The moment that changed my perception of the media

One flew over the newsprint: Images from the history of the Sme daily

Alexej Fulmek (right) and Karol Ježík in the early days of Sme. Alexej Fulmek (right) and Karol Ježík in the early days of Sme. (Source: Sme archive)

Alexej Fulmek is the CEO of the Petit Press publishing house. In 1993, he co-founded the Sme daily along with its first editor-in-chief, Karol Ježík. He has been part of the story of the daily, and the history of Slovakia, ever since. This extract is from his memoir One Flew Over the Newsprint published in the Slovak original in December 2018.

Early morning, Monday, February 26, 2018. The beep of a text message on my phone. It’s from Milan Dubec, head of the Ringier Axel Springer publishing house, asking if he can call because he has something urgent to tell me. Within a minute I briefly respond: Yes.

My phone rings at 6:59.

“They killed one of our journalists,” says Dubec.

“That’s impossible,” I answer. “Where, who?”

“Ján Kuciak, in his home in Veľká Mača. He was shot dead along with his fiancée. It was an execution.”

I mechanically write down the name “Ján Kuciak” in the bedroom where my daughter is still fast asleep. I don’t know him. I keep telling Dubec that it’s just not possible, that something like that never happened even in the 1990s under Mečiar.

“It was murder. They were probably killed on Friday or even earlier.”

“Could it be linked to something other than his work?” I ask. “It makes no sense to kill a journalist.”

“I would like to see it that way,” Milan says. “I have no experience with a situation like this.”

None of us has.

“You need to contact the investigator and publish only after consulting with him, and you should draft an official press release. We need to gather as many facts as possible. The important thing now is to make sure we don’t jeopardise the investigation with any information leaks and that we do not spread panic.” I switch to use of plural, because I immediately understood that the case concerns us all.

“They must rule out all other motives besides his work. I will not share the information with our editorial for now. I will await your instructions, first talk to the investigator and the shareholders,” I continue mechanically.

Milan is in Cyprus and he is trying to get a plane back to Bratislava. He does not reach me again until 10 am.

By that time, Denník N has published the story about the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, even though several Slovak media heads already know about the murder at that point.

Nobody publishes the news without Milan Dubec clearly lifting the embargo, even though my journalistic instincts prompt me otherwise. Denník N CEO Lukáš Fila is not part of the conversation and so he is not bound by our agreement. Hence, Denník N is the first to report the story, after reporter Monika Tódová learns about it from the police.

This moment changes my perception of the past 30 years of my life in the media. Something like that has never happened here before. I had my fears before, in the 1990s under the authoritarian-leaning Vladimír Mečiar. But this happened now, after we became members of the European community, and a relatively civilised country.

The whole story enters a different dimension. When Milan Dubec makes it to Bratislava, we meet in the Sheraton hotel on the Danube river bank. He shows me Kuciak’s last text on the Italian mafia operating in Slovakia.

“Milan, they could not have murdered him over this text, there is almost nothing there. It would be a three-day scandal everyone survives. They would replace Trošková and Jasaň and that would be it. The prime minister would take care of Trošková. And maybe not even that,” I anticipate.

We look at each other in despair. We have no answers. Fear, disappointment, and adrenaline. And the determination not to let it threaten us.

But let us return to where the story begins, in 1989 and the period just before then.

The Slovak Spectator will publish more extracts from Fulmek's memoir in the coming weeks.

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