Slovakia promises justice for Ján as journalists complete his work; businessman charged with ordering murder

by Jane Whyatt

Slovakia’s Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini has promised the European Parliament (EP) that he will uncover and punish the perpetrators responsible for the assassination of Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. A major positive step has been taken in the case, as Slovak businessman Marian Kočner is now charged with ordering the murders. He remains in police custody. 

Others had been arrested and charged with participating in the murders. However, the authorities had thus far fallen short of charging Kočner, who had been surrounded by strong suspicions based of his past history of threatening Kuciak.

According to The Slovak Spectator, Kočner was initially detained under suspicion of financial crimes. Kuciak's investigative work has reportedly helped land him there. 

Spectator Editor-in-Chief Beata Balogová tells the ECPMF:

"We all should welcome the charges against Kočner because it gives us hope that there are enough fair and honest members of the police and prosecutors in Slovakia. And that thanks to them, this bloody story will be completed for the public to understand how deep was the disintegration of morals within the group of oligarchs who enjoyed the protection of the government of Robert Fico. But there is still a lot of work left to be done, for the investigators as well as the society."

Internaional media are also picking up the story, as well as the Twitter sphere, where the hashtag #JanKuciak has helped keep the journalist's case in the public eye.

ECPMF Legal Advisor Flutura Kusari, who has followed Kuciak's case closely since the assassinations happened a year ago, comments on the development:

"We welcome the charges brought against Marian Kočner, the person who threatened Ján Kuciak, and whom the journalist alerted authorities about, months before he was brutally murdered together with his partner Martina Kušnírová. These charges indicate that the investigations into individual culpability – that is, who ordered the assassination and who killed them - are on good track."

She adds:

The investigation should also focus on why Slovak authorities failed to protect Kuciak and Kušnírová. When a person reports severe threats to the police - as Kuciak did – the national authorities have the legal obligation under Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights to protect that person. Slovakia failed to protect him, and those responsible should be brought to justice."

Media freedom organisations and civil society had both kept the pressure on, to make sure no perpetrators of the murder would remain unpunished. In his 12. March address on the Future of Europe, to the EP plenary meeting in Strasbourg, Prime Minister Pellegrini  mentioned the protests that followed the murders. 

Any attack on journalists causes protest... this is a sign of maturity,” said the Social Democrat (SMER SD) leader, noting that the demonstrations were repeated on the anniversay of the deaths in February 2019. 

Slovakia promises justice for Ján as journalists complete his work Peter Pellegrini addresses the European Parliament. Photo: EP Press Room

Massive demonstrations last year had led to his predecessor Robert Fico's resgination, along with that of three Cabinet Ministers, the Slovak Police Chief and other high-ranking government officials. 

Pellegrini said he welcomed the delegations of MEPs, MPs and EU Commission officers who have visited Slovakia to probe the allegations of EU funding fraud and mafia involvement that Kuciak was investigating at the time of his death.

Those investigations continue thanks to the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which has helped establish a centre in his name. Hidden away in the backstreets of the Slovakian capital Bratislava, the office is – appropriately - anonymous. Its manager is investigative journalist Arpad Soltesz, and he gave an interview to ECPMF.

Interview with Investigative Centre Ján Kuciak

ECPMF: Here at the Ján Kuciak Centre you are working with the Organised Crime and Corruption Research Project on the Troika Laundromat report. Does that have a connection to Jan Kuciak's murder?

Actually not. That is exclusively OCCRP business. We’ve signed a contract with OCCRP. Investigating the murders is the work of the police. I trust those people because they really have done a fabulous job. They started late because the police were not able to operate freely while Robert Kalinak (the then-Interior Minister who resigned) was there. But in spite of that, they have caught the perpetrators.

Now, Marian Kočner has been charged as the instigator of the murders of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnirova. It’s just the first stage. The next will be a charge from the State Prosecution Office. 

The police and the prosecution office have done a surprisingly good job. Now we can really have hope that the case will be successfully solved.

What is dangerous is that the politicians keep on trying to interfere. However, it is not our job to solve the murders. That is not the aim of the Centre. It bears the name Kuciak because he was actually the first journalist in Slovakia to co-operate internationally with other journalists and we are sure that it is exactly what killed him.

Organised crime nowadays is global, and we journalists must also become global if we are to fight it. All over Europe there are Centres like this, but there was none in Slovakia, and Pavla Holcova wanted Ján to establish a Centre like this in Slovakia.

He thought he was still too young, he should get more experience, and so he kept putting it off and then he was murdered. It’s for this reason that the Centre bears his name. It was actually his dream to have a Centre like this in Slovakia."

The main aim of the Centre is to promote international co-operation and information-sharing between Slovakian journalists and foreign journalists inside or outside of Slovakia. 

Journalists in Slovakia must be still very shocked about Ján’s murder. Have any of them quit the profession?

