My road to a good story and award for investigative journalism
My road to a good story and award for investigative journalism
A participant in the first generation of the program “Investigative Journalism and Organized Crime” implemented by NetNovinar Training Center of Mediacentar Sarajevo and Investigative Journalism Center Zagreb, who won an Independent Association of Journalists of Serbia award for the investigative story “Bird Mafia in SCG” written during the educational program, writes about the challenges in his research.
Written by: Đorđe S. Padejski, journalist from ZrenjaninMay 2006
In the investigative serial on “bird mafia,” posted in the fall of last year on the site NetNovinar.org and published in the paper Zrenjanin, I managed to prove one irrefutable thing – that under the mask of hunting quail and turtle-doves, illegal slaughter of protected bird species is taking place in Vojvodina, completely unhampered and very organized, for big money. I proved that behind this ecological crime there is undoubtedly a criminal ring with a structure organized similar to the drug mafia, where local peasants, hunting guides and hunters are at the bottom of the chain, while hunting tourism agencies and export companies are higher up. Estimated minimal profits generated by these criminal structures are around five million euros annually.
“Fine” green uniforms
It all began five years ago. As a very young beginner journalist, by chance I got the first information about why in my town and similar towns in Vojvodina, in August and September, people in “fine” green uniforms were gathering, but were not preparing for the front. While working on an entirely benign issue for my newspaper, replacing a colleague who covers agriculture, I met a farmer who lives near a hunting ground to this day. He happened to start his story with the resigned presumption that I probably would not have the courage to write something about it. He then described what one such “quest” looked like, what was done and used, where it was done… And he was right – at that time I had neither the power nor the capability to publish anything.
A while passed and then the news was aired about “bird” cargo from Serbia confiscated in an Italian police operation. I went to the village near the hunting ground, found my source and got verification – those birds had been killed in my area. Indirectly I heard accusations against the company “Ribnjak Ečka” (Ečka fish farm), which manages the special nature reserve “Stari Begej – Carska Bara” and the hunting ground, as well as some names and addresses where the birds were processed before the “export.” I was shocked.
I went to the fish farm and the director V. Petrović. I asked if his company was delivering caught game to hunters from abroad and he (although this is illegal) very calmly answered me affirmatively, saying that the fish farm was handing over the game to the company “Lube YU” (owner Ivan Borovac – today an officially convicted organizer in the “Balkan bird scandal”). “There is nothing disputed there,” the director told me at the time: “The hunters come, they kill, and they want to take it home. Some of them live here, some in Italy, Germany…”
I published several articles at the time. In one I directly listed the names of the hunting preserve keepers and perpetrators in the slaughter of birds, in another I accused the Ečka fish farm of organizing illegal hunting and I questioned their continued management of the reserve. However, that’s when political pressure started on the newsroom, to which the editors succumbed and I no longer got room for the issue, which I followed practically illegally from that time on. The only effects of these articles were that I was never again able to enter the Special Nature Reserve after introducing myself by my name. My only advantage was my age, because none of the keepers thought that “that Padejski” could be a 24-year-old guy with a baby face.
People feed their families with that
Very rarely during my work as a journalist have I been asked to come in for a “preliminary interview.” But after writing about the birds, that happened. Both before and after that first serial of articles about illegal wild bird hunting, I had written about rather painful and risky issues for the province, but it appears that the police never really paid attention to me as they did that time. Through a friend of a friend I received greetings and a message that it would be “convenient and advisable” if I reported to a certain place at a certain time and told everything I knew about that “so-called criminal activity.”
I went, of course. The encounter started very friendly, with assurances that we were on the same task, but with a serious warning, or intimidation, that “due to the interests of the investigation” I must not reveal the details of the conversation even to my own wife. Then the questions started: who did I hear this from, who fooled me, do I know that so and so who told me is actually a criminal, who am I doing all this for, and why am I creating work for them…
“Why, boy, did you write about this when we all know it’s been going on for 30 years? People come to shoot their wad, they pay for it dearly, they want to take the catch home, and there is nothing wrong with that. You know that thanks to this business people here in the villages feed their families and survive in these difficult times. Do you think it’s easy for them to do that?”
I mostly answered that everything I knew was in my articles, but after the conversation the proportions of the crime became clear to me for the first time.
