Saturday

13th Apr 2024

Opinion

Will verdict in killing of Slovak journalist be a rare sign of hope?

  • Floral tributes outside the home where Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, were murdered in 2018 (Photo: Miro Kern)
Listen to article

Five years ago, a young investigative Slovak journalist named Ján Kuciak was shot and killed, along with his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová.

The Slovak authorities are now close to delivering a verdict in the trial of the alleged mastermind of the murder, offering an example to other European countries of how to challenge impunity for journalist killings and put in place national press freedom reforms.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Get the EU news that really matters

Instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • A protest march in memory of Kuciak in Bratislava, 9 March 2018 (Photo: Wikimedia)

Yet much remains in the balance.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently joined other press freedom groups in a mission to the country. We wanted to show solidarity with the families of the victims, local journalists, and activists calling for justice, and establish if Slovakia's legislative reforms will actually make journalists safer.

The 2018 murder of Kuciak, a hard-working journalist whose reporting exposed government corruption, sent shockwaves through Slovak society.

Slovaks poured into the streets demanding justice and change. The government, initially slow to respond, felt the mounting pressure, and high-level resignations followed, including of the former prime minister Robert Fico.

"The tragedy changed the face of Slovakia," explained Ľuboš Machaj, the recently appointed director general of Slovak public broadcaster RTVS, to the press freedom delegation.

In Brussels, the murder of Kuciak and that of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 undoubtedly led to change within the European Union institutions. Both murders underscored how journalists in the EU were defending democracy by investigating corruption, yet were paying the ultimate price for their work.

The 2019 European elections prompted a strengthened mandate for the European Commission to intervene on press freedom matters, which in turn led to reforms from Brussels, including the 2021 Journalist Safety Recommendation, a draft Directive on Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation and the draft European Media Freedom Act.

In Slovakia, the 2020 elections were a pivotal moment. A new government brought in a wave of change, responding to calls from the population to address entrenched corruption, including that linked to the previous administration.

Importantly, the new administration has sought to deliver legislative and policy reforms on press freedom, including bolstering protection for source confidentiality, preventing the prosecution of journalists who publish following freedom of information requests, developing transparency rules around media ownership, and proposing increased punishments for attacks against journalists.

An independent platform led by the Investigative Centre of Ján Kuciak allows journalists to safely report threats, yet the effective response of law enforcement will be key.

But progress has been marred by verbal attacks from some political figures, including from former deputy prime minister Igor Matovič, contributing to a threatening environment for journalists. Unchecked, these attacks also send a message that the online harassment of journalists by citizens is acceptable.

Defamation in Slovakia still carries a prison sentence of two to eight years, and although no journalist has been imprisoned, its threat still hangs in the air. We called on the authorities to take steps towards full decriminalisation.

The investigation of high-level officials involved in corruption uncovered by journalists is welcome. However, elections in Slovakia are coming up this year, and there is fear that a possible return of populist politics can mean a reversal of the good work put in place with these national reforms.

Political vendettas from the previous administration could be carried out if powerful figures from the Smer-SD party were to regain more political control, and journalists — or critical journalism — could be in the sights of those seeking to settle political scores.

The next government will have to commit to press freedom.

EU institutions should also ensure their own scrutiny of the situation in Slovakia, undertaken in large part by EU commissioner Věra Jourová and the European Parliament's Working Group on Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group. European elections in 2024 offer a fresh opportunity for a new commission to commit to protecting investigative journalists -and following up on the situation in Slovakia.

The prosecution of the hitmen and a go-between who assisted the alleged mastermind, businessman Marian Kočner, has provided some relief. But the pending verdict against Kočner — set to be delivered shortly — could prove a litmus test.

Five years of activism and scrutiny show that the struggle against impunity — which has included addressing corruption, strengthening the rule of law and improving the environment for journalists — is long and complex.

Addressing impunity for this crime, and seeing through change, will have positive reverberations for journalists around Europe. And this change will also honour the memory of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, a young couple whose lives were so brutally and unfairly cut short.

Author bio

Tom Gibson is the lead advocate covering the Brussels institutions of the EU for the Committee to Protect Journalists working to strengthen the EU’s positions on press freedom, domestically and internationally. Previously, he worked in Africa for Protection International and Amnesty International.

Disclaimer

The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

Feature

Shock gives way to division after Slovak gay bar shooting

Despite the immediate shock and outburst of solidarity after the recent terrorist attack by a 19-year-old sympathiser of far-right conspiracies, Slovak society appears to be absorbed in even deeper ideological divisions on issues related to gender and sexual orientation

Resurgent Fico hopes for Slovak comeback at Saturday's election

Political parties facing multiple corruption charges are hoping for a grand comeback at Saturday's snap elections in Slovakia —which could also lead to a reversal of the central European country's position on Ukraine and Russia.

The problem of corruption in Ukraine — and a solution

Sunlight is the best disinfectant— so in a way, it is encouraging to see corruption scandals coming to the fore, as this may deter potential future graft, a key prerequisite for Kyiv's eventual EU accession.

This 'deregulation' lobbying now threatens EU economy

Next week's EU summit (17-18 April) will discuss the strategic agenda for the next five years. The current "competitiveness agenda" is to a large extent driven by a big lobbying campaign — so far, not well covered by the media.

Latest News

  1. UK-EU deal on Gibraltar only 'weeks away'
  2. Belgium declares war on MEPs who took Russian 'cash'
  3. Brussels Dispatches: Foreign interference in the spotlight
  4. Calling time on Amazon's monopolism and exploitation
  5. Resist backlash on deforestation law, green groups tell EU
  6. China's high-quality development brings opportunities to the world
  7. Ukraine tops aid list again, but EU spending slumps
  8. Who did Russia pay? MEPs urge spies to give names

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersJoin the Nordic Food Systems Takeover at COP28
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersHow women and men are affected differently by climate policy
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersArtist Jessie Kleemann at Nordic pavilion during UN climate summit COP28
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersCOP28: Gathering Nordic and global experts to put food and health on the agenda
  5. Friedrich Naumann FoundationPoems of Liberty – Call for Submission “Human Rights in Inhume War”: 250€ honorary fee for selected poems
  6. World BankWorld Bank report: How to create a future where the rewards of technology benefit all levels of society?

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsThis autumn Europalia arts festival is all about GEORGIA!
  2. UNOPSFostering health system resilience in fragile and conflict-affected countries
  3. European Citizen's InitiativeThe European Commission launches the ‘ImagineEU’ competition for secondary school students in the EU.
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic Region is stepping up its efforts to reduce food waste
  5. UNOPSUNOPS begins works under EU-funded project to repair schools in Ukraine
  6. Georgia Ministry of Foreign AffairsGeorgia effectively prevents sanctions evasion against Russia – confirm EU, UK, USA

Join EUobserver

EU news that matters

Join us