business organisations under the veil of secrecy, this is not in the wider interest of the 460 million European citizens,” he comments.

His reading of the judgment is that “if you scream loud enough for the names, then the Commission may have to release them”. In other words if you give a reason to release the names. “We didn’t give a reason, because 1049/01 says you don’t have to.”

The Bavarian Lager case was fought by lawyers James Webber and Matthew Readings of Shearman & Sterling in London. Webber is disappointed with the judgment. “This is a conservative judgment which provides legal clarity but does not support transparency,” he says.

In his view the Court decided, that access to documents is simply another form of data processing – there is little analysis about the transparency context in which the data is processed. In consequence “people who lobby the Commission in their professional capacity may now withhold their names from disclosure on the basis of their entitlement to privacy,” he says.

To overcome the privacy issues, the judgment thus introduces an obligation by the applicant to prove, that there is a necessary interest in disclosing the name. But proving that disclosure is necessary will be “very difficult,” Webber estimates. “This does not take account of the principle (of the access to documents regulation) that you don’t have to give reasons,” he says.

The Commission is not disappointed. “We are very pleased about the legal clarity,” says Michael Mann, spokesperson for Commissioner Maros Sefcovic, responsible for inter-institutional relations and administration. However at the time of this interview the Commission had not read the judgment in detail yet and did not want to comment further.

The European Data Protection Supervisor Peter Hustinx however did comment already one day after the judgment was published. The fact, that the Court of First Instance and the European Court of Justice came to opposite conclusions shows, according to Hustinx, that there is an urgent need to address the relationship between transparency and data protection in the current revision of the regulation.

Michael Cashman, British MEP and rapporteur for the revision of 1049/01 talks about “a depressing judgment” and promises, that he will work for taking into account the need to reinforce the principle of transparency particularly for people participating in meetings, where decisions are made.

Find links and background on Wobbing.eu

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