Ján Kuciak, a young Slovak data investigative journalist and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, were murdered on February 21, 2018, in their home in Slovakia. This was the second case of the murder of an investigative journalist in the European Union (EU) in a year. The first involved a car explosion which killed Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist and blogger, whose investigations focused on political corruption in late 2017.
These two murder cases shared a few similarities. Firstly, it remains unclear who was behind them. It is worthy to mention that both governments invited foreign experts to help with the investigations into both murders. Secondly, each of the governments of the respective countries of the journalists, announced a one million- euro reward for the provision of information which would facilitate the identification – and sentencing, for the Slovak case – of persons who were involved in the murder.1 Thirdly, the investigations of each of the murdered journalists, seemed to involve an underlying political factor; a high-level political corruption. Daphne Caruana Galizia, made repeated and detailed corruption allegations against the inner circle of Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Similarly, Ján Kuciak’s unfinished article, and the last before his demise, suggested connections between the local mafia and the inner circle of Prime Minister Robert Fico (see Kuciak, 2018). In both cases, the allegations were not proven, however, that is not enough to preclude the existence of political corruption. There are also important differences to note. The more direct and long-term politicized media framing of Galizia’s investigative work, due to allegations she made, characterizes a significant contrast between the Maltese case and its Slovak counterpart – even Prime Minister Muscat declared that Galizia was „his biggest adversary.“2 The Slovak case was predominantly linked to alleged local mafia and their indirect connections to government, but possible perpetrators kept changing. The post-humous publishing of Kuciak’s tentative investigative work provides a possible explanation for this pattern. Yet surprisingly, neither public protests nor political consequences in Malta reached intensities comparable to what was observed in Slovakia. Paradoxically, while Galizia could be seen as one of the most prominent journalists and bloggers in her country, Kuciak was virtually unknown. Inferentially, protests in Slovakia were independent of the journalist in question and possibly minimally related to his specific investigations. Instead, Kuciak´s murder was seen as a symbolic event of special importance. The initial framing of the murder of Kuciak and the subsequent events related to selected media, constitute the foremost issues to be discussed in this article in detail. The possibility of impact of both murders on EU common policies towards protection of investigative journalists cannot be ruled-out. The changing paradigm of policies, especially of the EU parliament towards what was traditionally seen more or less as “cultural” and internal affairs of member states after the murder of journalists within EU, deserves analytical attention although it will not be discussed in detail in this article. Similarly, further detailed comparisons between Slovak and Maltese cases will not be made here. Both issues deserve separate articles. The alleged lack of freedom of the public service media (PSM) or the Radio and Television of Slovakia (RTVS), and negative trends in this direction including the politicization of PSM are worth discussing too. The framing of certain events and public statements as deep crises of PSM gained attention at home and abroad soon after the double murder. As an instance, the author of this article was approached by five foreign journalists who were interested in the freedom of the media in Slovakia in general, and in PSM in particular. Kuciak, however, worked for a foreign-owned private news portal and not for the PSM. Nevertheless, the politicisation of PSM was increasingly and explicitly presented in public-media discourse – especially by two liberal-right media (Denník N, Sme). Within this broader politico-criminal context, the dissatisfaction expressed by 59 journalists in PSM was wrongly and successfully framed by some media and public activists as a heroic revolt, against ongoing slow suppression of freedom of the media in PSM.3 Additionally, this framing influenced many public figures and analysts who publicly supported clearly wrong narratives. Consequently, the ability of some analysts and public figures to offer unbiased account of events remains in question and the wrong interpretation of ongoing trends may lead to unexpected consequences. Indeed, this framing supported by public outcry, even though not-substantiated by facts, erupted into a full-blown crisis of PSM about two months after the murder and the director general of RTVS had to report the situation to the Parliamentary Committee of the Slovak Parliament. Of course, the argument can be made that murder, as an ultimate suppression of critics and criticism, reveals trends which hitherto may have been suppressed before public eyes. This article argues that the framing of follow-up events in Slovakia presented by some key local and