Slovakia Remembers Killing Journalist Amid Calls For Reforms
By Stefan J. Bos, Chief International Correspondent Worthy News
BRATISLAVA/BUDAPEST (Worthy News) – Five years after the assassination of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová in Slovakia, local judges are nearing their judgment in the retrial of the alleged mastermind of the murder of website Aktuality.sk’s journalist and his fiancée.
While the attackers and an intermediary of the February 2018 killing were convicted to lengthy prison sentences, suspect Marián Kočner, charged with ordering the crime, was acquitted.
With the retrial verdict due in April this year, leading journalism groups called for “full justice” for the double murder and more safety for reporters and media.
They recalled Kuciak and Kušnírová being shot and killed in their home in 2018. At the time, Kuciak was investigating businessman Marian Kočner and had received numerous threats regarding his reporting on his shady business dealings.
In the last story he published before his murder, he wrote about Kočner’s role in a value-added tax fraud scheme in which he allegedly sold apartments to himself for nominal fees.
Kuciak also reported on Kočner’s alleged links to organized crime and politics, the police, and the judiciary. Some 13 judges were arrested, alleged to have accepted bribes from Kočner.
Following the murder, Robert Fico’s government collapsed amid public pressure, accusations of inaction, and links to organized crime. Kuciak was also investigating high-level government corruption at the time of his death, including matters involving Fico.
The groups said they conducted “a fact-finding and advocacy mission” in Slovakia to express support to the families and colleagues of the late Slovak journalist and his fiancée.
“As political parties prepare for early elections scheduled for September 2023, our organizations call for new political consensus and commitments to improve media freedom,” the organizations stressed.
In remarks sent to Worthy News, the groups asked authorities to improve “the safety of journalists to prevent any future killing of a journalist. And allow Ján Kuciak’s colleagues to continue his legacy of public interest reporting.”
However, “Like the road to full justice for Ján and Martina’s assassination, Slovakia’s progress on media freedom remains fragile,” they added.
“We are concerned that defamation remains punishable in Slovakia by a prison sentence of two to eight years. Although courts do not apply such sentences, among the harshest in the European Union, they allow politicians and businessmen to pressure journalists.”
The journalism organizations expressed concern that media “continue to be targeted by civil lawsuits with requests for damages of tens of thousands of euros.”
They said the Ministry of Justice proposed to decrease the maximum prison sentence for defamation to one year and – in case of significant damage – to two years. “Political parties are called upon to remove altogether prison sentences for defamation and to decriminalize defamation fully.”
The groups said they shared that message in meetings with the president, prime minister, and political parties, met with Slovak journalists and participated in the commemorative events.
In those talks, “we encouraged them to continue reforms and implement new measures to improve the safety of journalists. And [improve the] independence of the media – including the public broadcaster RTVS – and to protect against abusive lawsuits and defend whistleblowers.”
Last year, Parliament passed bills “strengthening the legal protection of confidentiality of journalistic sources,” the groups said. Legislators also reinforced “transparency of media ownership and funding,” they recalled.
The former director general of public broadcaster RTVS, under whose leadership more than 30 journalists quit, was replaced by authorities after a parliament election.
“Lawmakers have, however, failed to reform the heavily political selection process fundamentally,” the groups stressed.
“Moreover, as of July 2023, they decided to remove the license fees, the main source of funding, and replace them with state subsidies pending a long-term solution. [However] it was reported to the mission that the new director general enjoys the general trust of the media community,” they told Worthy News.
The statement was signed by journalism advocacy groups ARTICLE 19 Europe, Committee to Protect Journalists, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom, European Federation of Journalists, Free Press Unlimited, the International Press Institute, and Reporters Without Borders.
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