WASHINGTON — The vigor with which Slovakia’s government investigates the murders of Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, will show journalists who now fear for their safety whether Prime Minister Robert Fico’s anti-media rhetoric will translate into inaction in trying to find the killers.
At the time of his Feb. 25 murder, Kuciak was investigating possible ties between Slovak politicians and Italian organized crime.
Fico has been openly critical of the media since at least 2016, when he called local reporters “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes.” Despite this vitriolic rhetoric, however, experts do not believe that the Slovak government was directly involved in Kuciak’s murder.
“The government in general, or the prime minister in particular, many times expresses contempt for some journalists/media outlets, but there was no interference in media freedom,” said Slovak media expert Andrej Skolkay, author of Media Law in Slovakia.
However, the murder — and the subsequent government response — do highlight an increased amount of conflict between state and media in the Central European country. Slovakia recently dropped five places on the World Press Freedom Index – although it still ranks 17th in the world.
Reporters Without Borders, the media freedom watchdog group that produces the Press Freedom Index, issued a statement after the murder warning of a “growing hostility” between politicians and journalists in Slovakia. The organization also notes that Slovakia has the harshest penalty for defamation in the European Union and that Slovak politicians and businessmen have brought many lawsuits against journalists.
Slovakian reporters are worried that the government’s anti-media rhetoric may translate into possible negligence regarding the investigation into the murder.
“Slovakia’s journalists fear that the investigation will fail to be thorough and independent,” said RWB in a Feb. 28 statement.
The way in which the Slovak government handles its investigation into Kuciak’s murder may ultimately prove a telling sign of whether the prime minister’s antipathy toward the media will go beyond mere rhetoric.
Fico has offered a €1 million reward for information about the murders. Slovak police detained seven Italians in connection with the murders but released them all on Saturday.
In October 2017, Kuciak posted on Facebook that he had been receiving threatening phone calls from a businessman involved in another of his investigative reports and complained that the Slovak police had been unhelpful in looking into the threats.
Kuciak’s final article, — though unfinished — was published posthumously by his employer, website Aktuality.sk. The article examined potential ties between the ‘Ndrangheta, an Italian organized crime syndicate, and members of the Slovak government. Two government officials who were named in the article have resigned since its publication.
Because of Slovakia’s relatively small size, it is not uncommon for reporters with different outlets to work together on a story. Other reporters working on Kuciak’s last investigation, including Slovak writer Adam Valcek and Czech journalist Pavla Holcova, are now reportedly under police protection.
“At the moment, the Slovak journalists are putting on a very brave face,” said Martin Votruba, professor of Slovak Studies at the University of Pittsburgh. “But it’s not a very happy life to work while you know that you need police protection, not only to be able to work, but to live on.”
Votruba describes the Slovak government as “antagonistic” towards the press, but not overtly trying to curtail media freedoms.
“If we can compare it to the United States… with Trump saying that all news is fake, or that The New York Times is a terrible newspaper – it’s not affecting The New York Times’ freedom of the press itself,” he said.
But Skolkay warned that it’s possible Fico’s rhetoric could become standard political language to undermine independent journalism, following in the wake of Slovakia’s more restrictive Central Europe neighbors: “Who would have expected that Hungary or Poland, pioneers in building free economies and societies in the region… would be seen as so problematic countries with shrinking media freedom today?”