Five years ago, a young investigative Slovak journalist named Ján Kuciak was shot and killed, along with his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová.
The Slovak authorities are now close to delivering a verdict in the trial of the alleged mastermind of the murder, offering an example to other European countries of how to challenge impunity for journalist killings and put in place national press freedom reforms.
Yet much remains in the balance.
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) recently joined other press freedom groups in a mission to the country. We wanted to show solidarity with the families of the victims, local journalists, and activists calling for justice, and establish if Slovakia’s legislative reforms will actually make journalists safer.
The 2018 murder of Kuciak, a hard-working journalist whose reporting exposed government corruption, sent shockwaves through Slovak society.
Slovaks poured into the streets demanding justice and change. The government, initially slow to respond, felt the mounting pressure, and high-level resignations followed, including of the former prime minister Robert Fico.
“The tragedy changed the face of Slovakia,” explained Ľuboš Machaj, the recently appointed director general of Slovak public broadcaster RTVS, to the press freedom delegation.
In Brussels, the murder of Kuciak and that of Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in 2017 undoubtedly led to change within the European Union institutions. Both murders underscored how journalists in the EU were defending democracy by investigating corruption, yet were paying the ultimate price for their work.
The 2019 European elections prompted a strengthened mandate for the European Commission to intervene on press freedom matters, which in turn led to reforms from Brussels, including the 2021 Journalist Safety Recommendation, a draft Directive on Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation and the draft European Media Freedom Act.
In Slovakia, the 2020 elections were a pivotal moment. A new government brought in a wave of change, responding to calls from the population to address entrenched corruption, including that linked to the previous administration.
Importantly, the new administration has sought to deliver legislative and policy reforms on press freedom, including bolstering protection for source confidentiality, preventing the prosecution of journalists who publish following freedom of information requests, developing transparency rules around media ownership, and proposing increased punishments for attacks against journalists.
An independent platform led by the Investigative Centre of Ján Kuciak allows journalists to safely report threats, yet the effective response of law enforcement will be key.
But progress has been marred by verbal attacks from some political figures, including from former deputy prime minister Igor Matovič, contributing to a threatening environment for journalists. Unchecked, these attacks also send a message that the online harassment of journalists by citizens is acceptable.
Defamation in Slovakia still carries a prison sentence of two to eight years, and although no journalist has been imprisoned, its threat still hangs in the air. We called on the authorities to take steps towards full decriminalisation.
The investigation of high-level officials involved in corruption uncovered by journalists is welcome. However, elections in Slovakia are coming up this year, and there is fear that a possible return of populist politics can mean a reversal of the good work put in place with these national reforms.
Political vendettas from the previous administration could be carried out if powerful figures from the Smer-SD party were to regain more political control, and journalists — or critical journalism — could be in the sights of those seeking to settle political scores.
The next government will have to commit to press freedom.
EU institutions should also ensure their own scrutiny of the situation in Slovakia, undertaken in large part by EU commissioner Věra Jourová and the European Parliament’s Working Group on Democracy, Rule of Law and Fundamental Rights Monitoring Group. European elections in 2024 offer a fresh opportunity for a new commission to commit to protecting investigative journalists -and following up on the situation in Slovakia.
The prosecution of the hitmen and a go-between who assisted the alleged mastermind, businessman Marian Kočner, has provided some relief. But the pending verdict against Kočner — set to be delivered shortly — could prove a litmus test.
Five years of activism and scrutiny show that the struggle against impunity — which has included addressing corruption, strengthening the rule of law and improving the environment for journalists — is long and complex.
Addressing impunity for this crime, and seeing through change, will have positive reverberations for journalists around Europe. And this change will also honour the memory of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, a young couple whose lives were so brutally and unfairly cut short.