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Slovakia: Independence of Slovakia’s leading TV news channel must…

Slovakia: Independence of Slovakia’s leading TV news channel must be protected

The undersigned members of the Media Freedom Rapid Response are deeply alarmed by the actions of the Slovak government towards Slovakia’s leading commercial broadcaster, TV Markíza, aimed at silencing its critical journalism. We call on Markíza’s owners, the Central European Media Enterprises (CME), to resist the pressure and guarantee the editorial independence of the newsroom.

TV Markiza has been under pressure from the moment the new government was formed in September 2023. Prime Minister Róbert Fico accused it last November of being part of the “enemy media” and quickly threatened to cut contracts for state advertising, which Markíza broadcasts.

 

In December, Markíza’s owners, the Prague-based Central European Media Enterprises (CME), replaced Markíza’s long-time news director, Henrich Krejča, with Michal Kratochvíl, transferred from CME’s Czech broadcaster, Nova TV.

 

On February 28, Markíza staff appealed to the general director, Peter Gažík, claiming Kratochvil was muzzling the news output to reduce political content and avoid confronting the government.

 

The commercial media outlet, TV Markíza was launched in 1996 and quickly became a key player in the country’s media landscape. Its news programming has been particularly influential, with its coverage often setting the agenda for public discourse. In the summer 2023, SMER, the ruling party, announced that its politicians would not take part in pre-election debates on this TV station, due to “disinformation.” Many politicians of the current Fico-led government boycott the channel and threatened it with cuts to state advertisement, increasing the pressure on the newsroom. Meanwhile, there is growing speculation that CEM is under pressure to sell Markíza.

 

The internal crisis at TV Markíza is taking place at the same time as the government attempts to take control over public service media by dissolving Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS) and replacing it with Slovak Television and Radio (STaR).

 

MFRR partners previously expressed profound concerns over these developments, emphasizing the need to uphold democratic values and protect press freedom in Slovakia. Our previous calls for the withdrawal of the repressive broadcast law and opposition to government interference in public media underscore the gravity of the situation.

 

We call upon Prime Minister Róbert Fico and his government to cease all attacks, threats, and pressure on independent media, including TV Markíza. Critical media are not the “enemy”. They are a pillar of a democratic society and must be allowed to carry out their watchdog role free from retaliation in any form.

 

In this critical moment, the organizations of the MFRR stand in solidarity with TV Markíza journalists in their calls to defend the outlet’s independent journalism. We urge TV Markíza’s owners (the Central European Media Enterprises – CME) and management to resist external pressures and guarantee editorial independence in the newsroom. They must act decisively to uphold the public’s right to access diverse and independent sources of information.

 

Additionally, we call upon Slovak authorities, regulators, and the country’s newly elected president Peter Pellegrini to uphold media freedom, media pluralism, and allow the media to work free from political pressure. The integrity of the upcoming European elections and the credibility of Slovak democracy depend on it. 

Signed by:

  • International Press Institute (IPI)
  • European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)
  • European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)
  • OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)
  • Free Press Unlimited (FPU)
  • ARTICLE 19 Europe

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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Candles are placed during a march in memory of murdered Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova. Library

Slovakia: Lack of justice for Kuciak and Kušnírová’s assassination…

Slovakia: Lack of justice for Kuciak and Kušnírová’s assassination exacerbated by growing attacks on press freedom

On the sixth anniversary of the brutal killing of investigative reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová, the undersigned organisations renew our call for long-awaited justice for their killings and the imperative to break the cycle of impunity. As we remember Ján and Martina, we are alarmed by increasing threats to the rule of law and media freedom in Slovakia, in particular relating to the lack of accountability for crimes, the diminished protection of public watchdogs and the stark erosion of democratic institutions. The undersigned international organisations call on the Slovak authorities to fulfil their obligation to protect freedom of media and expression and to ensure full justice for Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová’s murders. We encourage the EU institutions to take a firm stance in order to prevent the erosion of democracy in the country.

On February 21, 2018, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were fatally shot at their home. Kuciak, known for his reporting on corruption for Aktuality.sk, had uncovered alleged corruption and tax fraud schemes involving prominent business figures with suspected ties to Prime Minister Robert Fico’s party Smer-SSD and organised crime.

The assassination shocked the country and led to the resignation of Fico and his cabinet. However, six years later, justice remains elusive for the victims’ families, while Fico is again leading the government. Despite the hitmen and intermediaries receiving lengthy prison sentences, the businessman associated with Fico’s party, Marian Kočner, accused of masterminding the crime after threatening the journalist, was twice found not guilty. Following Kocner’s second acquittal in  May 2023, the Supreme Court is now set to rule on the prosecutor’s second appeal. 

 

Risks for the prosecution of the killing

Soon after taking power again, Fico proposed significant legislative changes that threaten media freedom, rule of law and the prosecution of  Kuciak and Kušnírová’s killings.

On 8 February 2024, the Slovak parliament, where the ruling coalition holds a majority, passed in a fast-track procedure a highly contested reform of the criminal code. The amendments aim for the dissolution of the Special Prosecutor’s Office responsible for dealing with the most serious crimes and corruption cases including Kuciak and Kusnirova’s killing. The prosecutor in charge of the case, verbally attacked by Fico, has openly expressed concerns about the future of the further prosecution of those responsible for the assassination.

