This article titled “‘They can’t kill us all’: Slovakian journalists defiant after murders” was written by Christian Davies in Bratislava, for theguardian.com on Friday 2nd March 2018 18.16 Asia/Kolkata
At 6.30am on Monday, Peter Bárdy, the editor-in-chief of aktuality.sk, a Slovakian news website, received a phone call to inform him that one of his employees had been murdered. Ján Kuciak, a 27-year-old investigative reporter, and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, had been found shot dead at their home in Vel’ká Mača, 40 miles (65km) east of Bratislava.
“It was the worst moment of my career, to tell 27 people from my editorial team …,” Bardy checks himself, “to tell 26 people from my editorial team that one of them, Ján Kuciak, is dead.”
Peter Habara, an editor at aktuality.sk, was in the office early that morning too. “It’s impossible to comprehend – my wife and I were making plans to visit Ján and Martina in their new house,” he says.
His colleagues had been cheerful when they arrived at the office. Soon after, the newsroom was in tears. In the days since, Habara has woken in the night thinking someone is standing over him with a gun.
Colleagues describe Kuciak as a modest, dedicated and serious-minded reporter who specialised in data journalism and eschewed the limelight. “He was in journalism because he wanted to make Slovakia a better country, not because he wanted to be famous,” recalls Bárdy. “I used to struggle to convince him to let me publish his photo alongside his stories. Eventually, he said, ‘OK, but could you make my face as small as possible?’ And now he’s the most famous journalist in the world.”
In the midst of their grief, the editorial team came to an immediate, collective decision: in tribute to Kuciak, they would get to work by fact-checking, editing and publishing his final, unfinished investigation.
Despite members of the investigative team now living under police protection, Kuciak’s article was published online less than 48 hours after his colleagues had received the news of his death. Aktuality.sk shared the text of the investigation, which is also available in English, with all their Slovakian competitors, who published it simultaneously in solidarity.
“Our message is that if you kill a journalist, more information will come out,” says Bárdy. “They can’t kill all of us.”
Fittingly, Kuciak’s last story has significance that reaches far beyond his home country: the infiltration of poor parts of eastern Slovakia by criminal clans from Italy, who are alleged to have developed close ties with local politicians, exploited weak state institutions and misappropriated generous EU subsidies.
Pursued in cooperation with the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, the Czech Centre for Investigative Journalism and the Investigative Reporting Project Italy, the story began as an investigation into why the Slovakian prime minister, Robert Fico, had hired Mária Trošková, then a 27-year-old former Miss Universe contestant, as one of his assistants, despite her relative lack of political experience.
The investigation took a dramatic turn after it emerged that Trošková had been a business partner of Antonino Vadala, an Italian living in Slovakia with alleged close ties to the ’Ndrangheta, a notorious Italian organised crime group. Having worked for Vadala, she was recruited to work in the office of Viliam Jasaň, an MP and member of Fico’s ruling Smer party, who served on Slovakia’s state security council and is also alleged to have close business ties to Vadala.
The story outlines a series of allegations that paint a picture of Italian mafia infiltration of Slovakian political and economic life, whether through relationships with politicians, violent instances of extortion, VAT scams linked to the acquisition of luxury properties, or fraudulent claims for millions of euros in agricultural and energy subsidies.
According to reports in the Slovakian press, Vadala was one of about 10 people detained by Slovakian police on Thursday, some of whom also appear to be Italian businessmen. Slovakia’s police chief, Tibor Gaspar, told reporters that those taken into custody were “persons mentioned” by Kuciak in connection with the “Italian track”.
Scotland Yard, the FBI and other foreign agencies have been assisting the Slovakian authorities with their investigation into the killings. Trošková and Jasaň have stepped down, despite being defended by Fico during a press conference on Tuesday, during which he attacked opposition parties for politicising the issue.
“We categorically refuse any connection with this tragedy,” Trošková and Jasaň said in a joint statement. “However, since our names are abused in the political fight against PM Robert Fico, we decided to leave our posts at the government’s office until the investigation is over.”
Allegations of corruption and questionable relationships between politicians and businessmen will come as no surprise to many Slovakians, but the shocking death of a young journalist investigating such relationships has forced many to look at their leaders in a new light.
“There has long been a feeling that businessmen who are close to the government are regarded as ‘untouchable’, and they are often described metaphorically as a kind of mafia,” says Zuzana Kepplová, a columnist at SME, a Slovakian daily newspaper. “But now the word ‘mafia’ has lost its metaphorical feeling.”
The murders have put pressure on the pugnacious Fico, who has served as prime minister for all but two of the past 12 years. On Wednesday, hundreds of people joined a silent protest march organised by opposition parties, snaking their way through the freezing streets of Bratislava and laying candles at the perimeter wall of the prime minister’s office, as if to symbolically lay the blame at his door. More marches are planned for Friday night.
“Fico is not directly responsible for the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová,” says Samuel Abrahám, rector of the Bratislava International School of Liberal Arts. “He does, however, bear responsibility for the environment in which mafia infiltration blossoms. The sad irony is that if this murder hadn’t happened, then almost nobody would have noticed it was happening.”
Kuciak’s friends and colleagues at aktuality.sk stress that they will continue to pursue the story, regardless of who was responsible for the killings. “The mafia is doing business in this country and they have connections with the highest offices of state: they are building Palermo in Slovakia,” says Habara, noting that Kuciak had left behind enough material for months of further investigation.
“They held a minute’s silence for Ján in the European parliament, but what are they actually doing to help us fight this?”
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