On February 25, 2018, Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová were found shot dead in their house in Velká Mača, some 50 kilometers from capital Bratislava, Slovakia, local media reported. The journalist was shot in the chest with a single bullet, and his fiancée was shot in the head, according to reports. Police later established they were murdered on February 21.
Then-chief of the police Tibor Gašpar said that the murders were "most likely" linked to the work of the journalist, Reuters reported.
Kuciak worked for the news website Aktuality, where he investigated tax fraud associated with individuals close to the ruling social democratic party Smer, according to Reuters.
Before his death, Kuciak had worked with the Sarajevo-based Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) and Aktuality on an investigation into an Italian mafia group, ‘Ndragheta, and their incursions into Slovakia, the OCCRP said in a statement.
At the time of his death, the journalist was collecting records on men considered by Italian police to be extremely dangerous, the OCCRP stated. The OCCRP has since published the uncompleted version of Kuciak’s article, which alleged embezzlement of EU funds.
The journalist’s last story for Aktuality, on February 9, looked at suspected tax fraud linked to a luxury apartment complex in Bratislava, Reuters reported. Kuciak had previously reported to police that he had received threats last year from Marián Kočner, a businessperson about whom Kuciak had written, according to The Associated Press. “It has been 44 days since I filed a criminal complaint…for the threats. And the case probably does not even have a particular cop,” the journalist wrote on his Facebook page in October 2017, according to the Guardian.
Kočner previously stated he would set up a website publishing information on the private lives of journalists reporting on the alleged tax fraud case against him, the newspaper reported. Slovakia’s National Criminal Agency (NAKA) has since dropped the fraud case. Kočner did not immediately comment on Kuciak and Kušnířova’s murders, the Guardian stated.
NAKA on June 19, 2018 detained Kočner on charges that include tax fraud in an incident unrelated to Kuciak’s murder, Slovak media reported. He has denied any involvement in the murders, according to media reports.
Slovak police on September 28, 2018, charged three people with the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová, according to reports. The unnamed suspects were among eight people arrested in a raid the day before, according to reports. The other five were released, according to a prosecutor cited in news reports.
The state prosecutor in Bratislava announced on September 30, 2018, that the court charged a fourth person with participating in the murders, and ordered all four suspects jailed until their trial, Reuters reported. As of early December 2018, no trial date had been set.
Citing local media, the OCCRP reported October 1, 2018, that among the detainees was a woman, identified by the police by her initials, A.Zs., who allegedly ordered the murder and paid 70,000 euros (US$80,000) for the hit. Slovak media also reported that the woman is allegedly connected to Kočner, according to the OCCRP.
Tens of thousands of people took to the streets in protest over the couple’s murder. A series of demonstrations were held in Bratislava and other Slovak cities, and several high level officials resigned, including Prime Minister Robert Fico in March, Interior Minister Tomáš Drucker in April and Police chief Tibor Gašpar in May, after public outcry over the murder, media reported.
On December 6, 2018, CPJ met with Slovakia’s Interior Ministry and police officials on a press freedom mission to Bratislava. The authorities said they were pursuing all lines of inquiry to establish who ordered the murders. In separate meetings, Slovak journalists expressed cautious optimism to CPJ that the investigation was progressing.
In February 2019, CPJ conducted an advocacy and solidarity mission to Bratislava, and met with the office of the special prosecutors in charge of the Kuciak investigation and Ministry of Interior officials. CPJ urged Slovak officials to expedite charges against all parties involved in Kuciak’s murder.
On March 14, 2019, special prosecutors announced in a press conference in Bratislava that they had charged Kočner on March 8 with ordering the murder of Kuciak, Slovak daily newspaper Sme reported. Kočner has been in detention on unrelated financial fraud charges since June 2018, according to news reports.
Kuciak was the first journalist killed in relation to his work in Slovakia.