In late February, the mother of Martina Kusnirova, a 27-year-old Slovak woman, was worried: She hadn’t heard from her daughter in several days. After the mother raised the alarm, police found Kusnirova dead at her home, a gunshot wound in her head. Whoever killed her also killed her fiancé, Jan Kuciak, also 27, who’d been shot in the chest and was found alongside her. The couple were likely targeted because Kuciak was a journalist investigating a rash of Italian mafia activity in Slovakia, with tendrils snaking to the top levels of government.
The murders shocked Slovakia, a peaceful Central European country where this sort of thing simply doesn’t happen. Ten days later, the reverberations continue. Two senior government advisers named in Kuciak’s posthumously published exposé stepped down, while a posse of implicated Italian businessmen were detained and later released. Over the weekend, Slovaks in 25 cities marched in Kuciak and Kusnirova’s memory and against corruption, and President Andrej Kiska delivered a televised address calling for a shakeup of the government.
Kiska’s speech put him at loggerheads with Slovakia’s left-nationalist prime minister, Robert Fico, who accused Kiska—and the news media—of “dancing” on Kuciak’s grave. It wasn’t the first time Fico has assaulted the press. In November of 2016, he responded to questions about dubious spending by calling a group of reporters “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes,” while late last year he offered “ignorant” journalists a crash course in investigative reporting. In January, members of the Slovak National Party, a junior partner in Fico’s ruling coalition, themselves amped up attacks on the country’s public broadcaster. These threats—and now Kuciak’s assassination—have come in a country that Reporters Without Borders ranked as the world’s 17th best for press freedom (out of 180) in 2017 (the US ranked 43rd).
In recent months, mild media climates in several other European countries have been rocked with the force of a bomb cyclone. In October, Daphne Caruana Galizia, a tenacious journalist investigating corruption among Malta’s ruling class, was killed by a car bomb near her home on the island. In Poland last week, a group close to the ruling Law and Justice Party sued an Argentinian newspaper under a widely criticized new law that makes it a criminal offense to suggest Polish state complicity in the Holocaust. And Trump-style verbal attacks on the press have been in vogue almost everywhere: in Slovakia and Poland, and also in Italy. Elections there on Sunday returned large vote shares for the far-right League party and for the populist Five Star Movement—whose leadership has perpetrated industrial-scale dissemination of online misinformation (according to BuzzFeed), and whose founder, Beppe Grillo, once called for randomly selected public “juries” to determine whether news stories are real or fake.
Journalists aren’t buckling in these headwinds: Slovakian newspapers jointly ran Kuciak’s mafia investigation last week, and their Argentinian counterparts did likewise with the article targeted by Poland’s Holocaust defamation law. Such camaraderie and resilience are encouraging, and physical threats to journalists in most European countries shouldn’t be overstated. But it’s hard to shirk the feeling that nowhere is quite safe if you’re an investigative reporter in 2018. As Drew Sullivan, who worked with Kuciak as editor of the international Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, told Deutsche Welle, “[Kuciak] was only pulling records. He was only making freedom of information requests, which is normally a very safe thing to do.”
Below, more media news from Europe
- “Tentacles reaching out to politics”: You can read Kuciak’s final story in full here. The Slovak reporter found systemic Italian mafia influence in the country—manifesting in cozy relations with senior politicians, tax fraud, and embezzlement of European Union subsidies, among other tactics.
- Problems without borders: Nearly 200 journalists in Italy required police protection in 2017, in large part due to mafia threats. You can read Reporters Without Borders’s full 2017 reports on Italy, Poland, Malta, and the EU’s worst-ranked country—Greece—here.
- “From Russia with blood”: In the UK, a former Russian spy is in critical condition following a suspected poisoning. Last summer, BuzzFeed published this excellent investigation into 14 suspicious Kremlin-linked deaths on British soil—and lawmakers are now citing it to demand an inquiry.
- Here we go again: As is now par for the course in European democracies, Italy’s election unfolded under the specter of a concerted Kremlin-sponsored disinformation campaign. No one really knows the true extent of these attacks, but as The New York Times demonstrated last week, they’ve succeeded in undermining confidence across the continent.
- Swiss pleased: In happier news, voters in Switzerland overwhelmingly rejected plans to defund the country’s public broadcasters in a referendum on Sunday.
Other notable stories
- Subpoenaed former Trump aide Sam Nunberg’s bizarre Monday tour of cable news shows gripped the media sphere for a second day. Axios called the coverage “awful scandal porn” (which Erik Wemple and Andrew Beaujon agreed was a bit rich, coming from Axios), but commentators like Jack Shafer and Tim O’Brien defended Nunberg’s newsiness.
- On Monday, Pentagon officials warned news outlets they would be “complicit” with ISIS should they choose to disseminate footage purporting to show a deadly ambush involving four US soldiers in Niger in October. Many news organizations, including CBS News, did not heed their words.
- The agony continues for former employees of shuttered New York news sites DNAinfo and Gothamist—The Daily Beast’s Max Tani says the company didn’t withhold city taxes from some of their paychecks.
- For CJR, Alexandria Neason examines the nationwide uptick in school shooting threats since Parkland, and the ramifications for local education reporters.
- The Hudson Reporter newspaper chain in New Jersey published this lengthy look at the hyperlocal implications of fake news and online misinformation.
- Baltimore Beat, the successor to the shuttered Baltimore City Paper, has shut down just four months after it opened. Publisher Kevin Naff told The Baltimore Sun that while faltering ad revenue was to blame, “This is not a story about the death of print or of journalism or of the alternative press….We heard from many businesses—restaurants, bars, theaters and more—that they cut their marketing budgets due to declining revenue, which many attribute to the crime problem and dwindling visits from suburbanites.”
- In February, I reported on the Bay Journal, a part-EPA-funded environmental newspaper that launched a First Amendment challenge after the agency cut some of its funding. Last week, the EPA folded, promising to restore the grant.