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Jan Kuciak murder: The crime and trial that sparked a 'renaissance of civil society'

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Light tributes are seen during a silent protest in memory of murdered journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova in Bratislava, Slovakia.
Light tributes are seen during a silent protest in memory of murdered journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova in Bratislava, Slovakia.   -   Copyright  Bundas Engler/Associated Press
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Judges are expected to reach a verdict on September 3 in the trial of three people accused of killing journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee, Martina Kušnírová, in 2018, a landmark case that shook Slovakia to its core.

Two of those accused of the murder, including gunman Miroslav Marček and go-between Zoltán Andruskó, have already been found guilty and sentenced. Three of their co-defendants, including those accused of masterminding the killings in retaliation for Kuciak’s investigative reporting into corruption and organised crime in the country, will hear their verdicts in open court after they were postponed on August 4.

Businessman Marián Kočner is accused of threatening the journalist following the publication of a story about his business dealings while two others, Alena Zsuzsová and Tomas Szabó, are accused of helping him organise the fatal shooting. It is alleged that Kočner paid Marcek to carry out the killings.

'A renaissance of civil society'

The murder of the young couple rocked Slovakia, leading to mass street protests and eventually the resignation of the government when it emerged that Kočner had close links with judges, a former prosecutor general and other figures in the judiciary.

It was also revealed that Kočner also had around three-dozen journalists placed under surveillance, using personal data from police databases.

Kuciak, 27, had been reporting on corruption, tax fraud and links between high-ranking Slovak politicians and the Italian mafia for Slovakian news site aktuality.sk before he was gunned down in his home on February 21, 2018.

His murder sent shockwaves through Slovakia and sparked the biggest street protests since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. Three weeks after the killing, Prime Minister Robert Fico and his cabinet resigned amid deep public anger at perceived graft at the highest echelons of power.

Not only did they precipitate the fall of the government but the reverberations from the brutal slaying of Kuciak and his fiancee continue to make themselves felt throughout Slovakia.

“The murder of a journalist in Slovakia has really sparked a renaissance of civil society,” Pavol Szalai, a former Slovak journalist and the head of the EU/Balkans desk at Reporters Without Borders, told Euronews.

“The people who organised the demonstrations were very young. They were in their 20s or even younger. The murder of Jan Kuciak has shaped a new generation of Slovaks, the way they see democracy and how, according to them, it has to be protected,” he added.

“It’s thanks to this pressure from the public that the authorities – the police and other judicial authorities – could do their job. As we know, and has been shown since the change of the government, there are many corrupt elements in the Slovak police and the Slovak judiciary. So, this public pressure has allowed these institutions to do their jobs properly.”

Journalists still in jeopardy

Despite the change of government in Slovakia, Reporters without Borders has highlighted increasing anti-media rhetoric in the country, regular verbal attacks by politicians in its second-biggest party, Smer-SD, against journalists and a growing number of websites that spread disinformation.

“There are several persistent problems in Slovakia in terms of press freedom. In some ways, the situation in Slovakia has been getting worse since the murder,” Szalai told Euronews.

In June, an investigative journalist working for the same news site as Kuciak received a bullet in the mail, AFP reported. Its editor, Peter Bárdy said that the threat had been made to Peter Sabo, who was working as a data analyst for the site.

Sabo had written articles on suspected legal violations against a former minister of justice, VAT fraud and drugs networks in Slovakia.

“There are a lot of reasons to be afraid the bullet in the mailbox was not a joke,” said Bárdy.

The reality for reporters at the public broadcaster RTVS, in particular, has become notably starker since Kuciak's assassination, with many journalists being forced to quit under pressure from the management who in turn were under put under political pressure from the previous Smer-SD government.

“The investigation into the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová and the subsequent trial represents huge progress for press freedom in Slovakia," according to Szalai. "90 per cent of crimes against journalists in the world are not punished, are not condemned. This [the murder trial] is exceptional, all the more exceptional because the accused mastermind has high-level connections to the prime minister, to the former prime minister and the former ruling party.”

While threats to the work of journalists in the country persist, Szalai believes there are reasons to be optimistic for the future.

“According to what Slovak journalists say, the public now understands better the work of investigative journalists in Slovakia, their contribution to society and the risks they face," says Szalai. "I think the murder, and also the public upheaval and investigation, contributed to more confidence of the Slovak public in journalists.”