Former boss of Ján Kuciak: We want to live in a country that is fair

It was an unprecedented, senseless murder that should not have happened. It should not be an eye opener for people when innocent people are murdered – says Peter Bárdy in an interview by Lukáš Diko

Peter Bárdy is a Slovak journalist, commentator, and, since 2008, editor-in-chief of the online newspaper Aktuality.sk. Under his leadership, the newsroom of Aktuality was reorganized. Today it is well known for its focus on investigative journalism. It was under Peter Bárdy that Aktuality created a designated team focused on investigative journalism. Ján Kuciak was part of the team. He was murdered along with his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová, on February 21, 2018 in their house in Veľká Mača.

Peter, how do you reflect on the five years since the tragic event that touched all  of Slovakia and also your editorial office?

It went by very quickly. I really didn’t realize what a very short period of time five years could be. So many things happened in those five years. I can’t remember such a time in my entire journalistic career since 1994 or 95. We used to say that summer is the silly season, and that we will rest after the elections, but we basically have not had a rest since the murder, since February 2018. The events we cover are still happening and society is changing, and this journalistic work simply does not calm down. Despite the fact that we thought that, after changing the government or changing the system, there would be fewer corruption cases, new subjects are coming to which we react. And we can see that society is  tired and maybe even angry, and we try to bring to people  important information, like what we already brought them with Jan, even in these difficult times.

We often talk about how it is difficult to recall those events, but when you think about your first meeting with Ján Kuciak, what comes to mind?

It was a warm summer evening when Marek Vagovič [a Slovak investigative journalist, who worked at Aktuality.sk at the time] brought two young people to a restaurant in Bratislava. It was Veronika Šmiralová and Jano Kuciak. Jano ordered a beer and we talked about how we wanted to create an investigative team in Aktuality, led by Marek, and that Jano would be one of the new hires who would work there. He was silent for a very long time and then said only a few sentences, from which it was clear to me that I basically did not understand what he was doing. Because for me, data investigative journalism in 2015 was something that was not standard in Slovakia, did not exist, and I also needed time to understand what Jano Kuciak would bring to Aktuality. Over time, when I looked up [investigative data journalism online] and discussed it with fellow journalists… I understood that this person would be the architect of a new type of investigative journalism, one which did not yet have foundations in Slovakia.

Ján Kuciak during the univeristy studies

And if you were to introduce Ján Kuciak as a journalist and data analyst to people, what would you say?

After the murder, I said a terribly unfortunate sentence, which was very unfortunately often quoted, that Jano was not a journalist in the true sense of the word, and that when he became a journalist, he was murdered. But I didn’t mean that he wasn’t a good journalist, but rather that Jano did primarily analytical work. From lots and lots of data, company names, numbers, financial statements, he looked at links between companies with different backgrounds, through different businesses, and in the end he looked for what could raise suspicions of criminal activity or unfair business practices. It was something that I didn’t really understand, because I don’t have an economic education and I was never led to this type of journalism. I admit that it took me several first months, maybe the first year, to get the hang of what Jano was doing. What I am about to say may sound stupid, but I didn’t consider it journalism at first, because it was so diametrically different from what was customary in Slovakia that I couldn’t grasp it in any logical way. I always tried to guide Jan to be a good storyteller and, despite the fact that his articles are full of numbers and complicated connections and diagrams, told him to look for a story, because otherwise people would not understand it. Paradoxically and unfortunately it was the last story about the Italian mafia…when he showed me the first draft of the text, I turned to him—he was sitting next to me—and I said to him, “You didn’t write this, it’s Mario Puzo, it’s excellent.” And he smiled so contentedly, and that was the last day I saw Ján Kuciak alive. Unfortunately, we had to finish what was, in my view, his best written text after the murder.

How did you find out about the murder? How did the murder affect the editorial office and you personally?

