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Slovak Journalist’s Trial a Fundamental Moment to Prove if Country can Punish Crimes Designed to Silence Journalists

A protester in the Slovak capital, Bratislava holds up a picture of murdered journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova. Hundreds of thousands of people took part in protests across the country in the weeks after the killing, eventually forcing the resignation of the Prime Minister and Interior Minister. Credit: Ed Holt/IPS

BRATISLAVA, Jan 20 2020 (IPS) - As four people appear in court in Slovakia over the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova, both 27, the trial is being seen by many as a historic moment for not just press freedom in the country but public faith in its justice system.

Miroslav Marcek, Tomas Szabo, Alena Zsuszova, and Marian Kocner have all been charged with Kuciak’s murder. A fifth person, Zoltan Andrusko, was last year sentenced to 15 years in jail for being an intermediary in the murder after agreeing a plea bargain.

On the first day of the trial last week, Marcek, a 37-year-old former soldier, admitted shooting the pair at Kuciak’s home in Velka Maca, 40 miles east of the Slovak capital Bratislava, in February 2018. Szabo, Zsuszova and Kocner have denied the charges against them.

But it is Kocner, a powerful local businessman with alleged links to organized crime and whom Kuciak had written about, who has become for many the central figure in the trial and a symbol of deep-rooted corruption at the highest levels of the state.

And the outcome of the court case is being seen as a test of not just whether the media will in future be free to hold the wealthy and powerful to account, but also whether the judiciary can do the same now.

Adam Valcek, an investigative reporter with the Slovak daily newspaper Sme, told IPS: “In terms of what this trial means for Slovakia, [what happens now] is absolutely fundamental. This what we journalists have been saying for a long time – that the state had been taken over and was being run by an elite. Also, Kocner was able to control the organs of the state.”

The killings of Kuciak and Kusnirova shocked the nation and prompted the largest mass protests in the country since the fall of communism.

Prime Minister Robert Fico and Interior Minister Robert Kalinak were forced to resign, and the head of the police service later stepped down.

Police said that the murders were related to Kuciak’s work as an investigative journalist – Kuciak’s last story had exposed alleged links between Italian mafia and Fico’s Smer party – and the subsequent investigation uncovered alleged links between politicians, prosecutors, judges, and police officers to the people involved in the killings.

Soon after the murders it also emerged that Kuciak had been threatened by Kocner.

There have been rumours of Kocner’s connection to organized crime for decades and it is alleged that his links to politicians and state officials at the highest levels, including Fico, Prosecutor General Dobroslav Trnka, and other judicial figures, meant that he could act with impunity.

He also allegedly used contacts to obtain information on people which he could then use to blackmail them.

Prosecutors in the Kuciak murder trial have argued that he did the same with the journalist. They said Kocner eventually ordered Kuciak’s killing to stop him reporting on the businessman after he had failed to uncover any information he could use to discredit the journalist.

The trial, which is set to run at least until February, has made international headlines and is being closely followed by press freedom watchdogs and international media groups.

Among the local journalism community, though, some have spoken of both hope and fear over what it could mean for their future work.

“It is alarming,” said Lukas Fila, publisher of the Slovak daily Dennik N.

He told IPS: “Government members, top prosecutors, judges, and police officers were involved in one way or another with the alleged perpetrators of these crimes. Journalists were being spied on by former members of the intelligence services. A former policeman and soldier carried out the murder. We could go on. It is now evident that working as a journalist in Slovakia is not safe.

“On the other hand, the trial provides some hope. We have learned things that we cannot unlearn. If anything can return a feeling of safety, it is only severe punishment for all those involved not only in the murder, but also all the other crimes that have surfaced as a result of the investigations.”

The court hearings are in their early stages and those following them are so far reluctant to speculate on the outcome.

In an editorial just before the start of the trial the Sme daily suggested that Kocner would probably not be found guilty. But some journalists who spoke to IPS said that the proceedings over the initial few days of hearings had led them to believe he may actually be convicted.

Whatever happens, the outcome of the trial will be, one way or another, a watershed in Slovak history.

“This is a fundamental moment which will show whether the country can clearly deal with and punish crimes designed to silence journalists uncovering the truth based on facts and whether journalists can freely do their work without fear for their lives,” one Slovak journalist told IPS.

Underlying the reticence some journalists have speaking openly about the threats to their community, the journalist, who has more than two decades of experience in Slovak media, added: “After a series of scandals and the exposure of links between dubious individuals and judges, prosecutors and police, trust in the judiciary is weak.

“For this reason, this is an equally important trial for the judiciary. We need to know that justice exists in Slovakia, and that the justice system is capable of, and determined to, act against ‘big fish’.”

Others expressed concern about what might happen if Kocner is not found guilty.

Fila said there could be “a real threat to the lives of journalists, police officers, and prosecutors, and a degree of public outrage, which could have enormous political consequences”.

“It remains to be seen which way history will go. It may be remembered as a moment when the country gained new hope, or when frustration rose to previously unseen levels,” he said.

Valcek pointed out, though, that even if Kocner was not convicted, he might not escape punishment for other crimes. He is currently also on trial over alleged forgery of promissory notes and is facing separate allegations of tax fraud.

“Kocner could end up like Al Capone – not convicted of murder, but eventually jailed for economic crimes,” said Valcek.

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