We reiterate that under international human rights standards, states are obligated to guarantee accountability for any violence, threats, or assaults targeting journalists by conducting impartial, swift, comprehensive, independent, and efficient investigations. UN Human Rights Council Resolution 33/2 explicitly calls for the establishment of specialised investigative units to address crimes against journalists. 

The government initially proposed also a significant weakening of the whistleblower legislation but has recently announced its withdrawal.

The sweeping reform of the criminal code was pushed through despite a vast public protest with tens of thousands of people rallying on the streets and great concern expressed by the EU institutions. Previously in December, the European Commission called on the government not to fast-track the changes to the criminal code and whistleblower legislation. Raising alarm over the continuity of investigation of high-level corruption, the Commission warned Slovakia that it risked causing ‘irreparable damage‘ to the rule of law. The European Public Prosecutor’s Office, responsible for investigating fraud and corruption cases involving EU funds, also cautioned that the legislative changes would ‘seriously affect’ the ability to investigate and prosecute offences under its competence effectively. The new criminal code is now being examined by the Constitutional Court based on President Zuzana Čaputová’s filing.  

 

Threats to media independence

During our fact-finding mission to Slovakia in 2023 we underscored the importance of strengthening the safety of journalists, their access to information and public media independence, all in line with the European standards.. While the police has developed its cooperation with the non-governmental safety mechanism, Safe.Journalism.sk, since its launch a year ago, the other areas unfortunately experienced no progress or even regress. The verbal attacks of Fico and his allies have fueled smear campaigns against critical media outlets. Calling four outlets hostile, the Prime Minister and the Ministers nominated by his party systematically boycott their media inquiries. 

In addition, there are growing concerns about the independence of public broadcaster. In late 2023, the parliament decreased the state funding of RTVS by a staggering 30 percent on a year-by-year basis and proposed to divide the radio and television into two separate companies. The two measures threaten the public media’s independence in the context of open attacks on RTVS and calls for the dismissal of its current leadership by Fico and Andrej Danko, chairman of a junior government party and vice-speaker of the parliament. Danko even admitted that while serving as Speaker of the National Council (2016-2020), he had granted to the previous RTVS director general, nominated by his party, the political approval to appoint a journalist as a moderator of political discussions on public television. The ruling coalition’s discourse and measures regarding RTVS are contrary to our 2022 calls for measures to enhance the public media’s independence..

Moreover, the government and parliament have taken no measures either to protect journalists against gag lawsuits (SLAPPs), or to allow for aggravated sentences for attacks against them, two other demands made by our 2023 mission.

Commemorating Ján Kuciak’s legacy, the undersigned organisations reiterate that combating impunity for crimes against journalists is essential for safeguarding media freedom. Full justice for Ján, Martina, and their families can only be secured when all individuals responsible for the murder are held to account – including those who orchestrated the attack.  Furthermore, we call on Prime Minister Robert Fico and the Slovak government to refrain from further actions that weaken the resilience of Slovakia’s media environment. On the contrary, the authorities must create an enabling environment for journalists and adopt effective measures to increase the safety of journalists and the independence of the media. Finally, following the critical resolution on Slovakia adopted by the European Parliament in January, we encourage EU institutions to take a firm stance to effectively prevent the erosion of democracy in the country.

Signed by:

ARTICLE 19 Europe

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

International Press Institute (IPI)

The Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak (ICJK)

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

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Event

The true cost of journalism: Ongoing impunity cases in…

The true cost of journalism:

Ongoing impunity cases in Europe

19 February, 11:00 CET.

On 21 February 2018, journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were murdered in Veľká Mača, Slovakia. The assassination sparked mass protests and the eventual resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico. Although those who ordered and carried out the murder have been found guilty and sentenced to time in prison, the alleged mastermind was acquitted in May 2023.

 

During the latest MFRR webinar, marking the sixth anniversary of the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, panellists will discuss ongoing impunity cases for crimes against journalists in Europe with a spotlight on Slovakia, Turkey, and Serbia.

Moderator

Jasmijn de Zeeuw

Legal Advisor, Free Press Unlimited

Speakers

Massimo Moratti

Osservatorio Balcani e Caucaso Transeuropa (OBC Transeuropa)

Barış Altıntaş

Co-Director, Media and Law Studies Association (MLSA)

Lukas Diko

Editor-in-Chief, Investigative Center of Jan Kuciak

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Slovakia: New PM rages against media while Culture Minister…

Slovakia: New PM rages against media while Culture Minister plans future of public service media

Robert Fico and his Smer party have returned to power in Slovakia. The politician who was forced to resign as prime minister after the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak in 2018 is back at the head of a new governing coalition creating deep unease among Slovakia’s journalists about the future for media freedoms and public service journalism.

On Sunday November 12, Fico published a ten minute video tirade against independent news organisations where he singles out TV Markiza, the dailies SME and Dennik N, and website Aktuality as ‘enemy media’.

Promising that he is “not a dog that only barks”, Fico then warns that TV Markiza’s advertising revenue will be at risk when he instructs his people in government to both “deal with the TV financially” and to “look into Markiza’s ‘monopolist behaviour’”.

On Monday November 13, Fico then issued a press release announcing the four news organizations are not welcome at the premises of the Government Office of the Slovak Republic adding that “We will review their access and work. Until then, they are uninvited guests.”

