Jan Kuciak. Little hope for an independent investigation, ECPMF reports

Despite Prime Minister Robert Fico declaring investigation a priority. The slain journalist’s recent reports did involve the names of associates of current top Slovak government officials

by Emil Weber

Twenty-seven-year-old Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were discovered shot dead at their home in the town of Vel’ka Mača, East of Bratislava, on 25 February, 2018. The police had been alerted by Kušnírová’s family after they failed to reach her by telephone for several days. The two had been shot with a silencer.

Kuciak was a data journalist working for Aktuality.sk, a news outlet and joint venture of Axel Springer. The last article he was working on was about the links between Italian mafia business activities in Eastern Slovakia and Slovak officials. His unfinished work was published on Wednesday, 28 February, by several media outlets, including Business Insider which is owned by Alex Springer as well.

In his article Kuciak describes in particular the connections of a businessman with alleged connections to the Italian mafia group ‘Ndrangheta, Antonino Vadala, as well as senior officials close to the Prime Minister of Slovakia, Mária Trošková and Mr. Viliam Jasaň. Subsequently, Vadala was arrested by the police according to media reports, while Trošková and Jasaň resigned from their duties, although they denied any connection to the murders.

Prime Minister Robert Fico has pleaded to the opposition parties not to “link innocent people to a double homicide without any evidence”. Fico has offered one million euros for relevant information concerning the murders.

Meeting with representatives of media freedom organisations
On Friday, 2 March, Fico met with representatives of three international media freedom organisations, Reporters Without Borders, OSCE, and the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF).

“We do not have to prove our democratic credentials”, Fico said. “Help us and let us know what you [the international organisations] can offer. Let us see what the penal code allows us to do. […] It is my primary interest and priority to investigate this case, and we will not allow [it] to be drawn into political battles”.

The President of the Police Force, Tibor Gašpar, initially was reported saying that the killing of was related to Kuciak’s journalistic work. Later, the police said it was considering several options. The Ministry of Interior has said it is cooperating Federal Bureau of Investigation and Scotland Yard to investigate the case.

44 days later

On Friday afternoon, thousands of people participated in a public march organised by Ján Kuciak’s colleagues in Bratislava. Slovak journalists say the authorities have done little to protect them. Kuciak himself did publish a post on his Facebook timeline on 20 October 2017 describing the absence of police actions after he had officially reported a threat by the businessman Marián Kočner. “It’s 44 days since I filed a threat … and the case probably doesn’t even have a particular cop [named in the case]”, his post reads.

Kočner was an associate of Ladislav Bašternák, a businessman who allegedly was covered up for tax fraud suspicions by Interior Minister, Robert Kaliňák. Kuciak had worked on that case as well. “It just so happened that Kuciak was investigating the activities of associates of both the prime minister and interior minister”, the Reporters Without Borders wrote on February 28.

Minister Kaliňák said that the threat reported by Kuciak was the result of a dispute the murdered journalist had with a former journalist turned businessman. “The prosecution investigated it and concluded that it did not constitute a physical threat”, Kaliňák told the representatives of international media freedom organisations on Friday.

A lot of attacks
Daniel Modrovsky, president of the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists, told the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF) that he unfortunately was expecting such news, the first murder of a journalist in Slovakia, due to the recently observed increase in attacks and threats against journalists.

“There were a lot of attacks against journalists in Slovakia. Pavol Rýpal, an investigative reporter who covered organised crime and journalist Miroslav Pejko went missing in 2008 and 2015 respectively”, Modrovsky said. “Threats have been made in various forms such as the torching of journalists’ cars, sending bullets in envelopes, lawsuits, physical threats. In the last three years the threats have become more direct”.

Modrovsky also pointed out the harsh wording of politicians against the media recalling the prime minister’s statement describing journalists as “anti-Slovak prostitutes”. He added that he does not believe that there will be an independent investigation of the Ján Kuciak murder.

“I would prefer to believe in the police, but this is impossible looking at how they did not investigate journalist cases in the past”, Modrovsky said. “I do [still] hope that we will not end up like Russia where police officers find someone just to blame, who is usually not the real criminal. We would like to know who are the criminals that killed Jan and his partner”.

“We need the EU”
Mirek Toda, foreign affairs journalist at Dennik N, told the ECPMF the various forms of intimidations against journalists: “For example, private messages [between] a journalist and a politician were published in order to embarrass the journalist rather than answer critical questions”, Toda said. “It is very important to have EU leaders watching over our prime minister and other politicians, and the way how press freedom is violated in Slovakia”.

Beata Balogova, editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper and online media SME, told the ECPMF that despite verbal attacks against journalists and the prime minister’s rudeness towards the media, there had been no murders of journalists until now.

She said, SME will investigate Kuciak’s stories, but like Modrovsky she was doubting the authorities’ investigation of the murder. “The prime minister and the minister of interior are too close to the investigation”, Balogova said. “I think that they have access to more information than they should”.

However, Interior Minister Kaliňák defends the authorities’ track record. “The system of checks and balances in Slovakia is amongst the strongest in Europe”, he said. “We [politicians] quarrel with the media, and we believe that journalists draw wrong conclusions, but I think this is part of democracy. I don’t remember myself pressing charges against any journalists”.

Describing the situation of media freedom in Slovakia, RSF did point out, in addition to direct threats and the absence of investigations, the recent “oligarchs”’ acquisition of media in Slovakia as well as the political control over public media.

Journalism becoming a dangerous profession in some parts of EU
ECPMF’s media lawyer, Flutura Kusari, has been to Slovakia since Wednesday, 28 February, where she met with several journalists, media representatives, as well as police and government officials.

“There are worries expressed by journalists that an independent and proper investigation will not take place. The suspicion is that politics are influencing the competent authorities”, Kusari said. “The leaders of Slovakia however have asked for international organisations’ role and advice, and the EU must ensure that there will be a thorough investigation”.

Kusari recently also monitored the judicial investigation of the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta. According to the BBC Ján Kuciak, like Caruana Galizia, had also been working on the Panama Papers.

An expert data journalist
“Jan started to work for aktuality.sk in September 2015 as a data journalist. He was an expert in data, very analytical”, Peter Bárdy, editor-in-chief of Aktuality.sk, told the ECPMF. “Usually he would sit on his desk for ten hours a day, analysing data, listening to classical music. He was funny and friendly and we were friends”.

Bárdy hopes that the case will be properly investigated and that the murderers will be punished. “It is not acceptable that journalists get killed”, he added. “It is important that we are a member state of the European Union, and I see the EU as a guarantor of freedom and democracy”.

“Slovakia now joins Hungary, Poland, Malta, Bulgaria as EU member states where press freedom is no longer guaranteed and being a journalist is becoming very dangerous,” says Flutura Kusari.

The EU cannot accept that a journalist is killed for doing his job, said Antonio Tajani, the President of the European Parliament, on February 26. “I call on the Slovak authorities to launch a thorough investigation for Jan Kuciak, with international support if needed […] As with Daphne Caruana Galizia, the European Parliament will not rest until justice is done”.

“The investigation will be an independent one,” said Tibor Gašpar, President of Police Forces of Slovakia. He was optimist that the murder will be solved. “We never had such killings [of journalists] and it sheds a very bad light on Slovakia”, Gašpar told ECPMF. “But this is a non-typical situation”.

This article was originally published by the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF). The full article is available here

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