Last month brought mixed news in the quest for justice for 27-year-old Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak, who was murdered with his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in their home outside Bratislava on February 21, 2018. The alleged mastermind, businessman Marián Kočner, is behind bars for forgery; on January 12 an appeals court upheld a lower court ruling sentencing Kočner to 19 years on the charge, reports said.
That Kočner remains locked away is a relief to Peter Bárdy, Kuciak’s former editor at news website Aktuality, Slovakia’s leading online media outlet. He still holds out hope that one day Kočner – whose alleged corruption Kuciak investigated before his death – will be held accountable for allegedly ordering the killing. In 2020, a Slovak court acquitted Kočner along with his associate, Alena Zsuzsová, who allegedly helped plan the murder, according to news reports. Two others, Tomáš Szabó and Zoltán Andruskó, were sentenced to 25 years and 15 years respectively, for their roles in the crime; shooter Miroslav Marček is serving 25 years.
Kočner, who has denied his role in the murder, is an influential entrepreneur with business interests in risk investment, financial development, and property. Kočner threatened Kuciak weeks before his death; after the murder, journalists at Aktuality and other media outlets uncovered that Kočner had ordered and organized the surveillance of several journalists, including the slain reporter.
Kuciak’s death sparked a protest movement in Slovakia, which resulted in the resignation of then-Prime Minister Robert Fico. Now the chair of the ruling Smer party, Fico routinely rails against the press; his party was behind the 2019 amendment to the press code which mandates news outlets publish replies of public officials who feel harmed by their reporting. Meanwhile, pressure on independent media has continued, with surveillance and threats against journalists, including Aktuality correspondent Peter Sabo.
Elected in February 2020, Slovakia’s new, prime minister Igor Matovič, said he planned to fund journalists to investigate government corruption, an initiative Slovak journalists dismissed as “a road to hell” that would compromise journalists’ independence and offload official responsibility.
In a February 2019 mission to Slovakia, CPJ met with officials from the special prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Interior who gave assurances that the mastermind in Kuciak’s murder would soon be arrested and justice served. That justice remains elusive, Bárdy told CPJ in an interview via email about the state of the case and press freedom in Slovakia. Bárdy’s answers have been edited for length and clarity.
What are your emotions when you look back at the last three years? Has this time been hard for you as Ján‘s supervisor and for Aktuality?
These past three years were really difficult. Our newsroom is built on friendly, practically familial relationships. When something bad happens to one of us, we try to help each other. When someone is happy, we all are happy. The murder of Ján Kuciak has hurt us a lot. But we must learn to live with it and continue. This is our message: we should continue the work we started with Ján Kuciak when we set up the investigative team. I am very proud that my colleagues have automatically understood what our role is.
What do you think about the 2020 acquittal of Marián Kočner?
To be precise, the process is not over yet. The verdict is not [final] yet as the prosecutor and lawyers of the families of the murdered appealed to the Supreme Court.
Of course, I was not pleased with the verdict. It was a shock. I am convinced that Marián Kočner ordered the murder and Alena Zsuzsová assisted him in that.
The court [did not say they were innocent. It] just stated that it did not have enough evidence to convict them. I believe that the Supreme Court will have an opinion. We are not at the finish line yet. Justice needs more time.
[Editor’s note: Since Zsuzsová’s acquittal in the journalist’s murder, she was sentenced to 21 years in prison for planning a different murder, that of a former local government official, in December 2020, according to media reports. She has denied charges that she was an intermediary in Kuciak’s murder.]
When I visited Aktuality’s newsroom in 2019 and spoke with journalist Martin Turček and others, the staff’s devotion to continuing Ján‘s investigative work was clear. How have the Aktuality reporters been working on corruption?
Our motto is, “Let’s work hard and we’ll have great results.” We have uncovered several cases of [corruption involving] the former government, but also, for example, the leadership of the military secret service. If the mastermind of Ján’s murder thought we would be scared and we were done, he was wrong. Everyone who breaks the law must understand this. They must reckon with the fact that they are not invisible. We see them.
Do journalists at Aktuality and the wider journalistic community in Slovakia feel safer today than three years ago right after Ján‘s killing?
Yes. I’ve said it several times that with Kočner in prison, I feel less worried about my colleagues. I am convinced that the situation is better today. I am just sorry that the new government sees the media as its enemy, just as the previous government did.
What are the main challenges Slovak journalists face today?
The biggest challenge is credibility… [People] spread conspiracies, lies, misinformation. Many of them [copy] content from Russian disinformation sites and spread it in order to destabilize the system of democracy. And, frankly, they often succeed. The COVID-19 pandemic and the often chaotic and not well-thought-out actions of the government help [those who spread disinformation].
For the public, the media are, of course, part of a wider democratic system, so as the credibility of the system diminishes, so does the credibility of the institutions and thus the media. This is the biggest problem we are facing.
We should not forget that after Fico resigned, his deputy chairman Peter Pellegrini became a prime minister and remained in this position for almost two years until the elections. He wanted to create rules [to improve] journalist security, but in the end he did not. The new government, which was formed after the elections in 2020, has announced laws to protect journalists, which we are very happy about. On the other hand, Prime Minister Igor Matovič attacks journalists and the media, considers us his political rivals and gives the impression that [journalists will] fight the mafia. This is, of course, nonsense.
You are in touch with the families of Ján and Martina. Can you tell us how they have been doing lately?
They are very sensitive and yet extremely strong people who have my greatest respect and esteem. We were in frequent contact during the trial and it is no different today. Ján’s sister gave birth to a child last year, which brought a little light and joy to the family. I really wish these amazing people to find inner peace. They need it very much and they deserve it. They experienced a lot of pain.
[Editor’s note: CPJ emailed requests for comments to the office of the Slovak prime minister, president, and the Smer party leadership but received no responses.]