I found out about the murder on Monday, when Jano Petrovič, my deputy, called me at half past seven in the morning saying that he had information that two murdered persons were found in Veľká Mača [the village where Ján Kuciak lived with his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová], and that one of their initials were identical to those of Ján Kuciak. I was left stunned, it was very hard to believe for me. More precisely, I didn’t believe it. I remember thinking the whole way to work that this was nonsense. Already at that time, some media published that the journalist Ján Kuciak was found murdered in Veľká Mača, and I refused to publish this information. I was acting completely irrationally. I said, “This is just nonsense, we can’t release it, it couldn’t have happened.” And then the then-Minister of the Interior Robert Kaliňák called me. In a very shaky voice, he told me that it was confirmed that Ján and Martina had been murdered and that he was sorry. It was only then that I realized what a terrible thing had happened, and that’s when my brain shut down for a moment. I didn’t remember what I was doing. My colleague Peta Výberová, who had no idea what had happened, told me that I was sitting on the windowsill and that I was just repeating over and over, “What am I supposed to do now, what am I supposed to do now.”

I remember that I called an editorial meeting for everyone and told everyone in cars to stop at a rest stop or a gas station, that I had to tell them something. And I could only manage to tell everyone that they had murdered our Jano, and we all cried. The following days took on enormous proportions. I immediately went to give some statements to the police investigators. I met with the police chief, Tibor Gašpar. I had many meetings. At that time, dozens of journalists from all over the world were already arriving in Bratislava, and I had a meeting at the government office with then-Prime Minister Fico, where we were a group of editors-in-chief. That was after they put a million euros on the table as an offer for anyone to reveal who did the murders. It was a very difficult time. I remember that there were three kinds of things we struggled with. Normal editorial work. I tried to motivate colleagues who were really very tired, sad and often scared to continue working. But I knew I would have to accept it if they told me they didn’t want to do it anymore. The second, meetings with journalists and investigators. And the third was my personal coping with that tragedy. That was something that really hurt me, and I will be forever grateful to Mr. Kuciak and Jan’s brother, Jojo, for supporting me and not blaming me during those difficult times for making a mistake or insisting I should have done something differently. Thanks to them, I could manage during that period.

Million euro on the table

Eight days after Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová were murdered, one million euros in cash lay on the table in the press room of the Office of the Government. Three persons stood over it – then-Prime Minister Robert Fico, then-Minister of Interior Robert Kaliňák, and the president of the Slovak police, Tibor Gašpar. The cash was announced as an incentive for anyone who knew anything about the murder to come forward and help solve the case. The money was never paid to anyone. The tumultuous years after were not kind to the three persons who stood over the money. Tibor Gašpar has since been charged with corruption, abusing the powers of public office, and organizing a criminal group in the case known as “Očistec” (Purgatory) along with several other high-ranking police officers , such as the director of the national criminal agency (NAKA), Peter Hraško. Robert Fico and Robert Kaliňák were also accused of similar crimes in the case known as “Súmrak” (Sunset), which is a continuation of the case “Očistec.” Their charges were, however, dropped by the current general prosecutor, Maroš Žilinka, who used his powerful tool, the now-infamous § 363.

It’s been five years since. Now, when you think back on it, could anything else have been done?

I think that, at that moment in time, we did everything we could. Because we were not indifferent. When Kočner phoned Jan and told him that he was going to collect dirt on him, I immediately said that Kočner is not just anybody. If a neighbor or an angry colleague told me that, I’d say, well, look for the dirt on me. But if Kočner told me, I would consider whether there were any risks. And we couldn’t do anything else at that moment and in that political landscape, except that Jano went and filed a criminal complaint with the General Prosecutor’s Office, about which, unfortunately, nothing was done. I can’t imagine what more I could have done. Two days before they were murdered, I wrote to Jan that if he needed it, I would hide him. While finishing the text about the Italians. He was not afraid for his life, but he wanted to have more peace to finish the text, so I suggested to him in December that he could go to Prague with Martina, that we would get them a hotel with a wellness center there, and that he could calmly write and if there was pressure from the lawyers of those Italians, that we in Slovakia would filter it out and he could finish his work in peace. But Jano wrote back to me that there was no need, that he had gotten over it. And I really don’t know if anything more could have been done. I think not very much.

Marian Kočner is being taken away from the courtroom. Photo: ICJK / Tomáš Madleňák

The criminal complaint against Kočner was swept under the carpet. You say you went to interrogations many times after the murder. Did you trust law enforcement at the time? After all, those same authorities should have done something long before the murder, they didn’t, and then the same police with the same leadership investigated the murder. How did you make sense of it at the time?

