Slovakia: Press freedom predator’s shadow hangs over Kuciak murder
Reporters Without Borders (RSF) calls on the Slovak authorities to step up their investigation into detained businessman Marián Kočner’s repeated harassment of journalists and his possible role in the murder of the young investigative reporter Ján Kuciak.
Kočner has been held since June on suspicion of fraud but he had threatened Kuciak, who had written about his activities on several occasions, and he was very close to one of the four persons arrested in September on suspicion of being involved in the murder of Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, on 21 February.
“He acted in an extremely sophisticated manner,” prosecutor Ján Šanta told the supreme court in June, when seeking Kočner’s preventive detention for the purposes of an investigation into his fraudulent activities.
“He is expanding his criminal activities. He issued an astronomical sum, a total of 69 million euros, in fraudulent promissory notes, something never seen in the Slovak or Czech Republic. I am absolutely convinced that if his personal freedom is not restricted, he will pursue his criminal activities and pose an obstacle to the investigation.”
Kočner is alleged to have used these forged promissory notes in an attempt to get TV Markíza, Slovakia’s biggest commercial TV channel, to give him 69 million euros. Since his arrest, the authorities have begun investigating some of his other business activities including real estate speculation and tax fraud.
But Kuciak had himself investigated some of these activities and, when he contacted Kočner, was directly threatened with reprisals if he published his information. And it has emerged that one of the four suspects arrested in September, a woman identified as Alena S., worked for Kočner as an interpreter and that he is her daughter’s godfather.
“All possible light must be shed on the Marián Kočner’s activities, including his harassment of Slovak media outlets and his potential involvement in Ján Kuciak’s murder,” said Pauline Adès-Mevel, the head of RSF’s EU-Balkans desk.
“We hail the progress made in the investigation into this double murder, but it must be pursued to the end. The authorities must send a clear message that they are going to stop the obstructions to press freedom and to guarantee the safety of Slovak journalists against predators like Marián Kočner. Slovakia cannot tolerate another tragedy.”
Did former spies spy on Kuciak?
Despite the significant progress that has been made in the investigation, there are still doubts about the ability of the Slovak authorities to conclude it successfully. In addition to confiscating the mobile phone of Pavla Holcová, an investigative reporter and colleague of Kuciak, the police have made other mistakes in the investigation, as prosecutor-general Jaromír Čižnár has publicly acknowledged.
More seriously, some of the people potentially involved in the Kuciak murder used to work in core areas of the Slovak state. According to Slovak media reports, Kočner had hired two former members of the Slovak Information Service, the country’s leading intelligence agency, to spy on Kuciak and other journalists.
The daily Denník N said the two former spies, Peter Tóth and Miroslav Kriak, gathered personal information about several journalists including Kuciak with the aim of compromising them. But this information could also have been used to facilitate Kuciak’s murder.
So, did Kočner mastermind Kuciak’s murder? The judicial authorities clearly should be asking this question. He is known, in the presence of witnesses, to have threatened to kill a lawyer, Roman Kvasnica, who has since become the Kušnírová family’s legal adviser. And he constantly used psychological pressure and threats against journalists.
Repeated harassment of journalists
The methods used by Kočner included smear campaigns and Kuciak became one of his targets after he named Kočner several times in his articles, in particular, in connection with the cases of large-scale fraud he was investigating.
When Kuciak contacted Kočner in September 2017 about the sale of an apartment in the building where then Prime Minister Robert Fico lived, Kočner said: “Mr. Kuciak, I am going to take an interest in your family, your mother, your father, your brothers and sisters, and I will publish absolutely everything I find out about you.” He added, referring to a Denník N reporter: “You will be the first. I will give you preference over Ms. Monika Tódová.”
We know this because Kuciak recorded the call and used the recording to file a criminal complaint against Kočner. But the police did not investigate it. After Kuciak’s murder, the police acknowledged that they had not questioned Kočner about this threat. They acknowledged it again after Kočner was detained and questioned in the fraud investigation.
Monika Tódová’s run-in with Kočner dates back to October 2016, when he published the address of a website showing the email messages that Tódová and other journalists had exchanged with one of Kočner’s enemies, opposition politician and former interior minister Daniel Lipšic, who is now the Kuciak family’s lawyer.
Reporters systematically smeared
Kočner’s threats and attacks on Slovak journalists intensified whenever they pressed ahead with their reporting on his activities. His response to a revelation by #AllForJan, an international media consortium created in March to pursue Kuciak’s investigations, is particularly noteworthy.
After the consortium revealed that 500,000 euros were deposited in Kočner’s personal account by Technopol Servis, a Bratislava-based company that had been the victim of fraud, Kočner was contacted for a reaction by Adam Valček, a journalist with the newspaper SME, a member of the consortium.
Kočner’s response was to send Valček an email detailing confidential information about his health and his relations with his family, sensitive information that Kočner could not have obtained from public sources. Kočner had the email exchange posted on Hlavnespravy.sk, a leading Slovak website specializing in disinformation, and used it in his own online video programme, which he used to make fun of “mainstream media” journalists.
In the space of two months, this video and other material produced by Kočner were viewed tens of thousands of times. After Valček filed a criminal complaint, the police began an investigation into suspected blackmail.
Kuciak, Valček and Tódová were among the five journalists that Kočner had arranged to be place under surveillance. RSF tried repeatedly to contact Kočner’s lawyers to ask them about his actions, but they never responded.
Slovakia fell ten places in RSF’s 2018 World Press Freedom Indexand is now ranked 27th out of 180 countries.