The new government had already signalled its intent by handing the ministry of culture, together with its media portfolio, to the Slovak National Party (SNS), which calls for the dissolution of public service media while also boycotting most traditional media.

The new Slovakian government is formed by a coalition of Smer, Hlas and SNS. Hlas is a new party, led by Peter Pellegrini, a former leading Smer politician who replaced Fico as prime minister, after Fico‘s forced resignation in 2018, until Smer was defeated in the 2020 elections. SNS are seen as right wing radicals with many of their newly elected members of parliament and candidates for government posts having made their reputations as stars of the disinformation scene including pro-Russian influencers, famous for spreading hoaxes and misinformation.

The new minister of culture is Martina Šimkovičová, a former TV anchor who was fired from the mainstream TV Markíza for racist comments in 2015. The following year she was elected to parliament on an anti-migration ticket and subsequently became a superstar of the pro-Russian disinformation scene. She is one of the main figures behind the SNS call for a ‘boycott of traditional media“. SNS ignore most of the interview requests and refuse to answer questions from the independent and critical media operating outside oligarch ownership. SNS refused access to journalists from the daily Sme, Denník N and Aktuality to their post-election press conference.

SNS, with support from Smer, promises to favour the disinformation media. Several of their politicians have stated that they could give exclusive access to information for websites known for their pro-Russian propaganda, some of which were banned for a short period at the beginning of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A Smer friendly website, Ereport, (owned by Mr. Flašík, a former Smer campaign strategist) is usually allowed to ask the first question at press conferences of the new coalition.

Even more worrying is what the government may be planning for the public service media, Rozhlas a televízia Slovenska (RTVS). In 2017, SNS leader Andrej Danko called for the replacement of public service media with ‘state media’ before his party helped orchestrate the political capture of RTVS. The new chairman of the parliamentary media and culture committee, SNS MP Roman Michelko, campaigned to dissolve RTVS altogether. He recently confirmed for Aktuality that the official programme of the new government will include the dissolution of RTVS into two separate entities, Slovak Television and Slovak Radio, as they existed before 2011. Prime Minister Fico also speculated about the future of RTVS while introducing the new minister of culture, saying, “It is hard to talk about the Slovak Television and Slovak Radio as public service, because this institution has rarely fulfilled this role.”

Journalists fear that the split of RTVS could make it easier for the political parties to establish and divide political control over public broadcasting by appointing their allies onto the board and into senior positions. MP Michelko has admitted that they might nominate members of the boards of the two new institutions that will be in line with the political values of the governing coalition.

Smer itself is a populist party with pro-Russian sympathies, feeding off anti-immigrant sentiment that campaigned to end the delivery of military help to Ukraine. Fico makes no secret of being inspired by Viktor Orbán mimicking his anti-journalist rhetoric and calls to label NGOs as ‘foreign agents’.

Fico’s attacks on journalists include calling them “idiots“, “hyenas“ and “dirty anti-Slovak prostitutes“. Fico also blamed the media for his 2018 resignation, claiming reporters had unfairly connected him and his party to the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancé, Martina Kusnirova. One theory at the time was that Italy’s Ndrangheta mafia may have sought to silence Kuciak because he had been working on a story exploring the connections between the mafia and Fico. The investigation subsequently prosecuted Marián Kočner (twice acquitted, but awaiting the results of an appeal) for the murders. Kočner was close to the oligarch Norbert Bodor and leaked communications between the two reveal them referring to Fico as ‘the boss’. At one point Fico and Bodor were charged with forming an organized criminal group, though the charges were later dropped by the Slovak general prosecution.

One more worrying development in the Slovak media market was announced just after the election. The oligarchic group Penta, has expanded its investments in the Slovak media to take over the largest daily tabloid newspaper, Nový Čas. The deal is still under review by the competition authority, but should it go through Penta will have a near monopoly on the Slovak tabloid newspaper market. Penta has been repeatedly accused of helping the Smer and Hlas parties by using their media to campaign against their political opponents. Over the last few years, Penta media published dozens of negative articles on the police and prosecutors to discredit investigations into Smer politicians and supporters for corruption or misuse of power.

In conclusion, it is clear that Slovak journalists can expect to face increased pressure and a government averse to accountable journalism. Under the previous Smer and SNS coalition government independent journalists were cast out of the public broadcaster, while dozens of investigative journalists were put under surveillance by corrupt police officials accused of being in the pay of Norbert Bodor. Leaked communications were used to discredit journalists and the persistent verbal attacks on critical journalists by Smer and SNS politicians created an atmosphere of threats and hostility in which the murder of Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova became possible.

Nearly six years after their deaths Fico’s Sunday tirade against journalists will have shocked many but surprised few. Slovak journalists are once again bracing themselves for turbulent times.

This article was authored by Peter Hanak, journalist for the Slovak news site Aktuality.sk and author of IPI’s report ‘Media Capture in Slovakia: a story of fragile pluralism, media resilience and the struggle against corruption’. It was published by IPI as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response programme

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Slovakia: Profound disappointment as suspected mastermind in Ján Kuciak…

Slovakia: Profound disappointment as suspected mastermind in Ján Kuciak murder acquitted again

Following today’s acquittal of the suspected mastermind in the killing of Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak, we, the undersigned international media freedom and journalist organisations, express our profound disappointment, renew our calls for justice and convey our steadfast solidarity with the families of Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.