foreign media or journalists was wrong (see, for example, Školkay, 2018). The third issue notable for discussion is the causal relationship between the murder of Kuciak and the significant political changes which followed – this merges the two previous issues. Selected state authorities demonstrated increased responsiveness to claims of injustice and illegal activities, especially those concerning the office of the prosecutor general, when reported in the media. Long-term nation-wide public protests in Slovakia following the double murder led to a government crisis, complicated by calls for early parliamentary elections and the subsequent resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico. Subsequent resignees included Robert Kaliňák, Tomáš Drucker, Tibor Gašpar and Marek Maďarič – the Minister of Interior, his replacement, President of the Police Force and the Minister of Culture respectively. Symbolic signalling of the politico-criminal background of the murder is further provided by the resignation of Robert Krajmer, Director of National Anti-corruption Unit of National Criminal Agency, under media pressure. The events have also been perceived to have led to possible changes in the top management of PSM. While the link between Kuciak’s murder and its dire political consequences is surprising, especially without evidence-based implications of the Prime Minister and the government, it is apparent that the media is a major catalyst for political change. Resignations which were not directly influenced by the media were driven by the huge wave of nation-wide protests it ignited in one way or the other. The case of the minister of culture emphasizes that there were selected self-initiated resignations which were purely of symbolic nature. Nevertheless, these events strengthen the argument that the media can substitute the state authorities – police, prosecutors, and courts – in their watch-dog and supervisory activities. The murder was the final impetus which put together the various grievances from citizens. Consequently, the media served as the channel to make these grievances and demands public although certain elements were misleading – the media concurrently served as vigilant watch-dog and the multiplier of public outcry. A minor section of the media and some journalists, however, moved further in their roles – they became political actors on their own when they exaggerated a minor internal crisis within PSM. This minor conflict between the professional and managerial values reached a scandal of nation-wide proportions.
Although the actors behind the murder cases remain unknown, it is obvious that the investigative work of journalists and bloggers can sometimes be seen by faulters – which may include politicians and other public figures – as a larger threat than the work of the police and other state authorities. This supported allegations of the involvement of politicians, public personalities, and government officials in the Kuciak case. Subsequently, public protests with the official buzzwords “For a Decent Slovakia,” became ultimate modalities for the explicit demand for a “fair” and “decent” state; a hoped-for deviation from what was currently seen as a “captured state.” Other issues caused national and international uproar. As an instance, the approach Slovak police used to demand data from a Czech colleague of Kuciak – the temporary confiscation of her smartphone with the claim that data stored on it was needed for investigations – attracted international attention. Even though some foreign lawyers did not see this request as particularly unusual,4 it was locally conspicuous in two ways – it was unfair, at best, and was fuelled by a negative intention5 to get contacts to protected sources of investigative journalists, at worst. The sensitivity of the media, public, and authorities to accusations, and their promptness in undertaking measures suggest that Slovakia became a “mediacracy” – the media demonstrated significant influence on politics and state authorities. The perspectives and coverage of these events following the double murder justify the relevance of the story for a wider international audience.
What was the initial framing of the murder of Ján Kuciak?
The chart is based on the content analysis of three media platforms, and supports the aforementioned arguments. The most mentions are attributed to the Prime Minister, R. Fico, and the minister of interior, R. Kaliňák, in descending order. An unexpected rise for G. Soros reflects a defensive strategy undertaken by the Prime Minister – his endeavour to link public protests to international conspiracy.
Analysis of the number of contributions from each of the sources of accessed content also revealed important patterns. The study found 359 articles from aktuality.sk, 107 articles from postoj.sk, 27 articles from noveslovo.sk, and 219 contributions from the blog section of newspaper Denník N. The disparity between the contribution counts of noveslovo.sk and aktuality.sk, which recorded the lowest and highest number of contributions respectively, emphasize the politico-ideological connotations of the case. This is further supported by the slow decline in the number of journalistic contributions and the concurrent peak increase in commentaries in blog sections, during the second week after the murder.