There, two worlds mix. The first one is that we don’t have too many institutions in Slovakia that know how to investigate and can investigate criminal activity. And despite my opinion of the law enforcement agencies at that time of the Fico administration, I had no other choice but to trust the police to do the job, and that those investigators would work to uncover the background of this murder. From the first moment, I rejected the possibility that the murder would not be investigated. And I remember how some colleagues tried to bring me to start to think more rationally and say, “I probably don’t trust the police and that I don’t think they will investigate.” But I was still in the mindset of, “oh my God, they have to investigate.” And that’s why I kept repeating that I trusted the police to investigate. Because the police are not only Tibor Gašpar or Peter Hraško. There were many honest people and great professionals in the police at that time who did not have the opportunity to investigate and did not get the opportunity to work on those cases. And when they accidentally succeeded, someone swept it under the carpet. I believed, or hoped, that public pressure would not allow this to be dismissed, and I believed that investigators would be working on it and would investigate it.

In the end, the team under the leadership of investigator Peter Juhás brought the investigation to an end, very quickly by Slovak standards, and an indictment was filed. But it has already been five years. How do you feel about the fact that all those who are most likely involved in this have still not been punished?

What would the relatives and colleagues of the victims of other murdered journalists say about this, when they’ve waited decades for murders to be investigated at all? I am grateful to Peter Juhás and his team for getting it to such a stage that today we are really waiting, in quotation marks, “only” for the verdict of the court. And unfortunately, maybe it could have been concluded earlier if the senate of the Specialized Criminal Court, which received the case in the first instance, had done—I don’t want to criticize—but done their homework and understood that the communication in Threema was in code and what they read wasn’t all that was written. So I’m sorry, on the other hand, if we want to trust in institutions, if we want to trust in democracy and in a system that is fair, we have to face such things and wait for a result that will be so strong in terms of argument and evidence that it will be unquestionable. I am convinced that today the court is approaching this case very differently. After the Supreme Court decided how to approach the evidence from Threema, I think there is nothing standing in the way of us getting to know the names of the people who ordered this murder.

Snow and teeth

Alena Zsuzsová worked for Marian Kočner as a honey-trap. Prosecutors claim that Marian Kočner ordered the hit on Ján Kuciak through her, and that she subsequently ordered it through another person. Part of the evidence against both of them is their communication via the encrypted application Threema, which police experts were able to extract from their smartphones and which later leaked to the Slovak public. In the communication, during the days around the murder, they often talked about strange things” snow melting, teeth falling out, scabies and cream against it. Prosecutors claim this is “argot” – that these topics were codes for the murder itself. So when Zsuzsová and Kočner talked about how the scabies itch and that they already have a cream for it, or how they hate snow and that it will soon melt or has melted, they meant they hate Ján Kuciak and he will soon be dead. And when Zsuzsová wrote Kočner on the day, when she was supposed to inform that the murder had been committed, that “one [tooth] has already fallen out” it was a code by which she announced the killing. Originally, the court decided that this could not  be used as evidence, because the court can only consider the literal grammatical meaning of messages. The court of appeal decided the trial needs to be restarted and this evidence needs to be reexamined. The restarted trial is still proceeding.

According to the conclusions of the investigation, Marian Kočner is the one who ordered, through Alena Zsuzsová, the murder of Ján. Marian Kočner is well-known in Slovakia, but if you had to briefly explain to someone from abroad who Marian Kočner was at that time, what would you say?

Marian Kočner was a crook who, since the nineties, has always teetered on the edge somewhere between the gray and black economy. There has been speculation for some time about whether he is a collaborator of the secret service, which covers his activities in exchange for him passing certain information to it. He was very close to influential people in the state: for example, Jaroslav Haščák, at that time the head of financial group Penta, who surrounded himself with people who had connections to the secret services and liked to get information that could be called confidential or very interesting. In the 1990s, Kočner tried to take control of TV Markíza by marching with an army of people from a security company headed by the mobster Čongrády into TV Markíza and trying to take control of it. In the end, it ended quite like in a cowboy movie, and the owner at the time saved the television network by having another “army” march there. As for Kočner, he was really a networker, he knew how to bring people together, and because he was very eccentric and extravagant and had money, he was able to get into the company of the Bratislava cream of the crop at the time. This is also why he was close to Fedor Flašík, who was involved in the creation of the Smer-SD party, who was once described as a marketing or advertising magician. That is why he was also close to his former partner, then MEP Monika Flašíková Beňová, he was close to the owner of Fun Rádio, today’s Speaker of the Parliament Boris Kollár, and so on. 

