The Killing of Ján Kuciak: A Tragic Reminder of the Challenges to Media Freedom

Five years ago, Slovaks were shaken by the dreadful news of the investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová being found killed in their house in Veľká Mača, the village located close to the capital of Slovakia. He was known for reporting on corruption and organised crimes. Thus, it was believed the assassination was related to his investigative work, which later turned out to be true. It provoked the immediate reaction of almost all media redactions and sparked a wave of the largest protests in the history of the independent Slovak Republic, with tens of thousands of people taking to the streets across the country and abroad, gathered under the claim #allforjan. The public’s anger was fuelled even more by the government’s slow response, controversial steps, and overall lack of action in investigating the murder. The focus of the protests, therefore, was both about demanding justice and ending the country’s widespread corruption. In short, the tragic event appeared to be a significant turning point in modern Slovak history since it yielded a shockwave throughout the country and led to the eventual government downfall.

The tragic event became a part of a larger trend of making journalism an unsafe profession in the EU. Namely, in October 2017, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was assassinated in a car bomb attack due to her reporting on corruption and money laundering in Malta. Two years later, Bulgarian journalist Viktoria Marinova, who investigated corruption and misuse of EU funds, war raped and murdered in the city of Rus. Later, however the prosecutors came to conclusion that the motive of her murder was not related to her work. Additionally, the murder of George Karaivaz in Athens in April 2021 and Dutch investigative journalist Peter R. de Vries in Amsterdam in July 2021, clearly demonstrate that the journalism has remained challenged, and freedom of media significantly violated. All of these events stressed the importance of protecting free media and highlighted the need for continued action to ensure a safe environment for journalists to carry out their work.

The following discusses the EU’s focus on media freedom aftermath the tragic events and the subsequent implications for the Western Balkan countries regarding their attempts to obtain EU membership. The article concludes by reflecting on the need to pursue the fight for democracy and core values such as freedom of speech and the press as a lifelong aim since, as we learnt from the Slovak example, it does not end with obtaining EU membership.

Media freedom at the centre of the EU’s attention

The media is often referred to as the fourth pillar of democracy due to its vital role in a functioning democratic system. A free and independent media acts as a watchdog over the actions of government and other public institutions, assisting in ensuring transparency, accountability, and the rule of law. In addition, it helps to prevent corruption and power abuse by exposing wrongdoing and holding those in power accountable. Besides that, it also provides citizens with the information they need to participate in political life and take informed decisions. Therefore, media freedom is indissociable from democracy, and along with the legislature, executive and judiciary, free and independent media are essential to a healthy and flourishing democratic society. Correspondingly, the EU does not neglect this aspect either since respecting and ensuring democratic principles is the cornerstone of the EU and the fundamental precondition to becoming a member state.[1]

After the noted assassination of journalists and due to the generally growing concerns over the safety of journalists and the deterioration of their work conditions, the EU has made several steps to further underlie the necessity to strengthen media freedom and protect independent journalism in Europe. The so-called Anti-SLAPP Directive (Strategic lawsuits against public participation) stands out. It aims to protect journalists, human rights defenders or anyone trying to exercise the freedom of expression related to public interest issues from abusive and manifestly unfounded lawsuits. Although the Directive is meant to apply only to cases with a cross-border dimension, it introduces guidance for Member States on how to effectively tackle the SLAPP cases within their territory and, thus, which measures should be taken in the area of criminal or administrative law. SLAPP lawsuits target not only media outlets but individual journalists to discourage them from critical reporting by saddling them with the high cost of legal defence and the risk of fines or enormous compensation payments. Since this trend of suing of journalists has significantly increased within Europe, the stakeholders agree on positive aspects of the step being taken by the EU. However, it’s only beginning of its attempts to improve the European media space, and the implementation of the guide embodied in the Directive for the handling those cases without international overlap, to a large extent, depends on the willingness of Member States to acknowledge the severity of the problem the SLAPPs represent.

As implied above, the proposal, such as the presented Directive, undoubtedly means a step in a good direction regarding protecting media freedom and ensuring a safe and free environment for journalists to carry out their job; however, the EU remains limited in pursuing more meaningful action due to a lack of competencies in this area. For instance, the European Media Freedom Act (EMFA) proposal, introduces a common European framework for ensuring media freedom and media pluralism. EMFA has several aims, among which is, for example, to protect journalists and their sources from surveillance technologies. It also focuses on media ownership and transparency to strengthen the editorial offices’ independence and prevent state interference in media. Overall, the comprehensive proposal covers various aspects of media functioning and, from a long-term perspective, has the potential to significantly shape the European media space and the way media’s primary watchdog role is exercised. However, in this matter, the actual competencies limit the EU in legislating on media issues which raised many questions on legal basis of the Regulation since regulating the media-related policies is generally regarded as a national competence. Despite the several shortcomings as, for example its reference to internal market or insufficiently defined control mechanisms, it is a clearly positive sign and a welcomed step by many stakeholders proving that the EU does not want to remain blind to the increasing phenomena of media capture as well as rising concerns about media plurality and independence.

