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27 Feb, 2018 09:56

Killing of Slovak investigative journalist raises concerns over press freedom in EU

Killing of Slovak investigative journalist raises concerns over press freedom in EU

An investigative journalist, known for reporting on the tax fraud and shady deals of Slovakia’s elite, was shot dead on Sunday. The killing resonated among the EU’s public, raising concerns over press freedom in the EU.

The bodies of 27-year-old Jan Kuciak and his partner Martina Kusnirova were found by officers on Sunday evening in their house in Velka Maca, a town east of the capital Bratislava, police said in a statement. Prior to the discovery, the law enforcement agency received a call from Kusnirova’s mother, who said she had not been able to contact her daughter.

Both Kuciak and Kusnirova were shot dead, police chief Tibor Gaspar said, adding “the police assume that journalist’s death is related to his investigative activity.” Police will also consider other motives, and will probe everyone who had been in contact with the slain journalist.

Kuciak, who had been working at local news outlet Aktuality for three years, was focusing on high-profile cases of tax evasion and corruption, according to Novy Cas newspaper. In his articles back in 2015 and 2016, he described how a local IT company Anext “rooted” the Ministry of Education and Slovak Railway Company in order to get hefty contracts.

Kuciak also wrote a lot about Slovak nationals whose names appeared on the Panama papers, as well as connections between local businessmen and high-ranked officials. In one particular instance, Kuciak published a piece targeting entrepreneur Miroslav Bodor, owner of a security firm – and brother-in-law of police chief Gaspar.

Kuciak also covered Slovakia’s controversial arms deals with Ukraine’s principal defense company Ukrspetsexport. One particular piece composed by Kuciak dug into a massive fraud scheme involving sizeable contracts to repair Soviet-made hardware operated by the Slovak armed forces. 

Before his death, Kuciak also worked on a case involving the ‘Ndrangheta. The Calabria-based Italian organized crime group drew Kuciak’s attention to its deals on Slovak soil relating to European Union funds.

The killing has caused quite a stir, heightening concerns for press freedom in the EU. Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico called the killing “repugnant” and said if that was an assassination it would be “an unprecedented attack on freedom of the press and democracy in Slovakia.” President of Slovakia Andrej Kiska called for a swift investigation of the crime, saying: “We have to find those who did it as soon as possible and ensure the safety of all journalists.”

Antonio Tajani, President of the European Parliament, responded to the news on Twitter: “The EU cannot accept that a journalist is killed for doing his job.” He urged Slovak authorities to launch “a thorough investigation with international support if needed” and added that as with the case of Daphne Caruana Galizia, “the European Parliament will not rest until justice is done.” Similar statements have been made by EU Commissioner for Human Rights Nils Muiznieks and President of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe Michele Nicholetti.

WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange has commented on Kuciak’s killing, which he also compared with Galizia’s case. “Both journalists had investigated money laundering,” he tweeted. Meanwhile, people began gathering in Bratislava overnight to take part in a vigil for the fallen journalist.

Galizia, a Maltese investigative journalist, was killed by a car bomb last year. She had written extensively about alleged corruption deals on the island involving the Maltese Prime Minister's offshore dealings in the Panama Papers scandal.

Publisher Ringier Axel Springer Slovakia, which owns Aktuality, said in a statement that it is “shocked and stunned by the news.” It added: “We mourn with the family, the friends and the colleagues; we will do everything to support the investigating authorities to bring the perpetrator to justice.”