Several months later criminal reports for participation in illegal hunting were filed against Janoš Kovač, owner of the agency “Daki-komerc” from Lukino Selo, Robert Hust, owner of a facility where the birds were being processed, and Zoran Lukić, owner of a hunting tourism agency from Belgrade. This was the precise list of people called upon in my articles. They were detained, but half a year later the charges against them were dropped due to lack of evidence.
The director of the “Ribnjak Ečka” company was also removed from his position several months later, but the company still manages the Special Nature Reserve, has its own hunting agency and hotel and brings foreigners to hung quails and turtle-doves.
And then NetNovinar came along
After sending my application to an open invitation for education, in late 2004 I managed to be chosen for the first generation of the regional investigative journalism education program “Investigative Journalism and Organized Crime,” implemented by NetNovinar Training Center of Mediacentar Sarajevo and Investigative Journalism Center Zagreb. Initially, during the education program, I though about trying to investigate the tentacles of the “Zemun Clan,” or human trafficking, because the area I live in is the most important transit point for illegal trafficking channels from Ukraine, Moldova and Romania. However, the investigative journalism trainers Saša Leković and Branko Čečen convinced me to return to “my” story. I learned the investigative methodology, stopped thinking about the consequences, applied a positive investigative concept, and put together an investigation strategy and list of sources, aware of the limited resources, but with continuous “supporters” – the trainers.
The most important thing of all was the obviously correctly defined minimum and maximum of the story. These are investigative story synopsis elements, which I learned about at NetNovinar Training Center. Never before that had I thought about some aspects of the subject until I asked myself some of the questions from the synopsis. The quality of the defined minimum of the awarded story, which is covered in the synopsis as the “lowest goal” worth investigating for, is actually that it was entirely realistic. It meant proving that the crimes were taking place unhindered. If I had proven the maximum, i.e. that government officials were involved in these activities, my story would probably have made all front pages in the country. This way, “consolation” is getting the highest national award for investigative journalism.
A well planned strategy is a precondition for success in any serous work, including investigative journalism. A journalist must be able to foresee the circumstances, events, to read trails and people, to examine them from many angles, because only the entireness of these factors brings results.
I combed through all sources I had had any contact with until then. The work that took up most of my time brought a new source of information on the case – digging the net. The internet certainly offers much information, not just on this topic, but a lot of time must be invested in filtering and checking it. It is especially important to be careful, because publishing something on the internet does not necessarily mean the information is verified. But it is an excellent means of communication with sources.
The case of arranging a hunting tour and a former guide
Although I found everything I needed in the internet presentation of the agency “Donavista,” I had to verify the information in some way. I was not sure I would get what I needed if I came to the door, so I decided to arrange a hunting tour over the telephone. I introduced myself by my name and after just a few minutes the clerk confirmed that the agency agreed to “special” requirements. Field work was used for the much better known agency “Kraljevska prepelica.”
I got real information from interviews with several activists of the Society for the Protection of Wild Birds, I got court files on earlier proceedings, information from Italy and Croatia, as well as data on the “Balkan Birds” operation. But the most important that happened in the case is the testimony and verification of a man who had been in this business for years. A former guide, who does not do this any more, but is still in regular contact with the “organization,” during several meetings told me first hand, in detail, how a small hunting game tour unfolds, what happens to the birds, and what to the clients after the hunting tour.
He does not have many regrets today, maintaining that he was only doing his job. Jokingly, he offered to “slip” me in, so that I could earn a few euros, but on the condition that I must not write about it and that I must really work. “In just two days, you can earn your journalist’s salary. You speak English, you’re a smart boy, and you know so much about hunting,” he tried to persuade me.
It appears that the obvious success of the story, along with all of the above and working on the subject for a long time, was determined by several other important things: justified public interest, concealment of criminal activities, flow of money, protection of the environment, and manner of presentation to the public. For, the story of smuggling of birds from the Balkans, mostly for Italian dinner tables, was not investigated to the end by anyone. A lot remains just supposition. Also, answers were not offered to the question of whether any other organized groups were involved in this business.
Neither before the award, nor now, do I think the story is finished. However, I did try to examine it from all angles and sources available to me, which is what the jury members who gave me the award pointed out as the value of my investigative story.