Thursday

21st Mar 2019

Opinion

Slovakia must create secure environment for journalists

  • Bratislava: The story was another indication of how journalists around the EU are helping to uncover corruption and financial crime (Photo: Unesco)

The murder of Jan Kuciak in February this year shocked Europe. He and his fiance, Martina Kusnirova, were shot dead at their home at Velka Maca, a small town in southwestern Slovakia. He was only 27 at the time.

From all accounts, the young reporter for Aktuality.sk was both modest and committed to his journalism, much of which focused on data handling. Through his work, he uncovered dirty deals, and links between organised crime and political power.

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I was in Bratislava recently as part of a delegation of partner organisations of the Council of Europe's Platform for the Protection of Journalism and Safety of Journalists.

The motive for our trip was continued international attention on the case. We wanted to show journalists that we were continuing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with them in the struggle for justice.

At the time, Kuciak's murder led to mass street protests, born out of anger and disbelief. Fingers were pointed at the ruling Smer party and the constant reports of corruption.

It provoked the resignation of prime minister Robert Fico, and other officials.

Aktuality.sk made a unilateral decision to publish the story that Kuciak had been working on at the time of his death.

His last investigation showed how Italian mafia groups, based in eastern Slovakia, had links with the political elite and, as a result of weakened state institutions, had allegedly enabled the misappropriation of EU agricultural subsidies.

The story was another indication of how journalists around the EU are helping to uncover corruption and financial crime.

Reports of flailing professionalism, including the confiscation of a journalist's mobile phone, and poor communication dogged the first months of the police investigation.

The head of police was replaced in June, which led to improvements including reports of good cooperation with the Italian police and Europe.

Arrests of four suspects has given renewed hope that proceedings are moving in the right direction. On 6 December, Peter Bardy, the editor of Aktuality.sk told us: "I am sure that the authorities will find all those responsible."

One of those arrested claimed that businessman Marian Kocner was the person who ordered the murder. Reports also indicate he is the godfather of the daughter of one of the suspects. Kocner is currently in prison in relation to tax crimes.

Kuciak had reportedly been threatened by Kocner, but the police apparently did not act on the report at the time.

There is now potential for successful prosecutions; but we should not forget about other investigative journalists in Slovakia doing the same type of sensitive work.

Slovakia is a "cross-roads for organised crime and drug trafficking", Bardy told us.

Threats remain

For journalists working on organised crime, the threats remain. There will continue to be much to report on and journalists will need support.

Recent comments by former prime minister Fico also show a certain level of hostility towards journalists.

"Shall all you comedians be knocked out," he said when journalists spoke at rallies in November in memory of Kuciak.

This was not an isolated incident. In November 2016, he called journalists "dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes".

It is never acceptable for officials to make such comments, especially from an EU member state.

An expert group set up by the ministry of culture, which is also formed of local journalists including from Aktuality.sk, is making amendments to the existing press act in Slovakia.

It should be a significant moment to strengthen the legislative framework to protect journalists.

Reports of journalist harassment and intimidation should be investigated by the police, and training is needed.

Rights for all Slovakian journalists, including that of source confidentiality, must be guaranteed in the new text.

EU officials should track this where possible. External scrutiny can help.

Not one more journalist should ever be killed in Slovakia and the time to lay the foundation for this is now.

Tom Gibson is the lead advocate in Brussels for the Committee to Protect Journalists, a New York-based NGO

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