Slovakia: journalist murder triggers political earthquake

The double murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in February 2018 was an unprecedented attack on press freedom in Slovakia. It shocked the country and sparked the biggest mass protests since 1989, which led to the resignation of former prime minister Robert Fico.

Protests in March 2018 against Prime Minister Robert Fico, triggered by the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.
Protests in March 2018 against Prime Minister Robert Fico, triggered by the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.
Fico handed over his post to Peter Pellegrini, a supporter from the left-wing national governing party Smer. But it was increasingly clear that the Fico era was coming to an end. The Smer candidate lost the runoff election for the presidency in 2019. The extremely popular former lawyer Zuzana Čaputová, a relative newcomer to politics who represents liberal-conservative views, is now the country's president.
The parliamentary elections in February 2020 formally ended Smer's rule. In the coronavirus crisis Pellegrini lost his position to Igor Matovič, who now heads a government consisting of four liberal-conservative parties. Just two years after Kuciak’s death, Slovakian democracy was given the chance to make a fresh start - and seized it.

Good journalism boosts readers’ trust

The country's journalists did more than simply report on this development. On the one hand they continued Kuciak's investigative research. On the other hand, with their own investigative work, for example the publishing of wiretapping protocols, they played a key role in ensuring that the murderer and his accomplices, including oligarch Marián Kočner, are now on trial before a special court. They also uncovered connections reaching from the underworld all the way up to the highest circles of politics and justice. All this has helped to restore the Slovaks’ trust in their media, and in the newspapers in particular.

While newspapers like Sme and Denník N had always been critical of Fico, adopting the role of the opposition, after the journalist’s murder they helped to renew and strengthen the devastated democratic structures. The web portal aktuality.sk, for which Kuciak worked before his death, had an outstanding impact. The website is highly respected among Slovaks. This is also reflected in the current Covid-19 crisis, in which it is registering a record one million clicks daily.
As proud as the editorial team is of these achievements, like the editing staff at all newspapers it is worried about the outlet’s financial stability and survival. In April 2020, editor-in-chief Petr Bárdy reported a dramatic decline in advertising revenue that forced Aktuality.sk to ask its users for donations, preferably in the form of subscriptions.
The future of those electronic media which until his fall were the Fico clique’s most faithful mouthpieces remains uncertain. Many honest, independent journalists were banned from the editorial offices. Whether they will be able to return in the new political situation is currently unknown. But the past two years have shown that things can change very quickly in Slovakia.

World Press Freedom Index (Reporters Without Borders):
Rank 33 (2020)

Last updated: April 2020
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