There are really dozens of names associated with Marian Kočner, and each of these names once had or still has influence on the economy of the state, on the security services of the state, or moves between the political elites and the highest political elites. So Marian Kočner could come to have  the impression that he was outside the law, that he was part of the so-called system of “our people”[who couldn’t be touched], and that what applied to other people did not apply to him. That he could really do what he wanted. And he did. I even remember how it was once said of Kočner that he was brilliant in his frauds. But he was not brilliant in anything, he basically just reacted to certain times, and that was the reason why Ján Kuciak found out what he did about him. We can recall the press conference where he confronted Kočner with his carousel fraud on Donovaly, where several deals took place from which, at the end of the day, Kočner was supposed to benefit by collecting VAT returns. And Jano Kuciak was showing him everything he found in open sources, and Kočner was surprised to see what was already being reported in open sources today, and he found out that Jano Kuciak is a bigger threat to him than the police authorities. Paradoxically, in connection with the investigation of the Donovaly case in the summer of 2017, they reopened this case against Kočner and the prosecution was renewed, because it was also very interesting. The investigators of this case wrote the reasons that they were suspending the investigation, but Jano Kuciak responded to it in the article, where he broke the whole argument apart, and the supervising prosecutor had to resume the investigation of this case. So Kočner really found out that Kuciak can spoil deals worth tens of millions of euros, and thus, from my point of view, he is the most likely person who ordered the murder of Ján Kuciak.

Cases of Marian Kočner

Marian Kočner, along with Alena Zsuzsová, is still standing trial for ordering the murder of Ján Kuciak, which also resulted in death of Kuciak’s fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. The shooter (Miroslav Marček), his driver (Tomáš Szabó) and the middleman between them and Zsuzsvá (Zoltán Andruskó) have already been sentenced. But the murder trial is not all of Marian Kočner’s trouble.

In January 2021, he was sentenced to 19 years in prison for using falsified promissory notes with TV Markíza. Using false papers, he tried to defraud the TV for 69 million euros. He even succeeded at the first instance court. Using the powers of his friend, State Secretary of Ministry of Justice Monika Jankovská and Judge Zuzana Maruniaková, he won against Markíza. Maruniaková ordered the network to pay up. Later, TV Markíza succeeded and Kočner ended up behind bars. Maruniaková and Jankovská have since been charged with corruption for this and other cases in the case known as “Búrka” (Storm), which concerns many previously prominent judges.

On top of this, Kočner has been charged in several other cases, including “Donovaly,” where he is charged for a carousel VAT fraud committed by selling hotels in the ski area “Donovaly” in Low Tatras, which he sold to his own shell companies and collected over 8 million eur at the VAT returns. For some time, it seemed he would get away with this, as the investigators closed the case. It was Ján Kuciak who wrote about the case and forced the supervising prosecutor to appoint new investigators and reopen the case. This might have been one of Kočner’s main motives for ordering the murder of Ján Kuciak.

When did you come to the conclusion that Kočner could be behind it?

Of course it took me some time, I’m not going to make myself a hero. At first I really thought it might lead to the Italian case because it was the most current thing. As we got to know the profiles of the people who appear in the story, it really looked like it could have been an order from abroad. The interesting thing was that, when the first Italian journalists came—they were journalists from the newspaper la Republica—they said, ”This was not our people. This was not done by the Italians.” The ‘Ndrangheta don’t need to have problems around them. They need to have peace so they can do business. This was done by a person who simply didn’t realize what huge societal consequences it would have. That’s when I began to doubt that it could be the ‘Ndrangheta, and over time, in April and May, I became convinced that the most likely culprit was Kočner.

What happened after the murder was something no one could have predicted. A huge movement arose throughout the country, the biggest protests since the fall of communist totalitarianism in Slovakia. Do you think today, with hindsight, that Slovakia changed for the better after the murder of Ján and Martina?

