5 Years Since Kuciak Murder, Slovak Journalists Still Being Attacked By Politicians – Analysis
By Peter Dlhopolec
Every time Zlatica Kušnírová feels that she is about to lose sight of the end of her battle for justice, she imagines the dead bodies of her murdered daughter Martina and her daughter’s fiancée, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak, and reminds herself of why she is doing this: to continue fighting for the couple together with Kuciak’s parents.
“They’re no longer with us, but we’re still here to have justice served for them,” the mother told an investigative journalism centre named after Kuciak, “It’s our duty.”
The ruthless double murder of two innocent people on February 21, 2018, triggered the largest wave of anti-government protests in Slovakia’s modern history.
The then-prime minister Robert Fico – who at the time disparaged the organisers of the protests as “Soros’s children”, accused them of an illegal coup, and even showily offered 1 million euros to anyone who could help solve the crime – was forced to step down three weeks after the killings to avoid early elections. Another member of Fico’s Smer party, Peter Pellegrini, was appointed the new prime minister, an unsatisfying change to many.
Still, the already launched international investigation of the case, confirming the soundness of Kuciak’s journalistic stories on economic crimes linked to people around Smer along the way, began to unearth how the state under three Smer-led governments had gradually fallen under the sway of oligarchs and organised crime.
Two years later, pledges and slogans to root out corruption and organised crime secured the populist movement Ordinary People and Independent Personalities (OĽaNO), led by Igor Matovič, a landslide victory in the March 2020 parliamentary elections. The movement formed a coalition government, and Smer ended up in opposition.
The same year, the country saw three men convicted of involvement in Kuciak and Kušnírová’s murders. Yet in September, the Specialised Criminal Court acquitted the alleged masterminds of the double murder, businessman Marian Kočner, a main character in some of Kuciak’s stories, and his alleged conspirator Alena Zsuzsová on all accounts for a lack of evidence. But the pair, who are today serving long prison sentences for other economic and murder crimes, have been back in the dock in a retrial since last February following the Supreme Court’s ruling that scrapped their acquittal and ordered a retrial.
Five years after the double murder and massive anti-government protests, Kuciak’s father, Jozef, asked several hundreds of people gathered on a Bratislava square at the end of February not to give up and to continue demanding justice and decency.
“Though the crowd has become smaller, I still believe and hope that we can defeat evil,” he told the crowd, “A righteous trial and punishment for the culprits are a minimum we can get for our children.”
The retrial, which has almost disappeared from local media coverage, is expected to hear the new verdict in late April. This time around, the ruling will also take into account Kočner’s coded messages from the Threema encrypted messaging app together with an analysis explaining the codes, which the court previously refused to accept as evidence in this case.
And while the parents of the murdered couple are still waiting for some closure in the case, if the past few weeks and months are anything to go by, journalists in the country are also far from being any safer from attacks by high-profile politicians and other groups.
“It is shocking that in a country where a journalist was murdered just five years ago, leading politicians continue to launch vicious verbal attacks against the press,” the International Press Institute’s Jamie Wiseman wrote in an analysis on media freedom in Slovakia published after a fact-finding mission. “Apparently, they [politicians] have learned nothing.”
The Bratislava-based Ján Kuciak Investigative Journalism Centre has found that 66 per cent of journalists said they had faced a verbal attack or a threat in the past year.
Addressing the Bratislava crowd alongside Kuciak’s father, Beata Balogová, editor-in-chief of the Sme daily, called on politicians to stop targeting journalists. “How far is it from verbal attacks to murder?” she asked.
Smer supporter threatens female journalist with rape
Several days after the peaceful gathering and premiere of Matt Sarnecki’s documentary, “The Killing of a Journalist”, which recaps the events of 2018 and provides as-yet unseen footage linked to the double murder, the public broadcaster RTVS published a statement in which it said one of its political journalists, Marta Jančkárová, had received emails and a phone call containing rape and death threats following the two latest episodes of her political interview programme, Saturday Dialogues, on the radio.
“Rude emails will not deter me from work, but they are a testimony to how coarse our society has become,” the journalist wrote on social media.
One of the published emails shows that a person behind the threats holds pro-Kremlin views and supports Fico’s Smer party.
On February 25, RTVS refused to accept Smer MP and notorious pro-Kremlin disinformation peddler Ľuboš Blaha as an uninvited guest on the programme. Smer sent him to the programme instead of another Smer MP, Marián Kéry, a confirmed guest who did not turn up. RTVS therefore applied the so-called empty-chair rule and Defence Minister Jaroslav Naď (OĽaNO) was the only guest on the programme to discuss the first anniversary of war in Ukraine. The week prior, President Zuzana Čaputová featured on Jančkárová’s programme.
Smer subsequently accused Jančkárová and RTVS of pushing through “the official war propaganda” and “censorship”, and threatened RTVS head Ľuboš Machaj with “going after [Fico]”. The media, the president and several political parties slammed Smer for targeting journalists for their work, while RTVS has turned to the police over the threats that Jančkárová received.
“RTVS warns the representatives of political parties about the possible connection of these threatening emails with the increasing aggressiveness of communication in the public space and the spread of hatred towards journalists,” the broadcaster wrote in a statement.
