Slovak Police Charge Three over Journalist’s Killing
Judicial authorities in Slovakia have formally charged three individuals with “premeditated murder and other crimes” related to the murder of an investigative journalist and his fiancée that occurred earlier this year. The indictments, announced by the Slovak state prosecutor’s office on Sept. 28, 2018, come after months of turmoil in Slovakian politics that saw massive street protests, the resignation of a prime minister, and the resurgence of wider fears over the future of press freedom in the central European country.
Jan Kuciak, a 27-year-old investigative journalist for Slovakian news site Aktuality.sk, was murdered along with his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, on Feb. 25, 2018, in what appeared to be a contract killing. Their bodies were found in Kuciak’s home, with Kuciak bearing a gunshot wound to the chest and Kusnirova with one to the head.
The shocking killing of Kuciak and Kusnirova was roundly condemned by Slovak and international journalists’ organizations, with many calling the attack a direct assault against investigative journalism and free media in Slovakia. Slovak politicians, including President Andrej Kiska and then-Prime Minister Robert Fico, expressed their horror and condolences at the news and called for punishment of the murderers by Feb. 26.
Slovak media published Kuciak’s final, albeit unfinished, investigative piece within hours of his death, with international media translating and publishing his work worldwide in a show of solidarity within 72 hours of the discovery of Kuciak’s murder. The content of the piece — reports of alleged ties between the Italian Mafia (especially the ‘Ndrangheta syndicate centered in Calabria) and high-ranking officials in the Slovak government and ruling party — triggered a political crisis that led to the resignation of three top members of then-Prime Minister Fico’s government on Feb. 28.
While Fico denied any wrongdoing and rejected President Kiska’s calls for a new government, protestors calling for Fico’s resignation flooded the streets of several Slovak cities starting on March 9. Fico finally resigned as prime minister on March 15 on the condition that his governing coalition be permitted to finish its four-year term. President Kiska thus appointed Peter Pellegrini, then interim Deputy Prime Minister, to replace Fico the same day, although street protests — some of the largest in Slovakia’s history since the 1989 Velvet Revolution — continued with demonstrators rejecting the continuing existence of the ruling coalition and calling for fresh elections.
While Prime Minister Pellegrini’s government — with many of the same ministers as under his predecessor — survived a vote of confidence on March 27, new street protests in Bratislava starting on April 5 called for the head of the national police to resign over perceived lackluster efforts by the police to investigate and prosecute the crimes unearthed by Kuciak. On April 17, the prime minister announced the police chief’s resignation by the end of May “in order to calm the tensions and free the police from media pressure.”
After a brief interlude where Slovak politics turned to focus on other matters — mainly ongoing spats between the European Union and its eastern member-states of the Visegrad Four, of which Slovakia is a member alongside Poland, Hungary, and Czechia — Slovak police reported on Sept. 27 that several individuals in connection with the murder of Kuciak and Kusnirova had been arrested. The following day, Slovakia’s state prosecutor announced that out of eight people detained in the arrests, three had been formally charged and the remaining five released. Slovak authorities have declined to release the names of the suspects in order to not compromise the investigation.
As preparations for trials related to the killings of Kuciak and Kusnirova begin, international observers note that the precipitous decline of press freedom in Slovakia is reflective of a larger trend across the European Union and the globe at large. The likelihood of the investigations and trials undertaken by Bratislava uncovering the true extent of criminal ties, dispensing justice, and restoring an atmosphere of journalist safety and free press in the country is in doubt as growing hostility towards journalists across Eastern-Central Europe — oftentimes fanned by leaders — increasingly validates threatening journalists and irrevocably damaging the media culture in the region.