The collection of reasons – or rather assumptions and opinions – for the occurrence of the murder constituted another important interest. In the majority of contributions, reasons for the murder were missing. This is not strange considering the dictates of news reporting – repetitions of news items are not favoured. Nevertheless, some deviations in coverage were noticed even within the limited sample of articles, which provided reasons or assumptions regarding what or who was behind the murder. The most notable uncertainty was attributed to insignificant mentions of the issue by noveslovo.sk. On the other hand, the conservative news portal and aktuality.sk were judged as the most opinionated, in descending order. These provided marginal narratives on the investigative work of Kuciak.
Why was there a crisis in PSM?
Now we turn to the issue of the crisis in PSM, which illustrates how misleading interpretation of facts may lead to a full-blown institutional crisis. Such a crisis, based on wrong claims, can occur under normal circumstances even though it is obviously more likely to happen under emotionally stressful nation-wide or near-emergency situations. Although there were two contradicting explanations available on the crisis of PSM, the more radical and misleading tended to influence politicians to larger extents. The first explanation supported the hypothetical politicisation of PSM in Slovakia.1 In contrast, the second explanation related it to the change of management and the routine alignment of the operations of the institution with its legitimate and legal policies. Both groups argued that they work under free conditions, although in certain ways, conflict evolved into extreme and public dimensions. Within this context, three active opinion groups become visibly involved in the process which shaped public discourse. The most vocal group, unofficially led by 29-year old Zuzana Kovačič-Hanzelová, consisted of about 300 loosely connected non-journalists, and journalists out of an estimated count of more than 3,000 and up to 5,000 journalists in Slovakia2 (see interview in Mikušovič, 2018b). They included 200 journalists from other media who supported revolting PSM journalists3, 59 journalists and reporters from PSM and 50 literary journalists and technical employees of PSM who were keen on demanding fair treatment in support of their colleagues – they also emphasized the non-existence of negative labour or editorial relations in their work4. The second included a group of 40 PSM journalists who refuted all claims of politicisation of PSM, and the signatories included Tibor Macák, General Secretary of the Association of European Journalists.5 This group can be regarded as comprising of a majority of “silent” journalists who did not support revolting journalists. Under the exceptional circumstances which followed the murder of their colleague, they certainly would not be afraid to speak and protest openly. In fact, some of them spoke, but clearly refuted politicisation of PSM and further questioned the motivation and professionalism of revolting journalists (see, Múčka and Hanus, 2018). The third group included public intellectuals and activists, sometimes representing institutions, who issued various statements in support of the first group.6 Chart 4 demonstrates an important pattern. Out of more than 200 journalists who signed the petition supporting 59 PSM journalists, almost half came from two liberal-right newspapers – Sme (We Are) and Denník N (Newspaper N).
Although these are among the most reputable, critical, and agile journalists in Slovakia, they are predominantly liberals living in their “bubbles,” and have a tendency of assessing cases in an unconventional radico-libertarian way which might not align with reality. Additionally, the lack of a majority support for their call raises a red flag.