Fico is notorious for making repeated attacks on journalists and their critical reporting. He called them “anti-Slovak dirty prostitutes” in 2016 when Slovakia presided over the Council of the EU. In recent years, he has referred to Slovak journalists as criminals who are paid by the Hungarian-born US financier George Soros, a regular target of disinformation in Slovakia, to attack the country through their work of writing, say, about large-scale corruption and organised crime under the Smer-led governments.
Fico and his former interior minister Robert Kaliňák, who stepped down a few days before Fico in 2018, themselves faced criminal charges of being involved in an organised crime group last year until the Prosecutor General’s Office dismissed them as unfounded. However, the ex-special prosecutor Dušan Kovačik has been sent to prison for corruption, former judge Miriam Repákováhas been convicted of abusing her powers to help Kočner’s business, and dozens of other members of law enforcement from the Smer era and businessmen have admitted to corruption or other crimes, and are cooperating with the police.
Fico is not the only party leader who attacks journalists, though.
Exploiting Kuciak’s name to attack journalists
In response to the threats suffered by Jančkárová, the populist ex-prime minister and self-proclaimed anti-corruption fighter Igor Matovič (OĽaNO) wrote “Je suis Marta Jančkárová” on social media to demonstrate his support for her. In the same post, he blamed journalists from relevant media outlets for people’s increased trust in disinformation, and for spreading lies and hatred against him and his party.
“There are good and bad journalists,” Matovič wrote, “Those who seek the truth and those who create their own ‘truth’.”
Last October, he pledged to “bring down corrupt journalists”. A month earlier, Matovič compared journalists to those who worked for Hitler’s regime. Today, five years after Kuciak’s murder, the OĽaNO leader is still using the name of the murdered investigative journalist to criticise the media for their work, which has included exposing numerous of Matovič’s failures.
The former prime minister continues to do so despite Kuciak’s brother asking Matovič back in 2021 to stop exploiting the double murder to attack journalists. Matovič, who came to power in 2020 in part thanks to the investigative work of journalists like Kuciak, often accuses the media of paving the way for the return of Fico and Pellegrini in the upcoming September 30 early election.
Pellegrini, a Smer renegade who has criticised Fico for his attacks on the media and using rhetoric adopted from extremists, is currently the most trusted politician in Slovakia, according to a Focus poll. His party, Hlas, tops most public opinion polls, followed by Smer. However, in the latest poll conducted by the Median SK polling agency, Smer came out on top.
Even aside from Matovič’s targeting journalists, the governments led by his OĽaNO party have done little to protect journalists during their time in power over the past three years.
“A much-needed amendment to the Criminal Code providing aggravated penalties for crimes committed against journalists due to their work remains parked in the [Justice] ministry,” the IPI’s Wiseman said.
Despite recently updated media and media ownership legislation, journalists can still be convicted of defamation in Slovakia and sentenced to up to eight years in prison, the IPI went on to point out.
Miracles can happen
As time goes by, Zlatica Kušnírová thinks Slovak society has yet again changed under the strong influence of disinformation and politicians’ broken promises, and not just in its relationship towards the media. Disappointed, Kušnírová herself was clear when asked whether she still believed in justice in Slovakia.
“No,” she responded flatly.
She is not the only one to have doubts. In 2022, four years after the Kuciak murder, only 26 per cent of Slovaks said they trusted the media, according to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism. And the previously cited Median SK poll showed that parliament, government and the courts are the least trusted institutions.
Observers list various reasons why people might have become cynical again about the situation in the country, ranging from the coronavirus pandemic, war in Ukraine, inflation, chaos in parliament, to publicised and frequent conflicts among coalition partners within the OĽaNO-led governments, the last of which, led by Eduard Heger, collapsed last December and has been replaced with Heger’s current interim cabinet.
“Though things have been changing for the better, people do not feel it,” sociologist Michal Vašečka argued in a recent interview with RTVS, explaining that political elites have failed to convince and demonstrate to people that significant changes were made, and that they can trust the system. “Hence, people are disappointed.”
But political scientist Michal Cirner also points to something that has changed for the worse: politics. “It is more vulgar than before the murder,” he told the Pravda daily on February 22.
His colleague, Radoslav Štefančík, went even further in an interview with the Aktuality.sk website when he opined that politicians like Fico, an admirer of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, could exploit Kuciak’s death to their advantage in the run-up to the September election. Smer has already said several times that it will reveal who actually killed Kuciak. Štefančík added that these are “the conspiracy theories that are at the centre of interest of a part of society.”
Alongside Bulgarians, Slovaks are most prone to believing disinformation in Central and Eastern Europe, according to the 2022 Globsec Trends report.
At the February 21 gathering in Bratislava marking the fifth anniversary of the double murder, pastor Daniel Pastirčák told people that freedom was being threatened from the inside, pointing to the potential return of Fico to power, and from the outside, meaning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. But he also reminded people that miracles do still happen, despite often being overlooked.
“The Slovak citizen has proven several times that when things get tough, they can surprise,” he said. “Let’s surprise ourselves. We owe it not only to ourselves, but also to Martina and Ján.”