A month after the grisly double murder of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kusnirova, the aftershocks continue to reverberate throughout Slovakia, underscoring the country’s struggles with corruption but also the vital importance of the quest to uncover it.
The murders have been met with universal condemnation and outrage inside Slovakia and throughout the European Union. Kuciak was the first journalist ever to be killed for his work in Slovakia’s 25 years as an independent state. Until now, it had enjoyed a reputation as a country where expression was generally tolerated.
The report that Kuciak was working on — a meticulous account of the ties between government officials and an Italian mafia syndicate accused of defrauding the E.U. of subsidy funds — prompted the killing, according to Slovakia’s state prosecutor.
While the criminal case remains open, the episode attests to the role that free media plays in a world where transparency has become a norm. Stemming the flow of information is becoming nearly impossible.
Disinformation remains a huge problem, of course. So, too, does censorship — both the kind imposed directly by state authorities and the more insidious versions, fueled by intimidation, that flourish in corners of the world where opacity still reigns. That’s why the murders of Kuciak and Kusnirova are so jarring. This is not supposed to happen in the European Union of 2018.
But if the murderers (and those who hired them) hoped to silence critics by killing Kuciak, their plan is backfiring. “If it was 1918, when journalism was done only on paper, it would be a ‘good’ precaution to silence a journalist,” Peter Habara, an editor at Kuciak’s website, told me by email. “After the murder … the story would die as well. But not in this era. Even if they kill us all, the story and truth will prevail.”
The candlelight vigils that young Slovaks have organized in memory of Kuciak and his fiancee have grown rapidly. Demonstrators began by calling for an honest and accountable investigation into the killings, but now they are demanding the end of the current government, which is seen as tainted by the corruption that Kuciak helped to expose.
“The government’s mandate is quite tenuous at the moment. So much trust has already been lost,” says Dalibor Rohac, a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. The public outcry has also led to fresh inquiries into the allegations outlined in Kuciak’s reporting.
This week the European Commission’s Anti-Fraud Office, OLAF, announced that it is conducting a preliminary assessment into the mismanagement of E.U. subsidies that Kuciak alleged. “We find all this information alarming as it strongly signals that there is a potentially systemic misuse of EU funds in Slovakia,” a group of eight members of the European Parliament wrote in a letter requesting the inquiry. “We are very concerned that EU funds and agriculture subsidies could be siphoned off to fund criminal activities.”
In the wake of the murders, then-Prime Minister Robert Fico made a bizarre public commitment to “find the killers,” offering a reward of 1 million euros for information leading to arrests. But those promises rang hollow to many. Almost immediately, close associates of his were implicated in the case.
Fico has long aimed ire at journalists, once calling a group of them “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes.” This time, though, he failed to divert attention from the burgeoning scandal and was forced to resign (along with a number of other officials).
Nonetheless, public confidence in the rule of law in the E.U. member state has come unhinged. As time continues to pass since the crime, the odds of a proper investigation become bleaker. Slovakia’s head of police, Tibor Gaspar, remains in his post though the calls for him to step down or be replaced are growing.
Officials with close ties to the Italian crime organization implicated in the murders were reportedly among the first to enter the crime scene, fueling speculation about evidence-tampering.
“The next few days are critical as to whether there will be a real investigation or not,” says Rohac. “People in Slovakia just don’t trust the government to bring this case to closure. They are jaded on the ability of the police to properly investigate.”
Many Slovaks simply assume that their officials are corrupt. “Most of the anger, passion and motivation is holding on, but I can see that normal citizens are getting back to the status quo,” says Habara. “Even though they were protesting a lot, nothing has really changed. The corrupted government is still in power.”
Yet he emphasizes that Kuciak and Kusnirova have left behind an important legacy nonetheless: “Two talented, modest and promising young people were killed viciously in their house only because they wanted to make this country a better place.” One can only hope that their example will serve to inspire the next generation — and not just in Slovakia.