Slovakia in Turmoil over Killing of Investigative Journalist
Slovakia’s Prime Minister Robert Fico has resigned amid a deepening crisis over an alleged murder of a journalist. Investigations are focused on links between the mafia and top officials of the Slovakian government. Fico’s Mar. 15, 2018 resignation follows the premature departure of several other ministers in his beleaguered government and massive street protests in the capital Bratislava.
Jan Kuciak, a 27-year-old reporter for the Slovakian website Aktuality.sk, was found dead in his home alongside his fiancée Martina Kusnirova on Feb. 25, 2018. Slovak authorities reported that Kuciak was shot in the chest and Kusnirova was shot in the head in what appeared to be a contract killing.
Kuciak primarily reported on tax fraud committed by businessmen and on corruption cases involving Slovak politicians. Swiss-German publishing group Axel Springer, which owns Aktuality.sk, issued a statement claiming “justified suspicion” that Kuciak’s death was related to his research. Slovak police echoed the statement on Feb. 26, with Slovakia’s chief of police surmising that Kuciak’s death was “probably related to his journalistic activity.”
Kuciak’s murder was swiftly condemned by numerous news organizations and Slovak politicians.
Reporters Without Borders called upon Slovak authorities to investigate the “exact circumstances of Jan Kuciak’s death” and drew comparisons between Kuciak’s death and the four other cases of journalists being murdered in an European Union (EU) country in the past decade — most notably Daphne Caruana Galizia, the Maltese investigative journalist who died in a car bomb explosion in Oct. 2017 after she exposed high-levels of corruption in the Maltese government.
The International Press Institute called Kuciak’s death “a terrible sign for journalism in the EU”, while the Slovak Syndicate of Journalists, in line with other major Slovak papers, warned that the targeting of Kuciak not only was an attempt to stop Kuciak’s work, but also an “unprecedented attack against investigative journalism and free media in Slovakia.”
The president of Slovakia, Andrej Kiska, expressed his shock and horror at Kuciak’s death on Facebook and stressed the need to “secure the safety of journalists.” Prime Minister Fico, in a press conference held on Feb. 26, allotted 1 million euros (1.23 million USD) in reward money for information on the murderers and announced the formation of a special government team to investigate the murders.
Slovak media, in a show of solidarity, published the unfinished draft of Kuciak’s article shortly after his death; international media published translated copies of Kuciak’s work by Feb. 28. In the article, Kuciak detailed the alleged ties between agents of the Italian Mafia (specifically the ‘Ndrangheta criminal syndicate, centered in Calabria, Italy) and several high-ranking officials of Prime Minister Fico’s government and Slovak ruling party SMER-SD. Kuciak also alleged the infiltration of Slovakia’s eastern region by ‘Ndrangheta agents seeking to launder money and smuggle cocaine, among other claims.
While Prime Minister Fico fervently denied any wrongdoing by him or by his associates named in the article, three top officials of Fico’s government — the culture minister, a chief state adviser, and the chair of Slovakia’s security council, all named by Kuciak — resigned on Feb. 28 to prevent attempts “by some politicians and the media to link our names to these repellant crimes.”
Slovak police moved to detain several Italian businessmen named in Kuciak’s article on Mar. 1 while Most-Hid, a junior partner in Fico’s SMER-SD-led coalition government, called for the interior minister to resign and hinted that it would withdraw support for the coalition. Thousands marched across Slovakia on Mar. 2 to commemorate the slain couple, with many calling for a thorough investigation of the killings.
On Mar. 5, after accusing Fico’s government of an “arrogance of power,” Slovak President Kiska called for a “radical reconstruction of the government” or fresh elections to defuse tensions and “rebuild public trust” in the government. Kiska also indicated that he would meet with the various Slovak political parties to find a solution to the burgeoning political crisis.
Fico rejected the president’s claims, stating that the government “won’t dance on the graves of two young people, unlike opposition, media, and, now, the president.” Fico went on to accuse the president of destabilizing the country, claiming Kiska was in league with Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros.
Anti-government street protests broke out across Slovakia on Mar. 9, with Bratislava alone having an estimated 50,000 demonstrators calling for Fico to resign. The interior minister — a close ally of Fico who also held the post of deputy prime minister — resigned on Mar. 12.
Ultimately, Fico himself resigned on Mar. 15 after offering to step down in exchange for allowing the ruling coalition to finish its four-year term. President Kiska accepted Fico’s resignation and tapped Peter Pellegrini, Fico’s interim deputy, as the new Prime Minister of Slovakia.
However, Slovaks took to the streets again on Mar. 16, with anti-government demonstrations calling for fresh elections to constitute a new government. Analysts note that Fico merely resigned as Prime Minister while keeping his post as head of SMER-SD; with the coalition government elected in March 2016 still intact, many activists have claimed that Fico’s resignation was “not enough” to address a “corrupt government.”
Slovakia is facing some of the largest protests in its history since the Velvet Revolution of 1989. As tensions continue to run high across the country, it remains to be seen if the strained Slovak government, led now by Prime Minister Pellegrini, can weather the political crisis engulfing the central European country.