Jan Kuciak murder: How free is the European press?

A placard with hashtag #allforJan is seen as people participate in a rally called 'Let's stand for decency in Slovakia' in Bratislava, Slovakia [EPA-EFE/CHRISTIAN BRUNA]

The murder of the Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova in February provoked a wave of anger, resulting in Prime Minister Robert Fico’s resignation. However, half a year later, the state of press freedom in the country is still in limbo.

Since Slovakia gained independence 25 years ago, Kuciak was the first journalist ever to be killed for his work in the small country. Although half a year has passed, investigators failed to determine who killed the journalist.

Before his death Kuciak was working on an investigative report, uncovering ties between Slovak government officials and an Italian mafia syndicate, who were supposedly collaborating to commit fraud of EU subsidy funds.

According to Slovakia’s state prosecutor, it was the corruption investigation that put him on the hit list. Another of the journalist’s unfinished articles describes drug cartels in Eastern Europe.

EU parliament demands independent probe into Slovak reporter's murder

The European Parliament called Thursday (19 April) on Slovakia to ensure a full and independent investigation into the murder of an investigative reporter while demanding better protections for all journalists in the EU.

In an open letter, Slovak colleagues expressed doubts about the independence of the investigation. They wrote: “We still do not know who killed them and why he did it. We still have doubts whether the investigation is truly independent. Since the murder there were no major changes in the police or prosecutor’s office, we cannot have much confidence in the investigation being carried out.”

Slovakia’s Public Prosecutor’s Office is due to release the results of criminal proceedings in September. “The status of criminal proceedings will also be announced to the European Parliament’s representatives in Slovakia,” a spokeswoman for the prosecution, Andrea Predajňová, told TASR news agency on Tuesday (21 August).

However, according to a recent poll by Eurobarometer, the confidence of the Slovaks in the police has fallen to 55%.

Although the outrage inside Slovakia and beyond led to some political changes – Prime Minister Fico made way for the more technocratic Peter Pellegrini, while the interior minister and the head of the police lost their jobs – journalists cannot feel any safer.

Reporters Without Borders (RSF) is alarmed by the situation in Slovakia. The country has fallen sharply in the organisations’ latest World Press Freedom Index and is now ranked 27th out of 180 countries.

Kuciak’s murder has highlighted the many problems that Slovakia’s journalists face. According to RSF, no official measures have been taken in the past six months to strengthen press freedom and the situation of journalists continues to worsen, especially within the public radio and TV broadcaster RTVS, where political pressure has triggered a spate of departures.

Slovak public broadcaster under fire after sacking 4 reporters

Slovakia’s public TV and radio broadcaster has come under fire for sacking four reporters last week who had signed an open letter warning of creeping political pressure in state media.

Only recently, controversial businessman Marián Kočner, one of the main figures appearing in Kuciak’s reports, declared publicly that he wants to collect private information about SME daily investigative reporter Adam Valček and his family. He was working on a story about Kočner’s suspicious business deals.

“Slovak democracy cannot dispense with a real, independent investigation,” RSF’s EU-Balkans desk said. “The continuing decline in the overall climate for the press in Slovakia is also very disturbing. The lack of progress in the investigation and the lack of a clear political will to enable Slovak journalists to work safely are becoming alarming.”

However, this is not an entirely Eastern European phenomenon. The murder of journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta or the hostilities towards the press in Western Europe show that this is a much wider issue.

With the rise of populist politics and “strongman” leaders, Europe’s downward trend will likely continue, according to RSF.

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