The Journalist Who Did Not Give Up Ján Kuciak, an investigative journalist, shot dead in February 2018. Photo: Aktualne.sk

The Journalist Who Did Not Give Up

Ján Kuciak, an investigative journalist, and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, both 27, were professionally murdered in their house near Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Their bodies were discovered on 25 February 2018. According to the police, the motive for the murder is likely related to Kuciak’s work. The country is in shock as it has never seen such an attack on a journalist in its history.

Kuciak had been working for the Aktuality.sk news website where he focused on investigating suspected tax fraud stories linked to government officials. His last report was published on 9 February and covered suspected tax fraud connected to the luxury apartment complex Five Star Residence in Bratislava. Kuciak’s article identified suspicious transactions between five companies involved in the complex; all five companies were owned by the same businessman, Marián Kočner.

Kočner’s Five Star Residence already drew public attention in 2016 when suspected tax fraud involving members of the government outraged thousands of protesters who called for the resignation of Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák, a close ally of Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico. Despite a chain of protests organised by opposition parties that lasted for more than two months, the minister stayed in office.

In early autumn 2017, after publishing a series of reports on Kočner‘s suspicious business dealings, Ján Kuciak received phone threats from Kočner. According to Kuciak’s editor-in-chief Peter Bárdy, Kočner said that he would look for and publicly expose any “dirt” he could find on the journalist and his family. Robert Kaliňák’s response at a press meeting to a question regarding the threats indicated he didn’t consider them a serious issue.

After the journalist’s murder, Kaliňák had to cancel part of his planned programme, the party‘s celebrations of International Women’s Day, and the government has faced an uproar of mass protests over the last week. The secretary general of Reporters Without Borders, Christophe Deloire, who came as a guest to the mass protest on Friday 2 March, has called on Slovak Robert Fico to apologise for insulting journalists and criticised the appalling climate for journalists in the country.

Despite Slovakia’s 17th ranking in the World Press Freedom Index in 2017, the country has witnessed a continuous decrease in safety for journalists in recent years as government officials have publicly diminished journalists’ work and mocked the threats journalists have faced. The social-democratic party Smer, with its leader Robert Fico, has ruled the country in a series of coalition governments since 2006 with only a two-year break between 2010 and 2012.

Kuciak filed a criminal complaint on Kočner in September 2017. Last Monday, after the journalist’s death, Slovakia’s Chief of Police Tibor Gašpar told the media that the criminal case was closed as no law had been breached.

Kuciak had also been investigating the suspected theft of EU funds allocated to eastern Slovakia by Italian mafia and had worked on the topic for 18 months. A book on the mafia remains on his desk at the office of Aktuality.sk. He had found connections between members of the Calabrian mafia ‘Ndrangheta and the Slovak government, especially through Mária Trošková, the chief state adviser, and Viliam Jasaň, the secretary of Slovakia’s security council.

His unfinished report about these connections was posthumously published by all national media on Wednesday and was followed by the temporary resignation of the two officials. There are strong assumptions that the governing party Smer cooperated with this mafia and that its members have been present in eastern Slovakia since the mid 1990s.

Ján was first and foremost a good person, as his colleague Zuzana Petková described him. He was humble and remained relatively unnoticed, which was an advantage in his job as he could always surprise those he interviewed with perfectly prepared evidence-based questions. Ján was courageous, had a strong sense of justice, and would pay attention to details that went unnoticed by others. This might have been the reason for his death, she says. His other colleagues agree that he always shared his information and findings and never intended to work for the purpose of journalistic publicity and exclusivity.

Petková‘s last strong impression of Ján Kuciak dates back to November 2017 when they investigated the so called “Paradise Papers” and the Malta registry together with the Czech Centre for Investigative Journalism. Ján was ready to pay hundreds of Euros from his pocket just to get information on connections between Slovak companies and businesses in tax havens. Instead of her, he would scan all day long thousands of records in Prague and then travel overnight to Bratislava to bring the findings to her on time. In the morning, he would wait for half an hour in the darkness and freezing cold in front of her house, not wanting to ring the bell and wake up her children. He was one of the kindest persons she had met in her life.

Ján and Martina were planning their wedding on 5 May, as Martina’s two brothers said to the press in eastern Slovakia, Martina’s home region. They had only recently bought their house near Bratislava and were repairing it themselves.

Ján was murdered with one bullet in the chest, Martina with one in the head. Several bullets were left around their bodies and some interpret it as a warning for others who intend to engage in the same activities.

A  €1 million reward for revealing information on the perpetrators has been announced by the Slovak government, and Ján’s colleagues are determined to continue investigating the stories he worked on.