Get the story out, people to care and institutions to react

25 Sep 2013

UNDP in Serbia and the Anticorruption Agency of Serbia set out to publish about corruption in social media. We wanted to break through the over-cautious editorial policies of mainstream media and give new, cutting edge social networking skills to young journalists. We called them “youth sleuths”, to emphasize the investigative aspect of their work. So, we agreed with Pištaljka, Serbia on the Move and Transparency Serbia to embed three young journalists in each organization and help them get the facts right and get the professional story out through social media, hoping to achieve the broadest possible outreach and impact.

The journalists wrote close to 30 investigative stories and 10 investigative blogs which uncovered corruption in local municipalities, public procurement of medical equipment and pharmaceuticals and others. All these were seen by several thousand people on social media and further promoted by ACA and UNDP in Serbia through Twitter and Facebook.  

Six months down the road our innovative approach had an impact: In August 2013 the Ministry of Culture of Serbia filed a criminal complaint to the Prosecutor, reacting to the sleuth’s article alleging corruption. And few weeks ago, the Ministry of Health filed another complaint following-up to Pištaljka sleuth’s report how Serbian hospitals procured unlicensed medical equipment.

“Our investigations have led to […] charges being filed against public officials by the Anti-Corruption Agency and further criminal investigations by relevant authorities”, Vladimir Radomirović, manager and editor of Pištaljka told UNDP Serbia. “Needless to say, cooperation between whistleblowers and journalists was essential in all these cases”, he added.

Did Serbian institutions react simply because UNDP in Serbia and the Anticorruption Agency of Serbia supported the Youth Sleuth project, under which these stories came about? Or is there a more genuine interest on the part of Serbian institutions to react to corruption allegations?

We believe it is the latter. And if the interest is genuine, then why not broadening the number and scope of stories and generate even wider reaction? That would certainly mitigate the basic problems of investigative journalism today – lack of funding and editorial over-cautiousness. At a recent “Speak-up” EU conference on freedom of the media in Brussels, Branko Čečen, the Director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism (CINS), suggested that large capital control over editorial policies in conjunction with a drop in donor support are quashing investigative journalism, and adversely affecting institutional reactions.

Similarly, Radomirović sees a lot of opportunism from the mainstream media, who are rarely practicing investigative journalism in the house, but they prefer to use Pištaljka articles instead. “Interestingly enough – they tend to reprint or broadcast us”.

So, how do you get the story out, people to care and institutions to react?

The internet penetration rate in Serbia is close to 60% with two thirds of those posting messages on chat or social networking sites. According to the Serbian Statistics Office, 92.1% of young internet users (aged 16 to 24 years) have an open account in social networks, mainly Facebook and Twitter.

This means that there are thousands of potential sleuths who could be useful in helping the central and local governments to act. The key is to provide them with basic skills, similarly to those that were given to young journalists through the Youth Sleuth project. Involving more people would bring down-to-earth local stories which would prompt people’s attention and interest and eventually Government reaction.

Even today, Pištaljka is receiving six allegations from potential whistle-blowers per day, through its web platform, which UNDP and ACA helped upgrade to full anonymity. Vladimir Radomirović sees this citizen involvement as a key component of breaking the corruption circle and has a recipe:

“Our journalists have a difficult time keeping up with the number of tips we receive. This is why we plan to expand and engage more young reporters who are keen on investigating corruption”.

Two months ago, Serbia on the Move introduced an SMS system for reporting corruption in the health sector. So far, they received 533 SMSs from patients through its web portal. But even with diligent follow up, it is hard to get to the bottom of each of the 370 valid corruption allegations. This is why Serbia on the Move is engaging more volunteers to follow up on SMSs – and volunteers are interested!

The abovementioned examples show that people want to engage.

“Give them a platform and they will report”, said Jelena Manić Petronikolos, UNDP Program Officer.

Our young journalists were standing on the shoulders of giants, because they investigated corruption, a burning topic in Serbia, as evidenced by UNDP Corruption Benchmarking Surveys. These stories “sold” themselves.

Future sleuths do not need to uncover “Watergate” to be heard. They could research and write about any ordinary problem that citizens’ face and they will be heard. Granted, they’d need some “hand holding”, learn advanced social networking skills and writing for the web, and get some coaching by advanced journalists professionals. Once they “graduate”, however, they could broadcast through social media, or at least publish “leads”, which could trigger professionals to dig further. If young sleuths’ stories about corruption provoked reaction of the Serbian Government, down-to-earth stories, even at the local level could definitely do the same.

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