In Slovakia, a murdered journalist and a pro-press president

Zuzana Caputova, Slovakia's first female president. (CTK via AP Images)

In February 2018, Beata Balogová—the editor of SME, Slovakia’s biggest independent daily—was in Hungary, just across the southern border. She was talking to Hungarian journalists about the erosion of their country’s free press under Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. “They were telling me how they envied Slovakia—how we still have a vibrant, critical media despite oligarchs buying shares in big newspapers,” Balogová recalls.

Then she got a phone call. Ján Kuciak, a 27-year-old investigative reporter with Aktuality.sk, a Slovakian website, had been murdered at his home. Martina Kušnírová, his fiancée, had also been killed. It was clear that the couple had been targeted because of Kuciak’s work: he had made a name for himself reporting on the shady financial dealings of oligarchs and their ties to Slovakia’s government. Balogová knew Kuciak a little—he had been collaborating with SME on a story about Italian mafia influence in Slovakia before he was killed. “At that moment, I was wondering, what is worse: an autocrat suffocating the critical media, or the murder of a journalist?” Balogová says. “I think that we instantly realized—the whole journalistic community—that it is a crossroads, it is a huge warning sign.”

The killings of Kuciak and Kušnírová unleashed Slovakia’s biggest protests since the end of communism. In their aftermath, Robert Fico, the prime minister, a press-bashing populist, resigned from office. A few weeks ago, the country’s presidential election ended in an upset: Zuzana Čaputová—a liberal outsider with progressive social views, including press freedom—was voted in, an outlier in a part of the world where authoritarian attitudes toward the media reign.

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Čaputová—who rose to prominence fighting a 14-year legal battle against a toxic-waste dump in her town (she’s been called “the Erin Brockovich of Slovakia”)—has said that the murder of Kuciak, and the protests it sparked, informed her decision to run for president. When she entered the race, she was polling in the single digits (Slovakia is a conservative Catholic country) but she found fans outside the establishment. An impressive performance during televised debates pushed her into serious contention, as did a consistent anti-corruption message.

Journalists like Balogová were not surprised that continued public anger at Kuciak’s death manifested itself at the ballot box. For them, Čaputová’s ascent has been a gift. According to Foreign Policy, a majority of “prominent media personalities” endorsed her; .týždeň, a weekly magazine, put her image on its cover four weeks in a row. On one of those occasions, the image was accompanied by the word “Hope.”

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The international press has also lavished attention on Čaputová. Since 1993, when Slovakia cleaved from the Czech Republic, the country has mostly passed under the radar, particularly compared to its bigger Central European neighbors, Poland and Hungary, where, in recent years, sharp rightward turns have made headlines. Kuciak’s murder—and the attendant coverage of Fico’s government—put Slovakia right up alongside them in conversations about the rise of authoritarian populism. Now, with Čaputová as president, the country is suddenly being discussed as a liberal regional counterweight.

Such talk, however, feels premature. In Slovakia, the presidency is mostly a ceremonial position. The president wields power over vetoes, judicial appointments, and the military, but real authority rests with parliament. Peter Pellegrini, the prime minister, is seen by many observers—including Peter Bárdy, editor of Aktuality.sk; Milan Nič, a political researcher; and Tibor Macak, secretary general of the Association of European Journalists—as a puppet of Fico, who has continued to serve as chairman of Smer, the Slovak parliament’s largest party.

As far as the press is concerned, the levers of true power are still in hostile—if gloved—hands. Slovakia has retained a relatively free media climate—it placed 35th out of 180 countries on the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, which Reporters Without Borders published last week. (The United States placed 48th.) This ranking, however, masks a recent drop: in 2016, Slovakia placed 12th. Between that high-water mark and Kuciak’s murder, officials doubled down on aggressive anti-press rhetoric. And there have been other institutional signs of trouble. “Probably a year before the murder, we reinforced our sources on the ground, guessing that we would need to monitor the country better,” Pauline Adès-Mével, head of the European Union and Balkans desk at Reporters Without Borders, says. “Two or three months before the murder, I called [on] the public television to maintain its independence, and the Slovak authorities to stop interfering.”

In 2016, Fico called journalists “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes”; the press, he said, had conspired to harm the country during its spell in the European Union’s rotating presidency. (Reporters had merely raised questions about Fico’s management of public funds.) In 2017, he called journalists “ignorant” and offered to show them how to do their jobs. After a hiatus following the death of Kuciak, Fico returned to media-bashing: during the recent election, he accused Balogová of defaming Slovakia in an interview she gave to an Austrian newspaper.

“It’s not only me who Robert Fico attacks,” Balogová says. “This war has been going on for a longer time.”

 

Five months before Kuciak died, he received a threatening phone call from Marián Kočner, one of Slovakia’s richest men. According to The New York Times, Kočner lashed out after Kuciak—who had written a series of stories on Kočner’s allegedly corrupt business dealings—called Kočner for an upcoming piece. Kuciak contacted the police, who took more than a month to pick up his case; when they eventually did, it was quickly dismissed.