This acquittal of businessman Marian Kočner, which was announced earlier today following a retrial at the Specialized Criminal Court, represents another devastating blow to the fight for full justice for Ján and Martina’s killing. The judges voted 2:1 to find Kočner not guilty of ordering the 2018 assassination.

The judges did convict Alena Zsuzsová, a close associate of Kočner, of ordering the hit and sentenced her to 25 years in prison. She was also convicted of ordering the murder of two Slovak prosecutors. Both her and Kočner’s verdicts, which come after the Supreme Court revoked the initial acquittals in June 2021, can be appealed.

Kuciak and Kušnírová were shot dead in their home outside Bratislava on 21 February 2018. Judges again ruled that prosecutors had not presented the concrete evidence necessary to rule beyond reasonable doubt that Kočner – a businessman with links to Slovakia’s political, judicial and security elite – had ordered the journalist’s death. Both he and Zsuzsová are currently serving lengthy sentences for other crimes.

Our first thoughts go to Ján and Martina’s families, who have endured years of painful court hearings and who have yet again been denied full justice and accountability. We share their intense frustration regarding Kočner’s verdict and stand in full solidarity with the couple’s family, loved ones and colleagues at this difficult time.

This repeated failure to secure the conviction of the suspected mastermind is another damaging setback in the fight against impunity for the murder of journalists in Slovakia, and in Europe. This case follows an all-too-common pattern in which the hitmen and facilitators involved in such crimes are put behind bars while the suspected masterminds who ordered the murder evade justice.

Another acquittal for the most serious crime against journalism in Slovakia’s modern history also has worrying implications for the fragile media freedom progress made within the country in recent years. As we process this disappointing setback, we remain as committed as ever to securing full justice for Ján and Martina and will support the families during the appeal to the Supreme Court.

Those who order the killing of a journalist cannot be allowed to act with impunity. The fight for justice will continue.

Signed by:

ARTICLE 19 Europe

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

International Press Institute (IPI)

OBC Transeuropa (OBCT)

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

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Media capture Slovakia Library

Slovakia: A story of fragile pluralism, media resilience and…

Slovakia: A story of fragile pluralism, media resilience and the struggle against corruption

As part of the MFRR, the International Press Institute (IPI) today published the new report ‘Media Capture in Slovakia: A story of fragile pluralism, media resilience and the struggle against corruption’.

The report, authored by Peter Hanák, explores the extent of media capture in Slovakia.

Overall, the report finds that media pluralism remains relatively strong compared with Slovakia’s neighbours in the Visegrád region.  While the power of media oligarchs in the country remains problematic, there is a resilient independent media sector.

Nevertheless, a number of challenges exist that require both vigilance and reforms. Examples of the instrumentalization of media abound in particular as politicians and oligarchs have used media over which they have influence to discredit critical journalism and undermine efforts to prosecute the high levels of corruption exposed following the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, in 2018.

Though the public broadcaster, RTV Slovakia, currently enjoys relatively low levels of political pressure, it has a history of vulnerability to political interference and securing its stability and independence should be a priority. The failure of the government to depoliticize the appointments process and to finalise reforms over its financing leaves it highly vulnerable to political capture in the future.

Media regulators, while enjoying a level of relative pluralism in part due to Slovakia’s fragmented political landscape, still suffer from a political  appointments process that affects the perceived levels of impartiality and professionalism of these bodies. Reforming the appointments process to prioritize criteria of professional expertise and political independence would greatly enhance the capacity and legitimacy of these bodies.

The distribution of state advertising remains highly vulnerable to abuse by politicians seeking to reward political allies in the media. This risk can be addressed by bolstering transparency and introducing rules that ensure all distribution decisions are based on objective, proportionate and non-discriminatory criteria.

Recent reforms to bolster independent journalism and press freedom have helped produce progress on safety and source protection, and by many measures the media is in good shape. However, vigilance and further reforms are required to shore up the country’s defenses against media capture to strengthen the independent press, and the report makes a number of recommendations to this end. With elections due in September there is fear that the progress made in recent years may be rapidly unwound. Moreover, while not directly related to media capture, the continued impunity for the masterminds of the murder of Kuciak and Kusnirova continues to cast a shadow over journalism in the country.

The report was commissioned as part of IPI’s series of reports into media capture in Central and Eastern Europe, which involves the capture of once-independent media houses by vested political or business interests, which collude to control the narrative and serve their own political and financial ends.In return for state advertising funds and lucrative contracts in other industries, governments and oligarchs find mutual benefits in media offering positive, compliant coverage. This stealth-like takeover of news media by oligarchic owners working with state authorities in many central and eastern European countries has severely distorted the free flow of information and eroded media pluralism, with deeply damaging effects on democracy.

For more information on IPI’s work on media capture in Europe please follow this link.

The report was published with the support of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation and as part of IPI’s programme of work in the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a project which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and Candidate Countries.  MFRR is supported by funding from the European Commission.

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. 

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Candles are placed during a march in memory of murdered Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova. Library

Analysis: How much has media freedom in Slovakia changed…

Analysis: How much has media freedom in Slovakia changed five years after Ján Kuciak murder?

This week much of Slovakia’s media community came together in Bratislava to commemorate the five-year anniversary of the killing of investigative journalist Já​​n Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.

By IPI Europe Advocacy Officer Jamie Wiseman

 

The path to full justice for the double murder has been slow. The hitman and an intermediary are behind bars serving hefty sentences. Now the verdict in the retrial of the alleged mastermind, Marian Kočner, and his associate is expected in the coming months.