Findings from the detailed analysis of PSM staff contradict the notion that a significant number were involved in the alleged revolt. The number of protestors out of 1,450 full time employees including 250 reporters, and an additionally estimated 1,500 part-time employees and contractual co-workers, was found to be low. Some of the grievances listed in the initial letter are worth mentioning. The first was about distrust toward mid-level management – particularly three senior editors who had previously worked at various governmental press departments. The second was about
the lack of a mechanism to prevent possible conflict of interest in coverage cases of journalists being fired, demoted or transferred after they had expressed critical views toward the management. The third was about pressure from management to balance news reports with opinions of persons known to lack expertise, breed disinformation, or entertain political ambitions. Nonetheless, the letter explicitly mentioned—rather paradoxically—that signatories worked under free conditions. An article published in Denník N, one of the two liberal newspapers at the peak of the crisis, admitted that there was not a single case of political intervention from top management of PSM since a new director-general had been elected in the previous year (Mikušovič, 2018a). This alternative explanation was supported by the second group of 40 equally respected journalists, reporters, and anchors who worked at PSM. As earlier mentioned, they issued a counterstatement refuting the claims made by the initial letter. There is also a case to be made that if the allegations of politicization were in fact true, more than 300 journalists would be willing to provide their endorsement. According to findings from a survey carried out between June 28 and July 5, 2018 (i.e. a month after the peak of crisis in PSM), a representation of 63,7 % of over 1,000 respondents trusted PSM. In contrast, private media were trusted by only 42,6 % of respondents.1 Consequently, if there was a highly politicised PSM broadcast, it is very likely that the public would have noticed differences. In fact, the opposite seemed to be the case. A more realistic presentation of the conflict, which was framed as a press freedom issue by some public or professional voices, was concerned with the professional and managerial norms regarding who was meant to run public media, and what its “public service mission” was meant to be. This was complicated by the characteristic dominance of liberal and center-right opinions, from the most vocal among the best print media journalists in Slovakia. They demonstrated long-term anti-Fico tendencies, especially with the negativity their coverage portrayed towards him (Školkay, 2016). This has been linked to historical issues relating to the communist past and post-communist political transition in Slovakia. Obviously, some of those critical voices aiming at PSM did not recognize certain previous ethical failures of their colleagues.2 The third group, comprising of prominent advocates and voices supporting press freedom in Slovakia, included the Faculty for Mass Media of the Pan-European University, the Faculty of the Arts at Comenius University, a watch-dog portal known as omediach.com, and selected politicians in opposition. Notwithstanding, prominent advocates for press freedom are not always able to understand the actual background of ongoing events and differentiate between important issues. Consequently, their support may be misguided and end up in failure, as was evident in this case.
Why did the Murder of a Journalist lead to Political Consequences?
It is not coincidence that Slovak news portals collectively reported 1,53 million of “daily unique real users (RU) visitors” on Monday, March 12, 2018. The day marks the resignation announcement of Robert Kaliňák, the Minister of Interior. The previous record for the highest internet traffic, 1,429 mil. RU, occurred a day after parliamentary elections in March 2016.1 This suggests that the news about the resignation of the Minister of Interior was of paramount importance for the public at large – inferentially, it was more important than the results of parliamentary elections. The heightened interest toward the resignation of the Minister of Interior and other political sequelae of the murder, raises critical questions. It is notable that in the last 50 years of Slovakia – including the period of being part of Czechoslovakia – there has been a seemingly recurring sociological pattern. A major social upheaval was facilitated by what was seen as a “political” murder, irrespective of whether it was alleged or not, within the period of a new generation. Similarly, co-operation among social and political groups or individuals, hitherto isolated, was facilitated by the same events and perception which governed the argument that state authorities including courts, prosecutors, and police were politicised or captured. Havel (1990, 51-52) explained that the turning point for the dissident movement in erstwhile Czechoslovakia was a court case with The Plastic People of the Universe, a music band, in the early 1976. This political court case led to an establishment of co-operation among various opposing groups. There was also international support, in the form of an international human rights covenant signed in Helsinki by the communist government, a few months earlier. Havel also indicated that a similar situation happened in Czechoslovakia in the 1950s. He pointed out that in both cases, there were new generations that grew up under a new regime and got into confrontation with it. In the former case relating to the music band, new actors realised that a legal action against young and unknown musicians, was a substitutory act. In other words, it was an act which could happen to everyone. Interestingly, even the Velvet Revolution in 1989 got impetus from the public uproar over the alleged death of a student, during demonstration in Prague on November 17, 1989. Similarly, the isolated dissident groups in Slovakia consented to closer contact and better co-operation, only after the court case with five dissidents in Slovakia in autumn of 1989, and its related public events (Antalová, 1999). Here too, the international context – period of Glasnost and Perestrojka in erstwhile Soviet Union, as well as events in neighbouring communist countries – was an important factor. From this historical perspective, the murder of Kuciak can be placed in the same category of turning-point events in Slovak history. There was a new generation which was actively organising follow-up protests in response to the allegations of the capture of state authorities, and Kuciak’s murder served as a unifying moment for all other disappointed protest voices against the government. There were many public protests in the previous year demanding adequate investigation of the dubious business activities of some persons. Although these implicated the Prime Minister and Minister of Interior, they did not yield any recognisable results. Evidently, Kuciak’s murder was the catalyst for the large wave of political changes and higher sensitivity of authorities towards claims of wrongdoing.
