“The return to the 1990s” is how several Slovak journalists described the situation to the Czech website Info.cz following the news that investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová were murdered in their house in Veľká Mača, close to Galanta (Trnava Region).
During the 90s, the country was led by infamous Vladimír Mečiar and his Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS). Extensive coverage was provided particularly by the Czech news outlets that called Kuciak one of the best investigative journalists in Slovakia.
“The journalists in Slovakia are usually a target of verbal attacks from the public and politicians,” the Denník N daily’s columnist, Roman Pataj, said for Info.cz. “They attack them to divert attention from their own scandals. I hope that Ján Kuciak’s case will be a rare one.”
The website of the public-service broadcaster Czech Radio reminded the public of Kuciak’s recent answer to the question of whether the job of an investigative journalist is dangerous.
“I’ve never been beaten or seen my car be put on fire as was happening in the past,” Kuciak said in an interview for the student magazine of the Constantine the Philosopher University in Nitra. “I don’t think my job is dangerous in this respect. People usually threaten us with courts, criminal complaints. Our sources are in a more dangerous position.”
First targeted murder
Meanwhile, several big international media reported about Kuciak, mentioning mostly the fact that the journalist might have been killed for his investigative work. The first to report on the case was the Reuters news agency, whose report was then taken by several other websites.
Several media outlets like The New York Times and Bloomberg pointed out that the killing appeared to be the first targeted slaying of a journalist in Slovakia’s modern history. They also published details about the cases he has been covering, with The Guardian reporting that he had also recently been investigating the suspected theft of EU funds by the Italian mafia destined for eastern Slovakia.
“Despite the tolerant environment, some Slovak officials have expressed great displeasure with the work of investigative reporters such as Kuciak,” the Washington Post wrote in its report. “Among them are Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, who in 2016 referred to some domestic journalists as “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes” for covering alleged corruption in his administration.”
The daily added that despite this, Fico has condemned the murder and offered a reward of €1 million for providing information about the case.
The Financial Times published the responses of some Slovak journalists who “reacted with shock to the news”.
“[Kuciak] was a very young guy. He had just started but in journalistic circles he was already relatively well-known. It is very sad and very chilling, and everyone is wondering what is going on,” the daily quoted Andrej Matišák from the Pravda daily. “There have been a couple of cases where journalists disappeared and we don’t know what happened to them, but this is the first time something like this has happened since Slovakia became independent [in 1993]. It’s really crazy. We’re really shocked.”
A personal experience with Kuciak
The website of Politico meanwhile published a piece by Tom Nicholson in which he described his own relation to Kuciak.
“We first came into contact in 2012, as he was finishing his bachelor’s degree in journalism at a university in Nitra, about an hour from Bratislava,” Nicholson wrote. “I had just been fired from my job with a business weekly and was being very publicly sued for my reporting on the Gorilla file, a high-level corruption story dating back to 2006.”
He remembers how Kuciak reached out to him with encouragement, saying that he “got into journalism because I wanted to dedicate my life and my work to the kind of reporting you are doing”.
“Ján was too young to have lived through Slovakia’s Klondike era of the 1990s,” Nicholson wrote. “By the time he became a journalist, the state had few assets left worth stealing. But what did attract criminals were lucrative opportunities in carousel tax fraud in which the state returns to fraudsters the VAT tax that they ‘paid’ on goods they fictitiously claimed to have exported to another EU nation.”
Links to murdered Maltese journalist
Bloomberg meanwhile wrote that “despite a string of scandals reported by media implicating officials and business leaders and a call by Prime Minister Robert Fico to crack down on graft, no active senior politician has been convicted of wrongdoing”.
According to the newswire, the murders follow a deterioration of relations in neighbouring Poland and Hungary between governments and news providers, with Poland falling to 54th in Reporters Without Borders’ 2017 Global Press Freedom Index of 180 countries and Hungary sliding to 71st. Slovakia was 17th.
“While Slovakia has made headway in catching up with its richer western peers in terms of living standards, a sense of frustration is mounting over the way the government rules the ex-communist country of 5 million people,” Bloomberg reported. “Public discontent with what citizens view as widespread corruption helped fuel support for anti-establishment parties that scored surprising victories in the 2016 elections and has triggered street protests in Bratislava.”
Many media outlets also referred to the earlier murder of Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in October 2017.