I would probably be unfair if I said that today the situation is as bad as it was under Fico, or that it is worse. What I take as the biggest change is that civil society has opened its mouth and straightened its back. Simply, in the nineties or the first years of the new millennium, civil society said that things were not right here. [And after Jan’s murder, it once again] stopped being resigned and started speaking out loud about what is wrong in Slovakia and pointing out things that needed to be changed. And that still happens today. Yes, we can feel that the government or the coalition that emerged from the 2020 elections did not live up to expectations. That it has created an environment where public debate ceased to be public debate and has instead become a huge public argument. That the representatives of the current coalition parties have caused irreparable damage and to some extent damaged the legacy that arose from the movement after the murder of Ján and Martina. But civil society restarted in those months of February, March, and April of 2018. And this is important for the future of Slovakia, that we seem to have found the strength again to try not to give up on the fact that we want to live in a country that is fair. In a state which upholds rule of law, that protects decent people like Ján and Martina, and that punishes people like Kočner.

A memorial for Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová in Prešov, by Petinoh, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Probably one of the few things that we will remember about the current government is that the police have untied arms and allowed for crimes to be investigated, and that this is also one of the positive changes in society. Many judges have been accused, many influential people are on trial. Can it be said that Slovakia is a fairer country today?

This is a very difficult question, because it is a complex matter. First of all, it is for the people who have problems with the state, or whose job it is to watch the state, to say whether it is fairer. As for the police or law enforcement, it really has to be said that it is a completely different country. I can’t remember a time where law enforcement worked the way it works now. And concerning justice. You would look at it differently if—and we don’t have to talk about big corruption cases—but we can talk about inheritance proceedings, or divorce, or waiting for a verdict in a neighborhood dispute in a village. If you wait for many years for a verdict and finally it comes and it’s a verdict you don’t like, then you may have the feeling that justice simply doesn’t work and therefore you don’t live in a just state. Fairness is a very subjective matter.

I think, however, that after the murder there was a significant healing process within the judiciary. But this wasn’t because the judiciary itself wanted to change, but because law enforcement authorities discovered illegal criminal activity on the part of the people working in the judiciary and started cleaning out the judiciary. The judiciary’s administration should do some self-reflection. Is it capable of keeping itself clean, or does it need help from the outside? If we want to live in a just state and feel that we live in a just state, then we have to trust the institutions, and when those institutions do their work responsibly, professionally, and reliably communicate the results, people will have a greater sense of justice. Complications can be made by people like Robert Fico or his political party, who are trying to torpedo this process, or even Boris Kollár, who is also trying to torpedo this process, either by discrediting investigators or by undermining efforts to reform the justice system in Slovakia. However, I think I should answer in one sentence: Slovakia is fairer today than it was five years ago.

And when you look at how the General Prosecutor’s Office intervenes in some investigations in the context of what you said about trust in institutions?

This is a problem. This is a very serious problem indeed. Before the murder, Maroš Žilinka was perceived very positively even by the wider journalistic community, he really worked on important cases and was a prosecutor who had a lot of trust. I don’t want to judge him. It is not within my remit. Unfortunately, his actions led to the fact that there is further polarization of society, he is not the calming element or a guarantor of trust in a fair prosecution and fair trials, but he often handles paragraph 363 very clumsily and, to be very diplomatic, in such a way that at the end of the day there is growing distrust, not only in the General Prosecutor’s Office, but in the justice system in general. We can also see it in the reactions of our readers or people on social networks, when another prosecution started after the sixth or seventh 363, the first reactions were that there will be a 363 anyway. So I am afraid that his actions led to the reality that people may not really feel that the state is fairer than it was five years ago.

§ 363

Maroš Žilinka became the General Prosecutor of Slovakia in December 2020. He gained recognition and credit, because he is one of the prosecutors whom Marian Kočner wanted dead.

In the current trial, the case of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová murder has been connected to the trial concerning the ordering of four prosecutors’ murders. The prosecution  claims that Marian Kočner first ordered the murder of these four through Alena Zsuzsová, and even paid the advance payment for the middleman. When he failed to deliver, Kočner (via Zsuzsová) was supposed to tell him that he now owed them, and to go kill Jan Kuciak instead. Maroš Žilinka was the supervising prosecutor in one of Kočner’s other economic cases.

