Blood on Their Hands?
By condoning corruption and denouncing the press, Slovakia's government created an atmosphere in which journalists became targets.
BRATISLAVA, Slovakia — It was only four months ago that Slovakia’s prime minister, Robert Fico, proudly called his country “one of the most democratic and free in the world.” He made this statement while the world was mourning Daphne Caruana Galizia, a leading investigative reporter in Malta, who was killed by a car bomb on Oct. 16. “In Slovakia, journalists aren’t blown up,” Fico told a local news channel last November.
Now Slovakia is mourning its own journalist, the 27-year-old Jan Kuciak. Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were murdered in their home in the village of Velka Maca, their bodies found on Sunday. A police commander confirmed that the killings were “most likely related to the journalist’s investigative work.” Kuciak’s last unfinished story, which on Wednesday was published by most of Slovakia’s print and internet outlets, and is available here in English, focused on tax fraud and links between the Italian mafia operating in eastern Slovakia’s agricultural sector and Fico’s close allies: his chief advisor and former model, Maria Troskova, and his national security council secretary, Viliam Jasan, who in the past served as a member of parliament for Fico’s party.
Contrary to Fico’s claims, Slovakia is not an island of freedom — and never has been. This mountainous country of 5.4 million inhabitants doesn’t make the headlines as often as its troublemaking neighbors, Hungary and Poland, whose euroskeptic, illiberal turns have set off alarms across Europe. Slovakia is one of the few post-communist eurozone members, and it hasn’t attracted international public attention “because the government didn’t undermine the independence of the judiciary or the media in as spectacular a way as Hungarians or Poles” said Juraj Marusiak, a political scientist at the Slovak Academy of Sciences in Bratislava. But when one looks beneath the surface — and Kuciak was one of the few who had the courage to do so — one finds a state controlled by a small group of well-placed, wealthy insiders. Slovakia has long been on the spotlight of anti-corruption watchdogs. In the 2017 edition of the Corruption Perceptions Index, the country ranks sixth from the bottom among EU members. And a 2016-2017 World Economic Forum report listed corruption as the most significant barrier to doing business in Slovakia.
Fico has been prime minister for 10 of the past 12 years. In that time, he has become “a patron of an unhealthy pact between politicians of his party and oligarchs,” argues Marek Vagovic, an award-winning investigative reporter and author of a bestselling book on Fico’s oligarchy, who was a mentor to Kuciak.
For many Slovaks, Fico’s system is symbolized by the luxurious Bonaparte apartment complex, where the prime minister himself rents a flat from controversial entrepreneur Ladislav Basternak, who was charged with tax evasion last March. Fico’s neighbors in the complex have included ministers, politicians-turned-businessmen, and, until recently, another controversial tycoon, Marian Kocner, whose alleged tax fraud Kuciak had been investigating while working on his final story.
Fico’s administration has been characterized by murky relationships between government agencies and energy and construction firms, among others, that depend on government contracts. Last year, these ties prompted three anti-corruption marches organized by secondary school students. The students took to the streets to protest Robert Kalinak, the interior minister and Fico’s closest ally. Protesters accused him of accepting a suspicious payment from Basternak and for failing to conduct a proper investigation of a case in which he was implicated.
Despite such blatant conflicts of interest, the country still seemed safe from violent crime until this week. When Kuciak and his fiancée were gunned down, it reminded many Slovaks of the ghosts of the past. The circumstances surrounding last week’s killings seemed to hark back the murky 1990s, when the newly independent Slovakia was governed by the infamous prime minister Vladimir Meciar. Apart from his authoritarian control over the economy and nationalist rhetoric, it was Meciar’s secretive ties with local mafia bosses that gave the country its image as “a black hole in the heart of Europe,” in the words of Madeleine Albright, the U.S. secretary of state at the time.
Slovakia may not be regressing into that black hole, but the government has not done much to reassure journalists and citizens that it will defend the freedom of the press. For months before Kuciak’s death, police ignored an overt threat he had received. Last September, journalists explicitly asked the interior minister Kalinak, who oversees the police, about a threat made by Kocner, the businessman close to the ruling party. Kocner had phoned Kuciak to inform the reporter that he would show “special interest” in his mother, father, siblings, and in Kuciak himself.
“What threats do you have in mind?” Kalinak replied. “I rather feel that he [Kuciak] wants to get a job in your newspaper. What you’re doing is looking for dirt.” Kalinak is still in charge of the interior ministry which, along with departments headed by Fico’s close allies, will now be investigating Kuciak’s murder.
The interior minister wasn’t the only one creating an atmosphere of intimidation. Fico himself famously lashed out at reporters, calling them “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes” in November 2016. In the past, he has also attacked journalists as “ordinary stupid hyenas,” “slimy snakes,” and “toilet spiders.” Fico’s dealings with the media — which range from suing a cartoonist to verbally attacking individual reporters to refusing questions at press conferences — have served to position the media as an enemy of the Slovak people.
Unsurprisingly, the prospects for bridging the already deep gap between the government and the media after the Kuciak murder seem even bleaker than before. A few hours after Kuciak and his partner were found dead, Stefan Hrib, the editor in chief of the country’s leading weekly Tyzden, wrote in an outraged column that he had no trust in the police, and appealed to journalists to investigate the case on their own. “I maintain my arguments”, Hrib told me a day later. “This murder is not the shocking beginning for Slovakia, but a logical consequence of how the country has been governed over the last years,” he explained.
He has no illusion that this tragedy might finally allow the law enforcement authorities to prove their independence from politicians. “It’s absurd to believe the police and judiciary will solve this case, as they are a part of this case,” he insists. “For years, they have stayed more loyal to the ruling party and its business circle than to the public.”
People in Slovakia are angry, and their anger is growing every day. This week they have gathered in Bratislava’s main square or in front of government ministries to light candles. On Friday, more than 10,000 people are expected to hold a memorial march. Criticism over Fico is growing louder. “Killing two youngsters is a red line,” Jan Budaj, one of the leaders of the 1989 Velvet Revolution and currently a member of parliament for the opposition Ordinary People party, told me. “We live in Europe, not Russia, for God’s sake.” But there is no guarantee that the case will dent Fico’s popularity, given how divided Slovakia has become. For Fico to acknowledge political responsibility for this tragic event would mean admitting that the system he has created over the last decade is not only inefficient and crooked, but also depends on shady links to mobsters, who use violence to get their way.
Facing growing pressure from the public, Fico has resorted to spectacular gestures. At a bizarre press conference on Tuesday, he announced a reward of 1 million euros for information leading to the arrest of the murderers, with the bills displayed theatrically on a table in front of him. His advisors, Troskova and Jasan, who were mentioned in Kuciak’s last story, stepped down, as did the country’s culture minister, saying he “cannot put up with a journalist being murdered” during his tenure. Meanwhile, Jaromir Ciznar, Slovakia’s chief prosecutor proclaimed he will “unleash hell” to find the killers. “They may find only a hand that pulled the trigger,” the newspaper editor Hrib commented wryly, but the “paymasters are among them.”
When I met the investigative reporter Vagovic last autumn to discuss his book about Slovak oligarchs, I asked him, as an afterthought, if he feared for his life.
“Today, the main danger for us in Slovakia is not criminals, like in the 1990s, but rather economic pressure from business leaders close to the government,” he told me then.
This week, I asked him the same question. “I’ll be more cautious now,” he admitted. “But none of us wants the result of Jan’s death to be fear and silence.”