 

Against this backdrop, the messages conveyed during commemorative events this week continue to be the need for full justice, an end to the corrosive culture of corruption and impunity in which the assassination took place, and the need to honour Kuciak’s legacy.

 

The five-year anniversary also offered an opportunity to look back and reflect on whether, half a decade later, the changes in Slovak politics, judicial authorities, media and society at large have been systemic enough to ensure such an appalling crime is never committed again.

 

Much has changed in Slovakia since 21 February 2018. Much has not. And while the landscape for press freedom has undergone clear improvement in recent years, there is a palpable sense that, as the country heads into early elections, these gains appear increasingly fragile.

Hard won progress

Turning first to look at the positives, the widespread reforms to the judicial and law enforcement bodies ushered in by the 2020 election victory of anti-corruption party OĽaNO have led to positive changes in how police deal with threats journalists. These issues are taken far more seriously and, since the murder, physical attacks on journalists have been rare.

 

The sweeping away from power of the Smer-SD party of former Prime Minister Robert Fico – and the subsequent investigations and arrest of high-level officials on corruption charges – have also helped dent the ingrained sense that corrupt elites can act with impunity. Law-enforcement authorities are finally prosecuting corruption unearthed by journalists.

 

While many challenges remain to unravel this state capture and few high-level convictions have so far been secured, these reforms appear to have helped break down, at least for now, the nexus of political, business and judicial and networks that polluted the rule of law and created the conditions in which a journalist could be killed.

 

Elsewhere, the recent creation of Safe.Journalism.sk, a platform led by the Investigative Centre of Ján Kuciak (ICJK) for journalists to report threats and receive support, is a timely initiative that can help increase safety amongst the journalistic profession. The engagement of police and prosecutorial authorities in prosecuting attacks reported to them will be vital.

 

Legislative reforms passed by the current government, approved after consultation with the journalistic community, have also been positive overall. These include the modernisation of media laws in 2022 which strengthened legal protection for source confidentiality for journalists from online media. New rules on the transparency of media ownership and funding – including obligations for declaring media platforms’ ultimate financial owners – should likewise help tackle disinformation and increase citizens’ trust in the news they consume.

 

At the systemic levels, robust rules on horizontal and cross media concentration continue to ensure the media ecosystem enjoys relatively healthy levels of pluralism, especially compared to other countries in Central Europe. The country’s landscape for media regulation remains independent. A number of new, nimble digital media outlets are successfully experimenting with new business models and providing high quality news.

 

The landscape for Freedom of Information (FOI) and government transparency have been significantly improved, with Slovakia’s FOI legislation now among the best in Europe. Unique amendments passed in 2022 that ban journalists from being sued for publishing information obtained through FOI should be a model for Europe.

 

Serious challenges persist

Despite these positive changes, however, media in Slovakia continue to face many challenges in the exercise of free and independent journalism. Most seriously, verbal attacks and denigrating smear campaigns by high-level politicians continue. Vulgar tirades by Fico were replaced by populist attacks by Igor Matovič, former PM and chairman of the governing party OĽaNO. Even on the day of the anniversary, Matovič abused the memory of Kuciak murder to try and delegitimise critical media reporting. While political leaders vow to denounce such threats, their pledges fall short when it comes to members of their own political parties.

 

This demonization of journalists acts as a signpost for online abuse of journalists and deliberately sows distrust in independent media in the public, fostering further polarization. Worse yet, this harassment is one the rise. According to a recently published survey of more than 400 journalists organized by the Investigative Centre of Ján Kuciak, around two thirds of media workers have experienced some form of threat of attack within the last year. Online harassment is the most common threat. This behaviour is normalized by thin-skinned politicians who see journalists not as watchdogs but as scapegoats. Left unchecked, this divisive rhetoric can – as we tragically saw in the run up to the murder of investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta – create a climate in which critical and investigative journalists are legitimate and isolated targets for attack.

 

It is shocking it is that in a country where a journalist was murdered just five years ago, leading politicians continue to launch vicious verbal attacks against the press and apparently having learned nothing.

 

Meanwhile, the mass, illegal surveillance of journalists carried out before the killing on behalf of Kočner remains unpunished and questions remain unanswered about the possible involvement of individuals within state authorities. Rather than being a thing of the past, the surveillance in 2021 of a prominent journalist from independent media outlet Denník N also bore alarming echoes of the mass surveillance carried out under the previous Fico government.

 

In the legal sphere, while the Justice Ministry has tabled long overdue amendments to the criminal code, journalists convicted of defamation in Slovakia still face prison sentences of between two and eight years. The current law, though never enforced by the courts, creates a chilling effect and remains among the harshest in Europe. The lack of a functioning majority in parliament makes it unlikely such reforms will be passed before the election. Likewise, a much-needed amendment to the criminal code providing aggravated penalties for crimes committed against journalists due to their work remains parked in the ministry. Though not as prevalent in other EU countries, vexatious lawsuits and SLAPPs pose a serious legal threat.

