State of Freedom of the Press in Slovakia

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It has been for over eight months since young investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnířová were brutally murdered in their own home. It was the first journalists ever to be killed in the history of the Slovak Republic.

With the Slovak prime minister resigning as a result of the biggest public upheavals in the history of the country, it seems like a lot has changed since the murder of the investigative journalist. But nothing is eaten as hot as it is cooked and, after several months of public and political turmoil, the situation in Slovakia is getting back to business-as-usual state.

The Murder of Jan Kuciak

In the night of February 21, Jan Kuciak and his fianceé were murdered. In his work, Kuciak focused mainly on investigating tax fraud of several businessmen with connections to top-level Slovak politicians. Since the couple was killed in a highly professional matter the police worked with a scenario that Kuciak’s murder was an attempt to prevent him from finishing his latest article.

Kuciak was the first journalist murdered in Slovakia since the country’s independence.[4] The murders caused shock and disbelief throughout the country, sparking mass popular protests and a political crisis.  In Bratislava alone, about 60,000 people held a protest march, making it the biggest turnout of any demonstration since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. 

The crisis culminated on March 15, when Prime Minister Fico, as well as Minister of Internal Affairs Robert Kaliňák, were forced to resign from their offices, which they held (with a short interruption) for almost 12 years.

In September 2018, Slovak police stated that Kuciak was murdered because of his investigative work, and that the murder had been ordered. They arrested eight suspects, charging three of them with first-degree murder.

International Responses

The international community – from the EU institutions to all kinds of non-governmental organizations across Europe were shocked and appalled by the abrupt and brutal murder of the young couple. The reactions came rather quickly.

A number of European leaders and political figures (among others president of the commission Jean Claude Juncker or Czech minister of foreign affairs Martin Stropnický) openly condemned the terrible act.

The non-profit organization Reporters Without Borders punished Slovakia for not sufficiently protecting its journalists, and so the state dropped by 10 places in their annual International Freedom of Press index. Slovakia now holds the 27. position in the world.

The European Parliament declared its intention to send a special commission consisting of 8 members of European Parliament to investigate the state of security of journalists in Slovakia. The visit took place in the mid-September, but the results have not yet been made available to the public.

State of Journalism before Kuciak’s Murder

Being a journalist in Slovakia has never been an easy job. The already existing problems have further escalated after Kuciak’s murder. However, the situation has been deteriorating since 2007 and 2008, and again in the past two years (there were arson attacks on the homes or cars of three journalists who specialized in covering local organized crime; another one was assaulted).

Moreover, two journalists disappeared. Pavol Rýpal, an investigative reporter who covered organized crime, went missing in 2008. Miroslav Pejko went missing in 2015. The police never solved these disappearances.

The political elites seemed never to take the side of the journalists. Robert Fico has always been a harsh opponent to the media, often addressing them in the worst kind of language. When reporters questioned his handling of the nation’s funds in 2016, he accused them of trying to damage Slovakia’s EU presidency and called them “dirty anti-Slovak whores.” 

It is worth mentioning that before his murder, Kuciak turned to the police on several occasions calling for protection, as he had been repetitively receiving death threats. His requests were turned down and then downplayed by Kaliňák as “unimportant.”

State of Journalism after Kuciak’s Murder

The pressure on the media escalated in the aftrmath of Kuciak’s murder. However, until that point, besides the verbal attacks and the humiliation from the political elites the media had also been facing the loss of independency, as the state (as well as the financial oligarchs) had decided to take over the bigger newspapers and TV stations and to meddle with the published content.

As a result of those changes many journalists striving for political independence and sticking to the ethical code were deprived of their jobs. This, however, led to the establishment of many independent, highly qualitative media.

One example for all: when the international company PENTA decided to take over the biggest Slovak newspaper, SME, from its German owner in 2014, it triggered the creation of a new media outlet, Denník N, by journalists opposed to the acquisition. 

After the murder of Jan Kuciak, the situation for journalists has slightly improved. The public has acknowledged their importance for the democracy and the police, afraid of further political upheavals, have started (at least for now) to take the protection of Slovak journalists seriously.

But as a founder of the Deník N, Tomas Bella, stated, it is impossible to be an investigative journalist with two police officers following you all day long. So at the end of the day, there is not much that the state or anyone else can do to increase the security of the journalists.

After a period of a shock, the daily life of the Slovak journalists is back to “normal”. Being well aware of the possible risks but knowing that they have chosen neither simple, nor safe profession, they continue pursuing their stories and revealing the often unpleasant truth.

Adela Kleckova
Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom