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Wednesday, August 17, 2022
BRATISLAVA, Jun 21 2021 (IPS) - A ruling last week ordering a retrial in the murders of a Slovak journalist and his fiancée has led to a “unique” opportunity to break a global cycle of impunity in journalist killings, press freedom groups have said.
On Jun. 15, Slovakia’s Supreme Court upheld an appeal against a previous acquittal of local businessman Marian Kocner of masterminding the 2018 murder of Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova.
The original acquittal had left press freedom campaigners and politicians shocked.
But they now say the decision by the Supreme Court, which said key evidence had not been examined in the previous trial and ordered the case to be retried, has given them hope that the people behind the killings will be convicted, sending a powerful signal beyond Slovakia about getting justice for murdered journalists.
Scott Griffen, Deputy Director at global press freedom campaign group International Press Institute (IPI), told IPS: “We think there is a unique chance to break the cycle of impunity [for killing journalists] not just in Slovakia but in other countries.
“Hardly anyone, anywhere, is ever convicted of killing a journalist. There is often someone arrested, accused, brought to trial, and then they get off. It’s more to show that some action is being taken than actually something really being done. A conviction now could become a model for other countries.”
Kuciak and Kusnirova, both 27, were shot dead at Kuciak’s home in Velka Maca, 40 miles east of the capital Bratislava in February 2018. Self-confessed hired killer Miroslav Marcek, 37, last year pleaded guilty to murdering the couple and was sentenced to 23 years in jail.
The murders shocked Slovakia and led to the largest mass protests in the country since the fall of communism and forced then Prime Minister Robert Fico to resign.
The subsequent investigation uncovered alleged links between politicians, prosecutors, judges, and police officers and the people allegedly involved in the killings.
At the heart of these was Kocner, a controversial figure frequently linked to alleged serious criminals and who in a separate case was last year sentenced to 19 years in jail for forging promissory notes.
Prosecutors had argued in court that Kocner had ordered the murder of Kuciak in revenge for articles the reporter had written about the multimillionaire’s business dealings.
His acquittal in September last year had been greeted with dismay by many ordinary Slovaks who saw Kocner as a symbol of deep-rooted corruption at the highest levels of state, and by press freedom campaigners who said it would undermine efforts in other countries to bring the killers of journalists to justice.
But those same campaigners believe the Supreme Court ruling will have given hope to the colleagues and relatives of slain journalists in other countries.
There were 50 journalists killed in connection with their work around the world in 2020, according to data from Reporters Without Borders (RSF). Of these, 84 percent were knowingly targeted and deliberately murdered.
In many regions, the risks for journalists are growing, according to the group. Europe especially is a concern with RSF recently warning that while it remains the safest place in the world to be a journalist, it is becoming more dangerous for reporters.
The murder of Greek journalist Giorgos Karaivaz earlier this year in Athens was just the latest in a string of high-profile journalist killings in Europe in recent years. In 2017, investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed by a car bomb in Malta, and in April 2019, journalist Lyra McKee was shot dead while covering rioting in Derry, Northern Ireland.
In the latter, 53-year-old Paul McIntyre has denied killing her. Although seven men have admitted to or been charged with the murder of Caruana Galizia, it is still not known who was behind her killing. Greek police continue to investigate Karaivaz’s death.
Pavol Szalai, Head of European Union and Balkans Desk at RSF, told IPS: “Ninety percent of murders of journalists are not solved. There are Marian Kocners in lots of other places.
“You have politicians, and you have the mafia – in between those two there are Kocners who are linked to the mafia and to the politicians. Other countries can identify with what is happening [in this case] in Slovakia.
“People in other countries have been following this closely. This case is bigger than just Slovakia. If and when a conviction comes it will help in similar cases in other countries.”
Corinne Vella, Daphne Caruana Galizia’s sister, told IPS: “The Slovak Supreme Court’s ruling is good news for Slovakia, and for the families of the victims. It also has a very strong psychological effect outside Slovakia, for us and elsewhere.
“This ruling could mark a turning point in ending impunity for journalist killers – a turning point in getting to where criminals see they cannot get away with murdering journalists. And it shows that with persistence, things are possible.”
Meanwhile, in Slovakia, attention has turned to when the retrial will take place and a possible conviction may come. It is expected the whole process – it is thought likely that if Kocner is found guilty, he would appeal – would not end until well into next year.
Griffen said he was hoping the process could be drawn to close, and justice served for Kuciak and Kusnirova, as quickly as possible.
“We need a relatively timely resolution to this,” he said. “If it drags on and on it would become a de facto cold case and that would be awful for the families, who need closure on this, and journalists, who also need closure. It would be like a festering wound.”
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