Balkan Insight has been ripping off our features and rich donors have been paying them to do it. We are not amused.
In February, the online news portal Balkan Insight published a somewhat glowing profile of Serbia’s newly appointed Defense Minister, Zoran Djordjević. The article depicts Djordjević, however improbably, as a highly educated yet unpretentious male feminist.
The defense minister’s employment history in politics is scant, however, and includes working as a personal chauffeur to Jorgovanka Tabaković, the despised governor of the National Bank of Serbia.
Balkan Insight waves off any criticism that Djordjević is a bit underqualified for the position of defense minister, as his former gig as the driver for the head of the National Bank might suggest. If anything, Djordjević’s job as a “lowly” driver just makes him “look closer to ordinary people”. Balkan Insight is more concerned with detailing Djordjević’s “strong academic record”, a description that immediately inspires skepticism: the new defense minister is a member of the cretinous ruling Progressive Party (SNS).
Djordjević’s educational achievements include attaining an MA in economics “with expertise in international banking and finance from the Panteion University of Social and Political Sciences in Athens and the Faculty of International Economics in Belgrade”. The “Faculty of International Economics in Belgrade”, the article fails to mention, is part of the disgraced degree mill Megatrend University. Djordjević is also reportedly close to finishing some kind of a PhD:
“The new minister will also get a doctorate soon, which will bring him into line with Police Minister Nebojsa Stefanović and Belgrade Mayor Sinisa Mali, who both hold doctor’s titles,” the article reads.
What’s incredible about that sentence is that it’s not a joke (Balkan Insight doesn’t really do jokes). Anyone with a limited knowledge of Serbian politics is probably aware that Stefanović and Mali were accused of having plagiarized their doctoral degrees in a very public scandal in 2014. But here, Balkan Insight offers them up as examples of two highly accomplished academics, the Nobel Laureates of the Serbian government.
Perhaps the article says something about Balkan Insight’s own attitude towards plagiarism and power. The publication prides itself on being the only professional outlet in the region, the only source capable of following proper journalistic ethics, the only media truly victimized by the Serbian government. But lately it seems to have been having some trouble with the creation of smart, original content.
Readers of Balkanist may have found a few of Balkan Insight‘s recent features a bit familiar. If so, that’s because some sections seem to have been ripped off word for word. They must have figured out that they could get away with it too, because they’re getting more and more brazen about it.
Balkan Insight is the flagship site of the umbrella Balkan Investigative Reporting Network, or BIRN, “a network of local non-governmental organisations promoting freedom of speech, human rights and democratic values.” BIRN relies on a massive amount of funding from major donors, including foreign governments, and reportedly receives three million euros annually for its work in Kosovo alone.
BIRN generates regular English-language news coverage of the region, so many understandably view it as a crucial source. But BIRN also has many detractors, who believe like I do that their publications are generally overfunded and extremely tedious, and lack enough originality, imagination and high quality output to justify their enormous endowments. And of course, nothing justifies ripping off words put out by a small, underfunded publication like this one when you have millions and millions to play with.
I’ll go over two examples of Balkanist-“inspired” Balkan Insight articles. These are by no means exhaustive, but are illustrative.
Balkanist published “The Zetra Project: Remembering the Concert that Tried to Save Yugoslavia” by Harm Rudolf Kern on July 29th, 2016.
Balkan Insight published an article on the same subject under the title “Yugoslav Rock Music’s Doomed Concert for Peace” on September 12th, 2016.
I’ve highlighted the sections of the text that were lifted more or less in their entirety from Balkanist (in blue) and later used by Balkan Insight (in yellow):
In this most recent case, BIRN didn’t even really attempt to rewrite things. They’re getting more and more brazen about the ways in which they’re cannibalizing our work. We appreciate their appreciation of our prose in all its exactitude, but would still appreciate it if they backed off.
Moving on to our second example of BIRN villainy, Balkanist published “Notes on the Decline of Serbia’s Exit Festival” by Fedor Tot on March 3rd, 2016. Balkan Insight published “Locals Fear Hidden Cost of Serbia’s Exit Festival” on July 24th, 2016.
Here BIRN succeeds in erasing Balkanist‘s work and research by republishing a quote given by Vojislav Devic directly to Balkanist without mentioning Balkanist. This would seem less horrible if every BIRN article wasn’t also about BIRN: “In a letter typed by BIRN”, “in a bathroom visited by a BIRN employee”, “in an exclusive VIP area for BIRN staff only”. Apparently attribution, sourcing, etc. are for non-BIRNers only. BIRN is above journalistic ethics. Minimization and erasure of competitors’ work and experiences are two of BIRN’s greatest talents. The next level of erasing the competition is through co-opting and copying their features until all of their distinctiveness becomes irrelevant.