As murdered Slovak remembered, journalists call for protection

One year on, questions persist over killing of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova.

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    Demonstrators take part in a protest rally marking the first anniversary of the murder of the investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee in Bratislava [David W. Cerny/Reuters]
    Demonstrators take part in a protest rally marking the first anniversary of the murder of the investigative reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee in Bratislava [David W. Cerny/Reuters]

    On February 21 last year, Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee, archaeologist Martina Kusnirova, were murdered in their home in Vel'ka Maca, a small village 28 miles (45km) east of the capital Bratislava.

    They were killed by a professional assassin: Kuciak with two shots to the chest, Kusnirova with one to the head.

    Their deaths provoked a public outcry which led to mass protests against state corruption and forced the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico of Slovakia.

    Exactly one year later, more than 20,000 people have taken to Bratislava's streets to remember the journalist and his partner, who were both in their late twenties.

    For several weeks after they were killed, the news of their deaths dominated international headlines.

    But one key piece of information slipped under the radar of most foreign news outletsKuciak's colleagues at the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) believed that the killers were aided by the government leaking Kuciak's Freedom of Information (FOI) requests.

    In a March 2018 article on the OCCRP website titled Freedom of Information Law: Reporters' Best Friend or Killer? the reporters laid out their reasoning.

    Kuciak was careful to used encrypted communications, so they did not think his online accounts had been hacked. In his public records requests, Kuciak provided detailed information about his research, hoping it would improve his chances of getting a positive response.

    Bearing in mind the recent physical, online, and legal attacks against journalists, I think we have very good momentum to press the European Commission and European politicians for legislation on access to information.

    Flutura Kusari, legal adviser at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom

    In addition, in his requests he had provided the address of the house he and Kusnirova had recently moved into, where they were later killed.

    The provision of a physical address is a requirement for those making enquiries under Slovakia's FOI law.

    Kuciak was a public records specialist who filed dozens of FOI requests. His OCCRP colleagues could not track down all of them. 

    They did, however, seek comment from Slovakia's Agricultural Paying Agency, the Trebisov public prosecutor's office, Bratislava regional court, and the Slovak energy agency SIAS, where they knew Kuciak had sent multiple requests shortly before his murder. 

    When asked by the OCCRP, these agencies denied that they had passed on his personal details from FOI requests to third parties. 

    When contacted for this article, they either did not respond or told Al Jazeera to direct enquiries to Slovakia's Special Prosecution's Office.

    In their article, the OCCRP gathered testimonies from other European journalists who said they had been threatened or impeded in their research as a result of their FOI requests. 

    Off the back of the article, the OCCRP - along with the transparency organisation Access Info campaigned for the introduction of "Jan's Law", a proposed piece of European Union legislation that would grant anonymity to those making FOI requests in the EU and sanction officials found to have leaked requests.

    Almost a year on from its publication, the OCCRP's Eva Kubaniova told Al Jazeera she no longer believes that Jan and Martina were killed as a result of FOI leaks. In October 2018, new evidence emerged that Kuciak was being physically surveilled in the period leading up to the murders.

    OCCRP head Drew Sullivan said it was now clear that the disclosures of Kuciak's FOI requests were not a primary factor in the murders, but that it was less certain that government leaks played no role whatsoever.

    Whether or not they did, journalists working in the EU say a new FOI law is needed to protect both themselves and their stories.

    Kuciak was shot dead in Slovakia while working on a story about the activities of the Italian mafia in Slovakia and their alleged links to people close to Prime Minister Robert Fico [File: Bundas Engler/The Associated Press]

    Approximately six months ago, Italian journalists Cecilia Anesi and Luca Rinaldi from the Investigative Reporting Project Italy received a series of surprise phone calls. 

    They were conducting research for an upcoming documentary on organised criminal trade in toxic waste and were seeking information from several public bodies.

    "The entrepreneur we had requested information on thought it was OK to call us on our personal mobile phones and tell us off, saying: 'Why do you want this information?'," says Anesi.

    Neus Vidal, a journalist and transparency activist, told Al Jazeera that after she filed an FOI request with a Spanish government agency, she received a call from the agency's communications director pressuring her to drop her enquiries. She later learned the director had searched online for her and persuaded a colleague at a newspaper where Vidal had previously worked to give him her number. 

    "As a journalist, I am exposed to [these kinds of] calls, but I could certainly be exposed to something more dangerous if my private details are shared with other people," she told Al Jazeera.

    Italy and Spain are two of several EU countries which require individuals filing an FOI request to identify themselves by their government ID numbers. 

    Most others require applicants to identify themselves by their full name.

    Authorities who enforce these rules say they need to know requesters' identities so they can keep track of the enquiries, and can filter out "vexatious requests". Officials have also pointed out that someone seeking information would have to identify themselves if they wanted to fight a case in court. But privacy campaigners say these issues could be worked around.

    Access Info's director Helen Darbishire says she believes Jan's Law would be difficult to pass at the EU level, as transparency laws in Europe have always fallen under the jurisdiction of sovereign states.

    Flutura Kusari, a legal adviser at the European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), is more optimistic, citing the recent success of activists in drafting an EU directive on whistle-blower protection.

    "Bearing in mind the recent physical, online, and legal attacks against journalists, I think we have very good momentum to press the European Commission and European politicians for legislation on access to information," Kusari told Al Jazeera.

    A woman kneels by a memorial on the first anniversary of the murder in Bratislava [David W. Cerny/Reuters]

    If the Slovak couple's killers weren't assisted by FOI leaks, what did happen, and how can more killings be prevented?

    Much is still unclear about the circumstances surrounding the murders, but what is known is that Kuciak was being followed and photographed before being killed.

    The person who surveilled Kuciak is believed to be a former agent of the Slovak secret service, who reportedly told police he was working for Marian Kocner, a Slovak entrepreneur whose business dealings Kuciak had reported on extensively.

    In September 2017, Kuciak filed a criminal complaint against Kocner for threats the businessman had issued against him.

    In an October 20, 2017 post on his Facebook page, Kuciak complained that no police officer appeared to have been assigned to his case in the 44 days since he had filed the report.

    The Bratislava police did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.

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    In late September 2018, four people were charged with Kuciak and Kusnirova's murders or complicity in the killings. 

    A woman accused of paying 70,000 euros ($79,341) for the assassinations has been identified as Alena Zsuzsova, an Italian-Slovak translator who was allegedly close to Kocner.

    According to Peter Bardy, Kuciak's editor at the Slovak news site Aktuality.sk, Kocner is being investigated for the murders but has not been charged, although he has been in prison since June 2018 on unrelated charges of financial fraud. 

    Kuciak's colleagues believe other associates of Kocner's not currently under investigation may also have been involved in the murders. The Special Prosecution's Office did not respond to Al Jazeera's request for comment.

    Kusari, the legal adviser, is concerned that there has been no investigation into state responsibility in their killings.

    "The most urgent thing to do when journalists are killed is to conduct an independent inquiry into whether the state was responsible," Kusari told Al Jazeera.

    "If somebody reports a threat, and then he or she is killed, there should be an investigation into whether the state failed to protect that person and what can be done so the other lives are not lost in the future."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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