Kuciak was not alone: Adam Valček—a reporter at SME who had been collaborating with Kuciak—was also threatened by Kočner. Following Kuciak’s death, Valček realized that he had been placed under surveillance; he, too, filed a complaint with the police, and for a long time, heard nothing back. According to SME and other Slovak media, Peter Tóth, a former Slovak intelligence official, eventually testified that he had spied on five reporters at Kočner’s request.

Motivated, in part, by a lack of confidence in Slovak authorities, after Kuciak’s body was found, some of his former colleagues decided to find out what happened. In February, Pavla Holcová and Eva Kubániová published a detailed reconstruction of the murder on the website of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an investigative-journalism network with which Kuciak was collaborating at the time of his death. In the piece, Holcová and Kubániová report that an employee of Kočner’s paid hit men to kill Kuciak.

“At the beginning, we were really skeptical about the capability of Slovak police to investigate the murder properly, because there were many mistakes at the initial stage of the investigation,” Holcová says. “The bodies were moved, someone opened the window, and they set the time of the death totally wrong.”

Last spring, while Holcová—who is based in the Czech Republic, where she runs an investigative journalism center partnered with OCCRP—was in Bratislava reporting on Kuciak’s murder, she went to the police station to give testimony on what she knew of his death; the meeting turned into a seven-hour interrogation, she says. “There were three investigators asking a lot of questions. It was quite intense.” One of the officers said that he didn’t like Holcová’s “life attitude.” They asked her if she was working for the secret service, then confiscated her phone.

In March, authorities charged Kočner with ordering Kuciak’s murder. (He was already awaiting trial on unrelated fraud charges. An attorney representing Kočner did not respond to an email or WhatsApp message seeking comment. Kočner has previously denied wrongdoing.) Then, in April, Slovakian media reported that Miroslav Marček, a former soldier, confessed to carrying the killing out.

In written answers provided to CJR, a Slovak police spokesperson said that the complaints that had been made by Kuciak and Valček were investigated but not found to constitute criminal offenses. The prosecutor’s office agreed. The spokesperson acknowledged shortcomings in the Kuciak murder investigation, and said that steps have been taken to improve public confidence in the police. She added that five people have now been charged in the Kuciak case. “The opinion of the public is also influenced to a great extent by information that is only learned from the media, which are often subjective and do not reflect reality,” she said.

The Kuciak episode has highlighted the enormous influence of oligarchs in Slovakian society, including their incestuous relations with government and law-enforcement officials. As is increasingly the case across the region, their power extends to the press. In recent years, local oligarchs have invested in Slovakia’s media industry, jostling to dislodge the Western-European publishing companies that helped cultivate the country’s press in the wake of the Cold War.

In 2014, a company run by Czech and Slovakian tycoons bought a stake in SME. Matúš Kostolný, who was the editor at the time, left in protest along with several of his staffers; they set up Denník N, a new independent daily.

Balogová says that she was brought in to SME to steady the ship. “Today, the very toxic oligarchic group is in minority” she says of her employer’s owners. Still, its presence “makes our situation more difficult. We have to be even more careful. We really worked hard to keep the publishing house independent.”

 

What can Čaputová do about this situation? Probably not much. The government, which is still led by Fico’s party, Smer, looks in the mood to punish the press. (Smer did not respond to emails seeking comment.) It’s now trying to pass a law, updating an existing statute, that would require newspapers to give politicians a right of response when they believe their “honor, dignity, or privacy” has been impugned. Many Slovak journalists see the law as a cudgel—politicians, they say, will likely use it to undermine their editorial independence. If the law is passed after Čaputová takes office, in June, she will have the power to veto it. But parliament would almost certainly overrule her.

The symbolism of Čaputová’s victory, however, is powerful. And more substantive change could come soon. Next spring, Slovakia will hold legislative elections, giving those who support a free press and other liberal values a chance to shake up the composition of parliament. “Half of the country will probably not forget the legacy of Ján Kuciak and what it brought to public life, and it definitely will affect the coming elections,” Kostolný, now the editor of Denník N, says. Young people, in particular, “understand it’s an ongoing fight for democracy.”

In the meantime, Slovakia’s journalists are figuring out how they’ll cover her going forward. “I’m very curious, and I’ll watch her moves in the office,” Kostolný says. “I experienced already so many politicians who were very nice toward the media and were talking about the role of media when they were in the campaign or in opposition—and then, after a while, they realized that they don’t like media because it’s not nice and convenient for them.”

For both Kostolný and Balogová, maintaining independence will be key, even though the press is unavoidably invested in Čaputová’s pro-media values. “I don’t want my newspaper to be activist,” Balogová says. “I know that there is a challenge—in this political situation—that perhaps that’s something that would attract us to join politics and to take sides. But I don’t want my newspaper to do that.”

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist. He writes CJR's newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.