 

While the public broadcaster RTVS has benefited from process of depoliticization and the transparent appointment of a respected new Director General, the government failed to win support in parliament for its proposed reforms to the selection process for the Director General and the oversight council. Until these laws governing RTVS are updated, the broadcaster will continue to be open to interference and politicized appointments by undemocratic forces. More pressingly, the scrapping of the licence fees for RTVS by the government as part of its broader budget negotiations has left the broadcaster in a precarious position. Unless a sustainable new financing model is found in the coming months, it will be left operating in a deficit by June 2023.

 

Oligarchic ownership of many of the country’s largest private media remains a threat to editorial independence This situation worse at the regional and local level, where media face serious threats to their editorial independence due to the proximity to, and financial dependence on, municipal administrations. The lack of transparency in the criteria used for the allocation of state advertising meanwhile continues to pose concerns. A much-criticized levy on the largest private broadcasters, though later scrapped, led to concern about retaliatory taxes in response to critical reporting on the government. It is clear that challenges persist.

 

Fragile progress in the balance

Hanging over the media landscape in Slovakia is the fact that full justice for the murder of Jan and Martina remains elusive. A date for the new verdict in the retrial has been floated for April 2023. Even if a guilty verdict is reached, appeals to the Supreme Court could drag the case out for many more months. The decision will be closely watched across Europe.

 

Justice for the families is naturally the prime concern. But if the alleged mastermind is ultimately convicted, it would be an extremely rare example globally in which all those suspected of involvement in the targeted killing of a journalist- from the hitman to the middleman up to the mastermind – are found guilty and put behind bars. This would set a global example and help solidify the rule of law in Slovakia.

 

Outside the courtroom of the Specialized Criminal Court, progress has undoubtedly been achieved in Slovakia. Trust in the work of police amongst the journalistic community has risen. Reforms of judicial and law enforcement bodies continue. High-level corruption revealed by journalists is being properly investigated. The current government has implemented important legislative reforms that benefit the media.

 

Yet at the same time, the toxic entanglement of powerful business and political interests is proving difficult to eradicate and can easily return. Denigration and verbal attacks against critical media by high-level politicians continue. Online harassment of journalists and Orbán-style smears against “Soros-funded” media are becoming ever more common. The sense of insecurity for journalists remains.

 

Taken together then, while there is a perception amongst journalists that the recent changes in the press freedom climate have generally been positive, opportunities for even more progressive reforms were missed and in some areas, particularly online attacks on journalists, the landscape is just as problematic as it was when Jan Kuciak was murdered. The respite experienced by journalists after the killing in terms of verbal attacks is over.

 

It is clear from the conversations we had in Bratislava with media, civil society, and reform-minded politicians that the recent progress, while significant, is also fragile and has not been fully consolidated. And with anti-democratic forces on the rise ahead of the September 2023 elections – including Fico, who was ousted by protests following the murder – there remains clear room for concern. Regardless of its political persuasion, the next government must commit to keeping the reform agenda on track. Anything less would fail to honour the legacy of Ján Kuciak.

This article by IPI, and the mission to Bratislava, were part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.

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Library

Slovakia: Fifth anniversary of Kuciak and Kušnírová’s killing marked…

Slovakia: Fifth anniversary of Kuciak and Kušnírová’s killing marked by fragile press freedom progress

Five years after the assassination of Já​​n Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, Slovak judges are nearing their judgment in the retrial of the alleged mastermind of the murder of Aktuality.sk’s journalist and his fiancée.

While the hitmen and an intermediary of the February 2018 killing have already been convicted to long prison sentences, suspect Marián Kočner, charged with ordering the crime, was acquitted. With the retrial verdict expected in April 2023, our organisations renew our call for full justice for the double murder.

 

The undersigned organisations conducted a fact-finding and advocacy mission in the country to express their support to the families and colleagues of Já​​n Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová and as well as to evaluate press freedom in Slovakia five years after their murder. We took active part in the commemorative events and met with Slovak journalists. In meetings with the President, Prime Minister and political parties, we encouraged them to continue reforms and implement new measures to improve safety of journalists and independence of the media – including the public broadcaster RTVS – and to protect against abusive lawsuits and defend whistleblowers. Like the road to full justice for Já​​n and Martina’s assassination, Slovakia’s progress on media freedom remains fragile.

 

As political parties prepare for early elections scheduled for September 2023, our organisations call for new political consensus and commitments to improve media freedom and the safety of journalists to prevent any future killing of a journalist and allow Ján Kuciak’s colleagues to continue his legacy of public interest reporting.

 

1. Safety of journalists

After the 2020 elections, law enforcement bodies – the police, special prosecution and the courts – started tackling corruption revealed by journalists, which won them their trust. But full justice has not yet been served for either the assassination of Ján Kuciak or for other crimes against journalists such as their massive surveillance by “Kocner’s squad”, a network of individuals paid to supply information to the businessman. At the same time, the new survey conducted by the Investigative Centre of Ján Kuciak (ICJK) within the project Safe.Journalism.sk shows Slovak journalists are most frequently targeted with online and verbal attacks. 

 

One of the greatest threats journalists in Slovakia are facing today are verbal attacks including denigrating smear campaigns from politicians, which acts as a signpost for members of the public to further carry out online abuse. These attacks from politicians – which should be unequivocally condemned – remain largely unsanctioned.