No. Quite the opposite. The situation has shown that when someone kills a journalist, or even 20 of them, here they are still well motivated and they won’t give up.

Slovakia promises justice for Ján as journalists complete his work Arpad Soltesz at the Investigative Centre Ján Kuciak. Photo: ECPMF

What about the younger ones? The next generation?

Yes, yes. They are also much better at their jobs than we are because I started in the 1990s. I was a sort of a pioneer of investigative journalism in Slovakia, because for 40 years there had been nothing like it. It was a totalitarian regime, a police state. Journalists here couldn’t operate freely, yet they knew their craft very well. In that, we are perhaps better than today’s new generation of journalists.

But we didn’t have a clue about investigative journalism, or about any kind of journalistic initiative. We always did it so badly because there was no one to teach us. We learned from our own mistakes and then after 10 years, I left it and wrote about politics and did commentaries instead.

Then the new generation came along. They have already learned data journalism. OSINT is the trend now, that is Open Source Intelligence. They know it very well, but I don’t have a clue how to do it. Ján was the first one who brought it up to the international level. That’s why he was so good – and so dangerous.

So Ján was a pioneer?

He was, actually. We had a mutual admiration for each other. He thought that my beginnings in the 1990s... well, he had a romantic vision of them. They were wild times. We met people who were real criminals, murderers, secret agents, police, and tried to filter out something from all that, but it was not very good journalistic work. Today no editor would publish what we wrote back then!

It was very adventurous and Ján admired it a lot. I admired all the information that he could dig out from the data. He really was a brilliant journalist in this field. He wrote articles, for example, that resulted in Marian Kočner being investigated, even though he had somehow already hidden everything under the carpet. And probably paid money for that to happen, so he must have been really furious! That really was Jan’s work.

Kočner had gone into investigative custody because of the financial crimes that Kuciak wrote about."

Would it help to start or request an international police investigation or should it stay within Slovakia?

I think Europol has already helped a great deal with it, and probably other foreign police forces have contributed knowhow. But actually, it’s not right legally for an international team to be deployed because, for example, a German police officer has no legal competence in Slovakia. We can’t always wait for someone to come from outside and help. What does help is the public support.

So, the people on the streets in the protests - they have really put the police on the spot and that has freed up a greater room for manoeuvre for the police. That’s very important.

And people came out again onto the streets on the anniversary of the deaths, all over the world...

Yes, I was in Kosice, for example. I made a speech. Normally we don’t do that because we’re journalists. This was an exception. I actually have not yet had time to process my emotions since Ján was killed. Ján really was a colleague of mine. We had worked together, we met now and then, we communicated through Facebook and so on. Sometimes he consulted me about his reports, just the formal aspect of them. He couldn’t write! He was a brilliant analyst, but he was not a writer. He was a real friend. He was also a nice person, unusually so for this profession – nice and helpful, even towards competitors.

For example, Ján mined and processed data for hours from the Panama Papers and brought it to a reporter in Bratislava, and arrived at five or six in the morning and waited in front of the house for two hours so that he would not wake up the children too early.

He was always focused on the job. He wanted to get the information out so that people could see it, read it and understand it.

He really wanted to make the world a little better through his work.

Are you afraid for your own safety?

Only psychopaths have no fear. Of course, I’m afraid ,but I am more afraid for my team than for myself. I’m not so young. I’ll be 50 this year but Katka is 29 and Niki is 21, so they are young girls to me. Very talented! I’m often afraid for them.

You have an office now for the Centre here. What else do you need to really make it work?

Money! It’s all a question of capacity building. If I had three or four reporters, I could do more work. Unfortunately, I only have Katka. Not unfortunately - I’m happy that I have her. She worked for public television beforehand. She’s very talented. We are here because it’s so cheap: 350 euros a month. In Bratislava that’s almost for free!

If we want to know whether our neighbours are in their office, we can look through the holes in the wall. There is no physical security. But in any case, you can never really create that. As far as data security is concerned, we really have the best of the best. OCCRP ran a security check and they were quite satisfied.

Where are you looking for funding? 

We are trying to get crowdfunding and looking for people who we know have earned their money in a very legitimate and clean way. There are such people, even in Slovakia. We’re already in contact with two or three of them. 

Our accounting is transparent. You can see who’s donated money and what we’ve used it for. In this, way we get some money and we’ve also received 5,000 euros from the Open Societies Foundation for a specific project. At the start, I invested my own money and bought the computers, and I am living off my savings and freelance work.

Here in the Centre there’s nothing about Ján Kuciak. No pictures, not a word.

We did that on purpose. We know why the Centre bears his name. It’s also very important to protect his name and to do the work in such a way that it will be worthy of his name. We don’t need to prove that by displaying his portrait. It is our duty to do the work like this. This is a workplace, not a church, not a memorial. The work we do will be his memorial.