The murder of Kuciak resulted in a black-swan phenomenon in Slovakia – no one expected it, but it facilitated important and swift political changes in the country. At the moment of writing, a “mediacracy” has emerged. The media, including social media, has become a significant influencer of public and political agenda as a result of the assassination of Ján Kuciak and his fiancée. This “mediacracy” was largely facilitated by public protests – these collectively represent an unprecedented magnitude in the twenty-five year history of post-independence Slovakia. While media and journalists can create and contribute to exaggerated and unsubstantiated scandals such as the case with PSM, the positive outcomes subsequent to media efforts in pushing authorities to act, and in given cases forcing politicians and other suspected prominent actors to resign, is commendable. These endeavours of the media and journalists may help to correct some excesses – including the rather slow responsiveness, reluctant approaches of public authorities in some cases, and attempts to suppress cases of cronyism and corruption present in politics. However, checks for objectivity and vigilance must be instituted to mitigate purposeless, counterproductive, or false criticism – an absence of such checks may be counter-intuitive and facilitate outcomes which otherwise must be prevented. Inferentially, an argument can be made in favour of a reversed politicization of the media in Slovakia – the media and some journalists de facto became political actors. This represents an unusual deviation from the situation in neighbouring Poland or Hungary, although the converse is perceived by some observers. Moreover, different interpretations of an event can be made depending on who provides a report. Clearly, there is no guarantee that explanations for an event from Slovakia’s most reputable and renowned journalists, academicians, and civil society activists will always be factual. This questions the veracity of journalistic, and even academic, articles based on interviews. Furthermore, media coverage of the same event may be rather diverse. Indeed, journalism has only been considered as the first draft of history – usually, journalism does not have a strong impact on politics.The tragic death of Kuciak and the resultant change in the course of history sets the foundation for a realisation of the larger, but exceptional, and most likely only a temporary influence of the media on political and societal change.
Antalová, Ingrid (1999). Verejosť proti násiliu. Občianske fórum (Public Against Violence. Civic Forum). Bratislava
Havel, Václav (1990). O lidskou identitu (On Human Identity). (editors Vilém Prečan and Alexander Tomský, Prague: Rozmluvy
Kuciak, Ján (2018, February 28). Talianska mafia na Slovensku. Jej chápadlá siahajú aj do politiky (Italian Mafia in Slovakia. It is connected to politics), https://www.aktuality.sk/clanok/568007/talianska-mafia-na-slovensku-jej-chapadla
Mikušovič, Dušan (2018a, May 6), Hlavne vyvažujme: O čo vlastne ide v RTVS a prečo reportéri v televízii začínajú hovoriť o autocenzúre (We should provide ballanced coverage: What is an issue in RTVS and why reporters in television broadcasting started to talk about self-censorship), https://dennikn.sk/1112906/hlavne-vyvazujme-o-co-vlastne-ide-v-rtvs-a-preco-reporteri-v-televizii-zacinaju-hovorit-o-autocenzure/?ref=list