 

Political leaders and parties should:

  • Commit to providing law enforcement authorities with all necessary means to bring about justice for crimes against journalists and improve their protection in line with the European Commission’s Journalist Safety Recommendation from September 2021. 
  • Pledge to respond positively if Slovakia’s new protection mechanism, Safe.Journalism.sk, requests cooperation. 
  • Pledge to ban verbal attacks and smear campaigns against media, and to condemn such attacks and sanction party members who violate the ban.
  • Pass amendments to the criminal code to strengthen punishments for aggravated attacks and threats against journalists targeted for their work.

 

2. Independence of the media

In 2022, Parliament passed important bills strengthening the legal protection of confidentiality of journalistic sources as well as reinforcing transparency of media ownership and funding. The former Director General of the public broadcaster RTVS, under whose mandate more than 30 journalists had quit, was replaced after a transparent election in parliament. Lawmakers have, however, failed to fundamentally reform the heavily political selection process. Moreover, as of July 2023, they decided to remove the licence fees, the main source of funding, and replace them with state subsidies pending a long-term solution. It was reported to the mission that the new Director General enjoys the general trust of the media community.

 

The current government should swiftly propose a new mechanism which will guarantee adequate and stable funding for RTVS, free of political pressures and overseen by an independent body. A public consultation involving the broadcaster should also be organised. After the next general election, political parties should commit to reforming the selection process of the public media’s Director General and its oversight body to further increase RTVS’ independence. By doing so, political leaders should be inspired by good practice and the positive elements of the European Commission’s proposed European Media Freedom Act.

 

3. Protection against abusive lawsuits and access to information

We welcome the commitment by the government to implement the European Commission’s recommendation against Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation (SLAPPs) and to support the proposed anti-SLAPP Directive. We call on all parties to follow this lead and pledge similar reforms to tackle vexatious lawsuits at the national level.

 

We are concerned that defamation remains punishable in Slovakia by a prison sentence of two to eight years. Although such sentences, among the harshest in the EU, are not applied by courts, they allow politicians and businessmen to exercise pressure on journalists. Media continue to be targeted by civil lawsuits with requests for damages of tens of thousands of euros. The Ministry of Justice has proposed to decrease the maximum prison sentence for defamation to one year and – in case of significant damage – to two years. Political parties are called upon to remove altogether prison sentences for defamation and to fully decriminalise defamation.

 

The legal framework for Freedom of Information (FOI) remains strong overall and among the best in the EU. It is positive that the Amendments to the FOI Act were passed by Parliament in 2022, banning the lawsuits against journalists for publishing information obtained via FOI requests. We welcome the establishment of the Office for the Protection of Whistleblowers, urge the government to transpose the EU Whistleblower Directive in full, and take all measures to provide maximum protection to all whistleblowers.

 

The assassination of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová led to sweeping societal and political changes in Slovakia. However, the mastermind of the murder has still not been convicted and the authorities have yet to take all necessary measures to protect journalists and defend independent media. The end of impunity must become a reality and the new political cycle must be turned by political parties into an opportunity to strengthen press freedom.

 

Signed: 

ARTICLE 19 Europe

Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ)

European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF)

European Federation of Journalists (EFJ)

Free Press Unlimited (FPU)

International Press Institute (IPI)

Reporters Without Borders (RSF)

This statement was coordinated by the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States and candidate countries.

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Slovakia Mission Library

Slovakia: Press freedom groups to visit Bratislava for Ján…

Slovakia: Press freedom groups to visit Bratislava for Ján Kuciak murder anniversary

Between 20 and 21 February 2023, a delegation of international media freedom organisations will conduct a joint mission to Bratislava to mark the five-year anniversary of the killing of Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.

The aim of the mission is twofold. Firstly, to take part in the anniversary events and express solidarity with the families and the Slovak journalistic community as the retrial of the alleged mastermind at the Specialised Criminal Court reaches its final stage.

 

Secondly, five years after the assassination, to evaluate the security of journalists and the legal framework for their work, to understand the challenges facing independent journalism in private and public media, and to take the pulse of overall press freedom in the country.

 

The main question the delegation will seek to answer is: five years on from the killing, have the changes in Slovak politics, legislation, law enforcement, media industry and society been systemic enough to ensure the murder of a journalist never happens again and that media professionals can work freely?

 

The mission will be joined by the International Press Institute (IPI), European Centre for Press and Media Freedom (ECPMF), Reporters Without Borders (RSF), European Federation of Journalists (EFJ), Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Free Press Unlimited (FPU) and ARTICLE 19 Europe. The mission is part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR).

 

During the visit, the delegation will meet with editors and journalists of the major Slovak media including the public broadcaster RTVS. The organisations will discuss their proposals for the improvement of press freedom at meetings with representatives of the government, the opposition, the police presidency, chief prosecutor’s office and other public officials. Members of the delegation will speak at the conference “Media Freedom 2023” organized on 20 February in Bratislava by the Ministry of Culture under the auspices of the Media Freedom Coalition.

 

Interim findings for the mission will be shared via press conference at 15.00 on 21 February at the European Information Centre, Palisády 29, 811 06 Staré Mesto, Bratislava.