Considering the EU member states continue to face notable challenges while the EU is stepping up efforts to solidify protection measures, the Western Balkan countries will be expected, more than ever, to demonstrate a solid track record in guaranteeing media freedom and journalist safety during their accession processes.[2]  Despite steady progress in some areas, all countries in the region, as noted by the European Commission’s annual reports and European Parliament’s rapporteurs for WB6, still struggle with issues such as political interference in the media, questionable media ownership, and last but not least, the persistent pressure and threats against journalists complemented by a lack of adequate protection. According to the World Press Freedom Index from 2022, only North Macedonia and Montenegro reached slight progress in media freedom. On the contrary, the Western Balkans, as such, scored lower comparing the previous year, while all six countries remained in the “problematic press freedom” category. Every year, there are reported verbal or physical attacks against journalists and media outlets and reported cases when journalists are subject to legal proceedings, financial pressure, or different kinds of aggravation of their work conditions. Therefore, if the Western Balkans want to progress on their EU path, they must show their genuine attempt to reverse this negative trend, especially since the need to protect media freedom which has never seemed a more alarming and burning issue from the EU’s perspective as it is today. Although no journalists were assassinated, the Western Balkans have nevertheless yet to demonstrate their unwavering commitment to building a secure and supportive environment for journalists to perform their duties without fear of harm.

Pursuing democracy as a lifetime goal 

Arguably, the murder of Ján Kuciak and multiple attacks against journalists, did not cast a good light on the EU as one the most respected promoter of democracy. Indeed, the severe violation of human rights and freedom of media within the EU might have negative consequences for the image of the EU in the Western Balkans and can raise questions about the EU’s commitment to these values. After all, why should the candidate countries perform ‘stricter than the rule book’ and adhere to these democratic principles to the extent that even the Member States do not comply? Although some may be tempted to think this way, it is important to highlight that the fight for democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights is a demanding and lifelong task for each country, as they are constantly under threat and can be undermined if not properly protected. Membership in any organisation or in the EU does not mean that the task is accomplished. Instead of opting for passivity in the light of EU’s own challenges, the Western Balkans should take concrete steps and seize the moment to showcase to the EU, including the sceptic member states, that they share the EU’s overall concern for the media freedom and protection of journalists.

For instance, Slovakia’s experience in the aftermath of the assassination could provide valuable insights and lessons for the Western Balkans. The murder of Jan Kuciak and the follow-up investigation underpinned the crucial role of free media in contemporary democracies. The investigation of the murder uncovered several other serious and unrelated cases of corruption and severe violations of the rule of law. Later, it led to the indictment and prosecution of tens of people from the prosecutor’s office, police, judiciary, state administration and high politics. Eventually, it also led to an entire alternation of political elites who managed to untie the hands of the police and investigators. All in all, one case led to a chain of reactions that has had a positive spillover effect on different yet inter-linked areas that contribute to the overall level of democracy and rule of law. Therefore, by engaging in protecting media freedoms, the Western Balkans would create a window of opportunity to finally show credible progress in key areas that are crucial for their future membership in the EU.

Finally, only five years have passed since the murder, which shook Slovak society, but the positive spillover effect has slowly faded. Today, Slovakia faces the potential comeback of the former ruling party SMER-SD considered to be accountable for most of the corruption scandals unveiled aftermath of the murder of Ján Kuciak. Moreover, regardless the political shift, there has been a visible increase in the number of public attacks on media outlets and individual journalists by political figures recently. The reversal of a positive trend triggered by the tragic event unequivocally stressed that the fight for democracy and fundamental rights is truly a lifetime task. Although the reversal occurred within the past two years might be explained by several factors like improper pandemic management, the consequences of the war in Ukraine, general dissatisfaction with the performance of the current political elites or exceptionally high susceptibility of Slovaks to trust in fake news and conspiracies, it is evident that fight against corruption and media freedom is not the hot topic anymore. Therefore, unless the citizens insist on strictly following democratic principles and create adequate and persistent pressure on their political representatives to comply with democratic standards, society will continue being trapped in the circles of undemocratic practices. Indeed, as proven by Slovakia’s case, the circle might be broken by a major, if not tragic, event; however, citizens should not forget too fast and put constant pressure on their political representatives. Strong and independent media is a powerful and efficient tool to assist with this; thus, it should be primarily in the citizens’ interest to protect and stand for them.

The author is Romana Burianová from Slovakia, currently an intern at European Policy Centre – CEP.

[1] The freedom of media and expression as essential element of functioning democracies is also implicitly entrenched within the EU core values under Article 2 of the Treaty of the EU and embodied in Article 11 of the EU Charter on Fundamental Rights.

[2] To emphasise genuine commitment to ensuring respect for the core democratic principles not only with the EU but also beyond the EU’s borders, it place the Fundamentals at the centre of the accession process. The conditionality related to democratic performance of a country has been part of the enlargement policy towards the aspiring countries since the adoption of the so-called Copenhagen criteria. Moreover, with the introduction of the Revised enlargement methodology in 2020, media freedom and freedom of expression (as part of Chapter 23 – Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) was incorporated in the Fundamentals cluster, thus reaffirming their importance.