Slovakia, a small central European country of 5.5 million, is currently experiencing some of its most challenging days – the likes of which can only draw parallels with the 1990s and the era of the semi-autocratic regime of the former Prime Minister Vladimir Mečiar. However, even these parallels that connote the dark days of Slovak journalism during which members of the press corps would regularly be threatened verbally and physically, fall short of the tragedy that has unfolded in the last week.
A 27-year-old investigate journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé Martina Kušnírová were shot dead in their house in Veľká Mača, a village located about 50 km from the capital of Bratislava. The murder of two young people has not only sent shockwaves across the country (and the world) but also mobilised frustrated citizens who no longer wish to suffer the cloud of corruption hanging over the political elites and their protégés.
In Slovakia, the rather tense relations, to say the least, between the political representatives and the media date back to the mid-1990s when the then Prime Minister Vladimir Mečiar ruled the country with a clinched iron fist which he would demonstratively raise against the media every now and then. Not unnoticed by the rest of the world, Slovakia was at the time described by then US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright as a “black hole in the heart of Europe”. While Mečiar’s reign would later in the decade come to an end only to make a way for the country to join the EU and NATO, the ghost of his era would continue to linger on – not least because the current PM Robert Fico would revive Mečiar by forming a coalition government with him between 2006-2010, but more importantly, because Fico himself has taken on Mečiar’s anti-media rhetoric.
Fico has been in power, with a brief pause after 2010, for over 12 years. And as such he has had ample opportunities to acknowledge the vital work of the country’s journalists. Instead, Fico has developed poor and conflicting relations with the media. He has resorted to calling the journalists ‘dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes’ and claimed they worked against the government and the country’s interests. With his current coalition partner Andrej Danko from the Slovak nationalists, he has interfered with the public-service Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS) and by doing so, far from celebrating the principles of a democratic system, he has opened the Pandora’s Box leading to decay of free speech.
It is true that according to Reporters without Borders and their 2017 World Press Freedom Index, Slovakia is ranked in a rather impressive 17th place – which means it fares better than the rest of the V4 as well as Australia or Canada. Yet, Slovakia is slowly slipping down in international rankings and following the murder of Kuciak, it is expected to fall even lower. None of this, however, happens in a vacuum; it is a trend that, while it may have shocked many, should perhaps not come as a total surprise.
At the time of writing, it is still unclear what exactly happened in the house of Kuciak. As is often the case in such high-profile murder cases, the investigation moves at a speed of light. Or at least it appears so, not least because parallel to the police, the media are working overtime to bring forth new information and speculations. What seemed plausible yesterday may seem like old news today and even dubious concoction tomorrow. Nevertheless, what we do know for a fact is that Ján Kuciak and his fiancé were murdered in cold blood. Furthermore and as of Wednesday, the police have confirmed that the most likely motive of Kuciak’s death has to do with his investigative journalism. What remains to be determined, however, is whether he was murdered for his previous work or work that was yet to be published.
Both paths of reasoning seem plausible. Jan Kuciak was not averse to controversy in uncovering the complex web of relations suggesting corruption seeping into the highest echelons of the political class in Slovakia. Some of his prominent articles featured corruption scandals going as far as Ukraine but he also reported on various VAT fraud scandals implicating influential members of the local criminal milieu and politicians themselves. Furthermore, his work on the Panama Papers identified potential corruption that linked businessmen with the Fico’s Socialist party.
However, gauging the developments and conjectures of the last few days, it seems just as likely that Kuciak’s death had more to do with what he was yet to publish, rather than what he had helped already uncover in the past. At the time of his death, as confirmed by his colleagues, Kuciak was working on a series of articles that would expose activities of the most influential Italian mafia ‘Ndrangheta in Slovakia and the connections of this group with those working for the Government’s office and the Socialist party. With such high-level connections, the representatives of the Italian mafia would pursue their business interests by allegedly, among other things, embezzling EU funds via claiming money for growing bio crops. All of these unsavoury connections were to be exposed and published in the Kuciak’s latest article. An article that was never finished by Kuciak himself, but one that was published this Wednesday nevertheless.
The enormous amount of courage and determination of Kuciak’s colleagues to see the investigation through, have become one of the positive takeaways from this tragedy. This, in contrast with the cautious suspicion of the general public that the case will never be investigated independently by the Slovak authorities, may be the only positive outcome that will emanate from this murder.
No reasonable person can expect that the very same high-level politicians, including Prime Minister Fico himself, the Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák, as well as Fico’s (now former) Chief State Advisor Mária Trošková, and Secretary of the Security Council Viliam Jasan who all have been allegedly implicated in corruption scandals of some sort would want the investigation to be followed through and to all conclusions – no matter where those may lead.
Nevertheless, some within the current government and the police have to bear some share of responsibility for having nurtured the atmosphere in which journalists are not only demonised and threatened, but one in which it is no longer only a matter of wild imagination that some even get killed. Furthermore, their moral standing has been compromised by the fact that many within the political elites have failed to stay clear of the allegations of corruption. This is something that Slovaks themselves will have to come to terms with and address in due course.
But the ghastly murder of Kuciak has moral ramifications beyond the state border of Slovakia. There is no use in denying: a killing of a journalist, be that Kuciak or reporters of Charlie Hebdo, can only be described as a direct attack on freedom of speech. Free speech is not just any one freedom, one of the many or one that can be substituted for other freedoms in its stead. It is the freedom on which all other freedoms rest. Without free speech in general and without press freedom in particular, there can be no democracy.
This is why the murder of Kuciak is an assault on the fundamental democratic principles of Slovakia and of the Western world. It concerns all of us and our response to it will determine the level of our preparedness to defend our democratic principles. That is because it is also our responsibility, as individuals and as societies, to not give up on the very same values that keep us free.