Last week’s chilling news about the murder of Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak and his partner Martina Kušnírová at their home close to Bratislava marks the second case of an investigative journalist paying the ultimate price for their work in an EU Member State. In October 2017, Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia was killed in a car bomb as a result of her investigations of Maltese officials regarding fraud, money laundering and links to the Panama Papers.
This time the victim was Ján Kuciak, a 27-year-old journalist working for the news website Aktuality.sk. Kuciak was investigating cases of suspected VAT fraud by two businessmen Marian Kočner and Ladislav Bašternák, who are both associated with the ruling party in Slovakia, Smer. Kuciak had also recently been investigating the Panama Papers scandal and the suspected theft of EU funds destined for Slovakian by the Italian mafia group ‘Ndrangheta. Months before his death, Kuciak had filed two complaints with the prosecutor’s office after receiving several threats. Neither had been followed up.
Cases like these are doubly worrying. Not only do they reveal that violent and ruthless methods for stopping investigative journalism are taking a hold in the EU’s own Member States, but the lack of effective investigation into these killings by the national authorities responsible also exposes deeper problems regarding impunity and the rule of law.
How has journalism become so dangerous and what are European leaders doing about it?
The decline of media freedom in the heart of the EU
Whilst we might – even if regrettably – have grown accustomed to stories of the arrest and detention of media professionals in states such as Azerbaijan, Russia or Turkey, the occurrence of such events on EU soil is a different kind of reality to wrestle with.
The European legal framework explicitly recognises the importance of freedom of the media. Such rights are enshrined in both the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights (Article 11, Freedom of expression and information) and the European Convention on Human Rights (Article 10, Freedom of expression).
On the occasion of the International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, High Representative Federica Mogherini said in a declaration that “Media are the mirror of our societies: if they are free and critical, we are free and safe… Attacks on journalist[s] are not only attacks on the victims, but also on freedom of expression and freedom of the media.”
Indeed, in the wake of the news about Ján Kuciak’s death, many EU leaders condemned all forms of violence against journalists, stressing the crucial role they play in contributing to the democratic functioning of the EU.
Notably Frans Timmermans, Vice-President of the European Commission, tweeting:
President of the European Parliament Antonio Tajani added his voice to those decrying the attack, tweeting: “The EU cannot accept that a journalist is killed for doing his job. I call on the Slovak authorities to launch a thorough investigation with international support if needed for Jan Kuciak. As with Daphne Caruana Galizia, the European Parliament will not rest until justice is done.”
It is fair to say that reactions to the murders of both Ján Kuciak and Daphne Caruana Galizia have been vocal and strident – in Brussels, at least. But because both Slovakia and Malta have shown serious shortcomings in investigating repeated threats against Ján and Daphne, this is a question of more than just freedom of expression; it has become a question of impunity and state endorsement of violence.
Lack of effective investigation
In all fairness, Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico has spoken out against the killing of Ján Kuciak, commenting: “If it is proven that the death of the investigative reporter was connected with his journalistic work it would be an unprecedented attack on freedom of speech and democracy in Slovakia”. At a press conference on 27 February, the Prime Minister offered €1 million for information leading to the arrest of Ján and Martina’s killers.
Yet this does not change the fact that two cases of harassment reported by Ján to the Slovakian police in autumn 2017 were not investigated. Ján commented in a Facebook post that they had not even been assigned a case officer. It is now emerging that Italian mafia groups – long given a wide berth by the Italian police – are also involved in Ján’s case. On 1 March, seven suspects of Italian origin were arrested but police confirmed that they had all been released as not enough evidence had been found. None of the suspects were charged.
In Malta, the government of Joseph Muscat has made little attempt to properly investigate the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia. Though Maltese authorities last December arrested ten people suspected of placing a specialist device on Daphne’s car and detonating it from afar, those who ordered the killing remain unknown.
During the recent session of the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly, Daphne’s three sons spoke out in a moving testimony against the impunity shown by the Maltese authorities in their mother’s case. They accused Prime Minister Joseph Muscat of being embroiled in the case and of doing his utmost to halt investigations.
It can only be hoped that such cases of impunity are not becoming an EU trend. The Council of Europe’s Media Freedom Platform might count 97 attacks on physical safety and integrity of journalists (including 14 EU Member States) since 2015, but the 16 cases of impunity for violence against journalists are so far all in non-EU Member States.
Are the current cases of impunity indicative of a backsliding of the rule of law in the EU?
Systematic failures in the rule of law?
The EU has been facing increasing criticism for its failure to address illiberal tendencies in Eastern Europe, and justifiably so. A number of laws implemented by Poland’s ruling party PiS have undercut the independence of the judiciary, and the most recent Holocaust bill certainly sets the stage for restrictions to freedom of expression for journalists and historians alike. In Hungary, increasing restrictions to civil society groups and foreign-funded NGOs, most notably those under the patronage of George Soros, have shrunk the space for democratic debate.
These developments are hugely damaging to the EU’s legitimacy and undermine its rhetoric of guaranteeing the rights and freedoms of those within its territory. How can the EU proceed to enforce the rule of law in its member states, and more specifically, protect its journalists?
The European Parliament has created a special committee to follow up the case of Daphne, headed by Portuguese MEP from the S&D group, Ana Gomes. Dutch ALDE MEP, Sophia in ‘t Veld, who is a key contributor to the report, admitted that the European Parliament was having to make up mechanisms to deal with such cases as they went along.
It is high time that the European Union developed a more systematic way of dealing with serious rule of law violations – and it’s going to take a bit more than naming a press room after the latest victim. Either way, the ongoing investigation into the murder of Ján and Martina will be a test not only of Slovakia’s integrity and adherence to the rule of law, but also of the EU’s ability to ensure its fundamental values are upheld in its own Member States.