Slovakia’s press freedom under fire

JOURNALISM / Uncovering a vast corruption network at the highest levels of Slovak society.

When a journalist is killed as a means to silence them, it is, paradoxically, a stark reminder of their essential role in maintaining an open society — and of the danger they pose to those wishing to use corrupt methods to circumvent the greater public good for their gain. Even when they occur in countries well-known for their authoritarian tendencies and brutal regimes that operate by fear and force, cases of targeted assassinations against investigative reporters, some of whose work has made them household names, have the power to create global headlines that shock, for the sheer brazenness of the crimes, and the extremes of human nature dramatised by these narratives of civic courage pitted against callous power beyond the ethical pale. From Anna Politkovskaya, who was shot in the lift of her block of flats in Moscow in 2008 in a killing many believed to have been contracted due to her reporting on the Second Chechnyan War and her criticism of Vladimir Putin and the FSB, to the very recent ambush and shooting of British environmental journalist Dom Phillips and indigenous affairs expert Bruno Araujo Pereira while they were on a research trip in remote Amazon rainforest, assassinations of media figures with the determination to expose to the public for scrutiny the behaviours of the crooked and corrupt have underscored how compromised access to truthful information is in nations such as Russia and Brazil.

The Killing of a Journalist, a film by Matt Sarnecki
The Killing of a Journalist, a film by Matt Sarnecki

Contracted murder

The Killing Of A Journalist, a documentary directed by Matt Sarnecki that had its European premiere at the 2022 Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, examines the contracted murder of 27-year-old investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova in Slovakia, who were shot dead at the home they shared in February 2018. The case created shockwaves not only for its cold planning and brutality but for the fact that it appeared to represent a new line crossed in the more nominally democratic Slovakia, where methods of suppressing the independent media had not tended to reach so ruthlessly into having reporters openly killed. Kuciak was, after all, the first journalist to have been murdered in Slovakia since the country’s independence in 1993 after it transitioned from communism and the peaceful dissolution of Czechoslovakia occurred in what was known as the Velvet Divorce. Had the mafia-type system created by oligarchs in Slovakia managed such extensive reach of control over the police, judiciary and politicians that the EU member country, which had always performed well in press freedom and civil liberties indexes, come to resemble a failed state, where there is no equal justice possible for citizens?

The film follows a chronological line as it methodically sets out its evidence-based narrative over what happened and how, in the illegal surveillance of Jan Kuciak, the hit-job and murder investigation, and later, the prosecution of suspects. Kuciak, who worked as a reporter for the news website, frequently covered corruption in his news articles. He had an in-depth knowledge of money flows and a natural aptitude for seeing the story in the numbers that made him particularly dangerous to white-collar mobsters, who saw him as an enemy.

He had an in-depth knowledge of money flows and a natural aptitude for seeing the story in the numbers that made him particularly dangerous to white-collar mobsters, who saw him as an enemy.

Straggering corruption

According to the prosecution’s indictment, it eventually emerged that his killing had been masterminded and ordered by Marian Kocner, a well-known businessman and alleged mafioso. She had built a career on VAT fraud and was for a long time untouchable due to his high-up connections at the general prosecution office. Mercenary assassins Tomas Szabo, a former police investigator, and Miroslav Marcek, a former soldier, were enlisted to carry out the hit through intermediary Alena Zsuzsova, an associate of Kocner’s who frequently operated as a honey trap for him to collect dirt and compromising materials on several powerful men she had forged internet relationships with. As the film lays out the plot and the relations between all the various players, the depth and breadth of corruption are staggering, as the police, judiciary, and government are all revealed to be full of weak links and members willing to line their own pockets by abetting criminals in escaping justice and offering classified information to them to compromise the safety of individuals being targeted. A data leak, the extensive contents of which came to be known as «Kocner’s library» and included all of his communications from his two iPhones over six years, provided a wealth of information on how the criminal underworld of Slovakia was run and who had their hands dirty in its operations. While this blew the lid off a lot of secret dealings hitherto kept from the public eye, the civic mistrust and chaos in society resulting from the revelations, which led to major demonstrations and political crisis, fuelled a rise in populism in the nation, as the incumbent government was discredited.

The World Press Freedom Index, published by Reporters Without Borders, assessed the current state of journalism in 2022 as a worsening situation of unregulated information chaos fuelled by social media and propaganda wars against democracy. The Killing Of A Journalist is a timely analysis of one case that elucidates the wider stakes involved in protecting media independence and the dire consequences when it is left, complacently, in the firing line.

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Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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