Press contacts

For more information and press contacts, please contact:

  • Flutura Kusari, European Centre for Press and Media Freedom flutura.kusari@ecpmf.eu +383 49 236 664.
  • Pavol Szalai, Reporters Without Borders pszalai@rsf.org, +33 7 82 31 50 98.
  • Jamie Wiseman, International Press Institute, jwiseman@ipi.media
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Memorial photo and candles for Jan Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova are seen in Trnava, Slovakia, on 29th February, 2020. Kuciak, a Slovak investigative journalist, along with his girlfriend, was found shot dead on 25 February 2018 in their home in Slovakia Allgemein

How Slovak politicians did not learn from the murder…

How Slovak politicians did not learn from the murder of a journalist

Recent legal reforms show promise, yet discrediting attacks on journalists continue

 

By IPI contributor Beata Balogová, editor-in-chief of SME

Igor Matovič, the current finance minister of Slovakia and former prime minister, sailed to power on the wave of public anger and disappointment that in 2018 followed the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová.

 

“Permanent attacks on journalists, defamations, suggesting that journalists are anti-Slovak prostitutes and enemies of the nation” – Matovič listed the sins of former prime minister Robert Fico against the press in an official press release on the day the public learned about the murders. He blamed Fico for “creating an atmosphere” that resulted in the killing of a journalist.

Robert Fico made journalists who uncovered corruption scandals of his governments targets through his permanent attacks. In less than a month after the murders, he had to resign on the heel of massive anti-corruption protests.

In the following parliamentary elections in 2019, Matovič, who throughout his political career used findings of top investigative journalists to build an image of himself of an anti-corruption activist, defeated Fico and became the next prime minister.

But how did it happen that almost five years later Matovič is not far behind Fico when it comes to verbal attacks against journalists? Most recently Matovič likened critical journalists to propagandists of Adolf Hitler and suggested that journalists can be bought for 500 euros to write favorable stories about their client. On a live radio show he also said he would gradually take down the corrupt journalists.

 

Promises and reality

The bouquet of political promises over the grave of Jan and Martina included stronger protection for journalists. This should have partially materialized in a constitutional law granting a special status for journalists along with an equal approach of state institutions to private and state-owned or public media. This law would also curb the possibility of state intervention (such as nationalization) against private media, for example.

The draft of this law is still parked at the ministry of culture, and it is unlikely that this government will find enough political will to pass such legislation.

The parliament, however, in June 2022 did adopt a long-due package of media laws to replace the legislation that had been ignoring the existence of digital media. The beginnings were promising, with the process appearing to reflect what one would find in a press-freedom-conscious country. The ministry of culture consulted on the draft with publishers of key media and experts so that it creates equal ground for different types of media (print, digital, broadcast).

The ambition is to bring more transparency to media ownership by creating a register for media. The state can remove any media from the register if it is financed by someone from the UN sanction list. Media companies must report their sponsors and all financial donations over 1,200 euros annually to the state. The legislation also introduces regulation for video-sharing platforms.

However, in parliament the law became a victim of political bargaining. In a last-minute move, part of the ruling coalition conditioned the adoption of the law packages on the insertion of a “right of reply” for public officials who feel that a media report affects their privacy, honour or dignity into the legislation. This applies also to opinions if these rise from false information.

It was either with a right to statement or no legislation passed at all. Journalists felt that the right of statement was an act of revenge from the ruling coalition in response to journalists’ critical approach to the government and the way they fulfilled their watchdog role during the pandemic.

 

Inspiration from Orbán

In September 2022, the Ordinary People, the party of Matovič, unexpectedly and without any previous discussion submitted to the parliament a proposal to impose a levy on the largest private broadcasters. The public broadcaster would not pay such a levy under this proposed legislation. If adopted, the levy would be a discriminatory measure that directly threatens independent media and allows the state to make interventions into their operation, media lawyers and press freedom advocates have warned.

Many see behind the move an inspiration from Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, who has been trying to suffocate the last television station that still broadcasts critical news, RTL Klub. Earlier this year Orbán announced the reintroduction of a tailor-made tax for broadcasters, like the one he had to kill four years ago after massive criticism from European institutions. Since the announcement, the government provided no further details, thus the broadcaster did not know what to expect. However, on October 19 the Orbán government said it will not collect the advertisement tax next year.

Matovič did not discuss this law with experts or the independent broadcasters.

 

Ján and Martina

It was clear from the day of the murder that some politicians would abuse the memory of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová, using them for their own benefit. Matovič would often refer to Jan Kuciak when lashing out at independent media for criticizing his political performance.

When marking the anniversary of the murder in 2022, in a rather ambiguous statement, he said he wished that journalists become like Ján Kuciak. He publicly lashed out at Kuciak’s editor at Aktuality, Peter Bárdy, and said that he does not come anywhere close to Kuciak and only pretends to be his mentor. He called Bardy a shame.

Matovič had a chance to change the approach of politicians towards the media in Slovakia –  not only in the sense of improving the legal environment but also cleaning the atmosphere of hate and verbal attacks. Instead, he sees himself as a victim of the media and compared his situation to those of Holocaust victims. The fact that he is now finance minister, and therefore wields signficiant influence in government, represents a challenge to the independent media as well: having to ponder when to react and when to ignore his attacks against the press.

Orbán succeeded in building elected autocracy in Hungary because he completely captured the press and significantly complicated the functioning of the independent media. Therefore, people in Slovakia should be disturbed by similar tendencies, including politicians describing the press as an organized criminal group or enemies of the nation.

This article is part of IPI’s reporting series “Media freedom in Europe in the shadow of Covid”, which comprises news and analysis from IPI’s network of correspondents throughout the EU. Articles do not necessarily reflect the views of IPI. This reporting series is supported by funding from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom and by the European Commisson (DG Connect) as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response coalition.

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