Public funds are main source for financing of political parties in Serbia and this is why it could be main threat for corruption and misusess. Center for Investigative Journalism of Serbia created database that included the income and expenses of 25 of the most influential parties and groups of citizens in Serbia. Database allows users to filter for data, including by party
name, year, location, company name, and payment purpose. It is unique in that it
enables users to make their own combinations and follow the trail of money not
only for one year and one party, but multiple ones.
Our Party fund project was first of that kind in field of finincing political parties in Serbia and it was one of the most visited content on CINS website last year. It gave people chance to see where their money, almost 70 milion of euros, went after it was given to parties from state budget. Since our database was published, there were many republications in online and print media, and our researchers talked about this database on TV. We also gave the access to the data to everyone interested, and that allowed journalists in Serbia to work on their own stories with this data and look for different angles.
Almost all pages of our database have infographics and maps, so data could be easily understood.
Using data from database, we wrote three stories that showed wrongdoings in parties financing, deficiencies in it’s monotiring and advantage that ruling Serbian progressive party (SNS) has in relation to others. We discovered that:
1. In six years period, ruling party SNS has spent on election campaigns more than 22 political parties combined. One of the reason for this dominance is that in 2014. SNS urgently changed the law which allowed them to spend the money from the budget that they receive for regular work on elections.
2. Party of former President of National Aseembly Ivica Dacic (SPS), now Minister of foreign affairs, has for years been financing its work by renting out real estate inherited from the League of Communists of Yugoslavia. Their “tenants” include many municipalities, public companies and institutions, which is assessed as unacceptable by experts.
3. Party of, in that time, Minister of Interior Aleksandar Vulin (PSS) (now director of national inteligence agency) has been paying rent for offices in several places across Serbia, but those expenses have remained hidden.
First, we scraped the data from the Agency database. Although all the data was already available, users couldn’t cross-reference it and look for patterns and companies that kept showing up for years.
Our second part was to combine the data, and we did that through MS Office Excel and Google Spreadsheets. These tools allowed us to store all of the information in one file. After doing that, we could analyze the data in more ways than one. You can see if some political parties have donors in common, or if some of them got the money from a company they hired afterward, etc. This way of showing data allows users to follow the money in a couple of clicks.
After that, we spent a lot of time cleaning the data. Since parties insert the data manually, this step was crucial for our analysis. For example, someone could input Pink television as “Pink” and someone as “Pink TV” and when that happened, the software recognized it as a different media outlet. That is why we cleaned and tested all of the inputs. We used Spreadsheet and Open Refine in this step.
At the end, we create dozens of pivot tables to look for conclusions. We had a programmer and a graphic designer who created the database on our website and its visual identity. We tested it manually – all team members have searched, filtered, and browsed the test version of the database and made sure everything works smoothly. We used various software for our data visualizations, mostly Flourish and Canva. We created the map of Serbia from a custom geojson file.
An independent fact-checker was hired to check the database. All of the stories were, as always in CINS, thoroughly fact-checked.
Context about the project:
In its Country report Freedom house has ranked Serbia as partly free where ruling Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) has “steadily eroded political rights and civil liberties, putting pressure on independent media, the political opposition, and civil society organizations”.
For years, SNS dominates political arena with control of the media and public institutions and with great financial power. In 2014, two years after they came into power, SNS urgently changed the Law on financing political activities which gave them financial advantage over the other parties. Public funds are main source for financing of political parties in Serbia and this is why it could be main threat for corruption and misusess. Even though in previous years there were cases of illegal financing of ruling Party (one of them for using proxy donors to disguise the true source of funds), not one person has been indicted. CINS’s Party fund database shed a light on political financing and gave the oportunity for citizens to be informed and make informed choices.
Political parties are legally obliged to submit their financial reports to Serbian Anticorruption agency, after which Agency publish it on their website. But Agency’s register is not user friendly, people cannot download data and cannot cross-reference it for different years, parties and/or reports. It demanded some basic knowledge about financing politicial activities so people can find what they are looking for. Also, register of party donors was removed from Agency’s website after one of the SNS official and donor became their director. That is not the only example. Shortly after we published the database with almost 3.000 proceedings launched against public officials across Serbia in 2018, the data vanished from the Agency website. We tried updating using FOIA requests, but all of them were declined. For all of this reasons, our database is even more crucial. Not only we are saving data from possible erasing, but we are also make it more understandable for people.
Media are under government control and all tv stations with national frequency are main promoters of Aleksandar Vucic, president of Serbia and SNS. Pro-government newspapers, portals and tv stations are public voice of the ruling party and they were used to silence critics and independent media who are branded as ‘enemies of the state’. As CINS investigation and database showed, these media are main beneficiaries of election money coming from ruling party.
What can other journalists learn from this project?
First of all, journalist can find a large dataset in a couple of clicks and dive into the world of political party financing. They can learn how the system works, who earns the most and which media otulets are favorized. Prior to working on this project, we frequently reported on the topic of political party financing and showed many flaws in the system. After reading these stories, journalists can look for their stories in the database. For example, a couple of years ago we discovered that the Serbian rulling party received office space in Belgrade as a gift worth about 1.3 million EUR, the value which exceeds the limit allowed by law. Our database contains information on more than 200 donations, and journalists can look for more unallowed ones.
Our database was created by a small team of journalists and supervised by one editor. Our colleagues can learn they can work on ambitious projects as well, only if they plan ahead and give themselves enough time. This database can give them an idea for a project they could work on. Although institutions in Serbia tend to hide data, journalists can find useful data online. It can be combined with more information and turned into important databases and stories.
Further more, our researchers frequently hold trainings and workshops on these topics. Journalists can learn how to work with large datasets, visualize data. This database is one of the examples we use a lot.