February 28, 2018

Press freedom in Slovakia after investigative reporter’s murder

Hundreds of candles have been placed in front of a portrait of Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kusnirova in the center of Bratislava in the night of February 27, 2018. VLADIMIR SIMICEK / AFP
Never, not even in the darkest hours of the country’s history, have the Slovak media experienced such an act of violence as last weekend’s double murder of the young investigative reporter Ján Kuciak and his partner. As the shockwaves from their deaths continue to reverberate, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) looks at the decline in media freedom in Slovakia.

Robert Fico, the country’s prime minister since 2012 and leader of the left-wing populist SMER-SD party, has never hesitated to lash out at the media, often using the most virulent language. When reporters questioned his handling of the nation’s funds in 2016, he accused them of trying to damage Slovakia’s European Union presidency and called them “dirty anti-Slovak whores.” Last December, he accused them of double standards in their coverage of him, called them “ignorant” and even offered to show them how to write a news story.

A similar language is used by interior minister Robert Kaliňák, who is alleged to have covered up real estate entrepreneur Ladislav Bašternák’s tax fraud operations. When an associate of Bašternák, the controversial businessman Marián Kočner, recently threatened Kuciak, the interior minister defended Kočner and played down the importance of the threats. But it just so happened that Kuciak was investigating the activities of associates of both the prime minister and interior minister.

And now it is the prime minister and interior minister who are in charge of the investigation into Kuciak’s murder. They have given assurances that everything will be done to find those responsible and have even promised a 1 million-euro reward for any significant information. But Slovakia’s journalists fear that the investigation will fail to be thorough and independent. They also doubt that everything will done to guarantee their own safety in the future.

Turning point for Slovak journalism

The fears of the Slovak journalist community are due in part to the fact that they had never previously experienced this kind of violence. But the situation had already been deteriorating. In 2007 and 2008, and again in the past two years, there were arson attacks on the homes or cars of three journalists who specialized in covering local organized crime. And another was physically attacked.

Two journalists also disappeared. Pavol Rýpal, an investigative reporter who covered organized crime for Markíza TV and then for the magazine Plus 7 Dní, went missing in 2008. And Miroslav Pejko, a journalist with the business daily Hospodárske Noviny, went missing in 2015. The police never solved these disappearances.

Those attacks are now regarded as having been warnings for journalists who cover organized crime. But Kuciak’s death is nonetheless seen as a turning point. He is journalism’s first overt murder victim since the end of communism.

Oligarchs take over the media

A specialist in covering large-scale tax evasion, Kuciak was already regarded as one of Slovakia’s best investigative reporters although he was just 27. He worked for, a news website jointly owned by the Germany’s Axel Springer press group and the Swiss company Ringier.

After the collapse of communism, it was common to see media outlets being developed with western capital in the 1990s, but foreign-owned media have become a rarity in present-day Slovakia. One by one, international media groups have sold the country’s biggest media outlets to influential businessmen based in Slovakia or nearby countries. The Slovak media are now increasingly under the control of local or regional oligarchs.

The Slovak and Czech company Penta’s acquisition of the daily newspaper SME from its German owner in 2014 is a good example. It triggered the creation of a new media outlet, Denník N, by journalists opposed to the acquisition. Penta’s appetite did not stop there. It now wants to buy Markíza, Slovakia’s most popular TV channel , from the US group CME.

In an attempt to prevent control of the media from being concentrated in too few hands, Slovak legislation prohibits media cross-ownership, in principle at least. It should not be possible, for example, to own two or more TV channels or national radio stations, or a combination of TV channels and a newspaper. But experience has shown that the law is easily circumvented.

Control of state media

Amid all this transformation in the Slovak media landscape, the independence of the state-owned national radio and TV broadcaster, RTVS, has also been undermined. RTVS had for years enjoyed a significant degree of editorial independence and public trust until 2017 when Jaroslav Rezník – a member of one of the parties in the ruling coalition who had been appointed by parliament as its new CEO – replaced its three main editors.

The new leadership then suspended “Reportéri”, Slovakia’s only investigative current affairs TV programme, after it broadcast a report critical of an organization linked to the far-right Slovak National Party (SNS), a junior member of the ruling coalition. After a great deal of criticism, including from RSF, the management has promised to revive “Reportéri” next September. But the suspension has shown that RTVS is no longer effectively protected from political pressure.