Mikušovič, Dušan (2018b, June 1). Zuzana Kovačič Hanzelová: Dúfala som, že vydržím dlhšie (Zuzana Kovačič-Hanzelová: I hoped to survive a bit longer), https://dennikn.sk/1138873/zuzana-kovacic-hanzelova-dufala-som-ze-vydrzim-dlhsie/
Múčka, Fero and Martin Hanus (2018, May 2). Rozvrat (Disruption), https://www.postoj.sk/32865/rozvrat
Šebo, Eduard (2018, May 4). „Bitka o ministerstvo vnútra“ a jej dôsledky pre Smer („Battle for Ministry of Interior“ and its consequences for Smer), https://blog.postoj.sk/32944/bitka-o-ministerstvo-vnutra-a-jej-dosledky-pre-smer
Školkay, Andrej (2016). Computer Assisted Content Analysis of the print press coverage of corruption in Slovakia, http://anticorrp.eu/publication_type/deliverable/
Školkay, Andrej (2018, May14). Podtyp fake news – emocionálna dezinterpretácia vybraných udalostí (k dianiu v RTVS) (Sub-type of fake news – emotional disinterpretation of selected events /on events in RTVS/), https://dennikn.sk/blog/1122466/podtyp-fake-news-emocionalna-dezinterpetacia-vybranych-udalosti-k-dianiu-v-rtvs/
Tóth, Gabriel (2018, March 3), Hlavnou postavou v kauze vraždy novinára je od začiatku Fico (The Key Person in Murder Case of a Journalist has been from beginning Fico), https://blog.etrend.sk/gabriel-toth/hlavnou-postavou-v-kauze-vrazdy-novinara-je-od-zaciatku-fico.html
Telephone interview with Tomáš Mrva, RTVS online editor (signatory of an open letter), June 28, 2018
1 MediaBrífing 6 4 2018, Týždňový newsletter Filipa Struhárika o médiách a žurnalistike
1 TASR, July 19, 2018, Najdôveryhodnejšou inštitúciou na Slovensku je SAV, ukázal prieskum
The most trusted institutions in Slovakia is Academy of Sciences, https://spravy.pravda.sk/domace/clanok/477437-najdoveryhodnejsou-instituciou-na-slovensku-je-sav-tvrdi-focus
2 See Školkay, Andrej (2016), Media Landscapes – Slovakia – Accountability Systems,https://medialandscapes.org/country/slovakia/policies/accountability-systems
2There is no official definition of a journalist – practically, anyone can become or claim to be a journalist.
6 https://www.omediach.com/strucne/13164-vyhlasenie-fakulty-masmedii-pevs-k-situacii-v-rtv, https://www.omediach.com/tv/13129-vyhlasenie-filozofickej-fakulty-uk-k-dianiu-v-rtvs, https://www.omediach.com/tlacove-spravy/13167-vyhlasenie-pedagogov-vysokej-skoly-muzickych-umeni-k-situacii-v-rtvs
1Actually, the Slovak government was inspired here by the Maltese government.
2AFP (2017, October 18). Malta PM says slain blogger was his ‚biggest adversary‘ but vows justice, https://www.pulse.ng/news/world/joseph-muscat-malta-pm-says-slain-blogger-was-his-biggest-adversary-but-vows-justice-id7476456.html
3 See for example, Tomáš Prokopčák and Lucia Krbatová, (2018, April 29), Pokojne to volajme otvorená vojna. Alebo normalizácia, to bude ešte lepší výraz (We can name it open war. Or normalisation, this would be even better term).https://domov.sme.sk/c/20814284/podcast-v-rtvs-zuri-vojna-reznik-vyhadzuje-ludi.html
4 Jkk (2018, May 20). I po svědkovi může chtít policie telefon, stává se to, říká advokát (The Police can ask a witness to provide his smartphone, this is nothing unusual, says a lawyer), https://zpravy.idnes.cz/policie-vyslech-odebrani-mobilu-holcova-kuciak-advokati-p2s-/krimi.aspx?c=A180518_104437_krimi_jkk
5 See Statement by Publishers, (2018, May 16), https://komentare.sme.sk/c/20827322/vyhlasenie-vydavatelov-a-sefredaktorov-policia-musi-vysvetlit-svoj-postup-voci-holcovej.html