After his election as the General Prosecutor, Maroš Žilinka came under a lot of criticism for overusing his power of § 363 of the Penal Code, which grants him the power to cancel any criminal prosecution in the pre-trial phase if he decide that a law has been breached by police or prosecutors in the process. He used this power to cancel the charges against national bank governor Peter Kažimír, ex-boss of secret police (SIS) Vladimír Pčolinský, oligarch Jaroslav Haščák, ex-PM Robert Fico, ex-interior minister Robert Kaliňák, MP Martin Borguľa, and several other MPs and oligarchs charged in cases of corruption.

In January 2023, PM Eduard Heger said that electing Maroš Žilinka as general prosecutor was the greatest mistake of his governing coalition, but there is currently no way of replacing him. The president of the republic, Zuzana Čaputová, submitted a question for the constitutional court, asking it to check whether § 363 is not against the constitution, but the court will take months to decide.

One more thing about the government. It started with a huge mandate, it actually won the elections on the anti-corruption agenda and on the legacy after the murder of Ján and Martina. How is it possible that in just a few months the political leadership  basically forgot all of that, and today the government is in chaos?

It is basically very simple. When we compare what the political parties looked like in the 90s and in the first years of the millennium with what we have in the parliament today, we will find that, unfortunately,  Smer is the only value- or ideology- based party left. Everything else is either the project of rich men or civil movements built on charismatic leaders. Boris Kollár? This is the pure project of a rich man. Igor Matovič is a combination of the project of a rich man with a civic movement that spoke about the fact that all ordinary people have rights, and claimed they are going to “clean out the stable of Augeas” and get rid of corruption in politics and elites and I don’t know what else. Richard Sulík, as well. This is the project of rich people, of their generation, who simply had this set up, I don’t want to say as a business plan, but a political plan.

It is a shame to talk about the project of Andrej Kiska because his [lack of] stability was shown practically in the first weeks after the elections. Because Andrej Kiska achieved the result he achieved, he withdrew from politics, and the party was left in the hands of Veronika Remišová. These political parties were not mature enough to govern together. The personality or professional skills of the leaders of these parties are often at a very low level. Not to mention the various personality problems that these people have with each other but also with themselves. So it was only a matter of time before it would escalate, it was only a matter of time before such a playful group of friendly boys would turn to one huge fight. In my opinion, the fact that Igor Matovič teamed up with Boris Kollár was also a strategic mistake. That is, that he allied with anyone at the beginning. If there were four independent entities that joined together to form a joint government or a joint coalition, that would perhaps be better than forming blocs within a government, with Boris Kollár and Igor Matovič and Richard Sulík and Veronika Remišová. There were many mistakes, but the most basic one was that they really focused on themselves and did not focus on the fact that they have a common goal, which is called high-quality, professional, responsible governance and management of the state. This did not work out for them and all their personal problems, party problems just culminated in disintegration and the early elections that await us.

After the murder and the last parliamentary elections, it looked like Robert Fico’s Smer party would no longer reach its former numbers. Today, however, surveys show that Smer is somehow growing again. How do you predict how the early elections will turn out, when we see, for example, the growth of populism but also of the radical agenda? 

This is very difficult. We know that Robert Fico and Smer have always built their campaigns and chosen their rhetoric based in part on public opinion polls. That is, they always did their own public opinion polling on every issue. So what’s scary is what society’s underbelly must be like in Slovakia, when Fico’s electoral chances are growing with his rhetoric. When he threatens us by saying that the government wants to send Slovak soldiers to fight in Ukraine, which is completely illogical, because it cannot be done without the permission of other NATO member countries. They lie about many other things, and the numbers just keep growing. This does not show Fico’s skill. Rather, it shows the desolate state of Slovak society, or a large part of the voter base that believes in this, I call it illiberal Trumpism, because it is a combination of Orbán’s policy with Trump’s policy and the result is exactly as we watched in the final months of the campaign for the president of the Czech Republic or what Robert Fico is showing today.

Robert Fico in Brussels, Belgium on June 28, 2016. Source: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock

So I will say it differently: I rely on the fact that people vote emotionally and most of those people who today declaratively admit their support for Robert Fico, when September 30 comes, when they will stand inside that voting booth, they will reconsider it and instead of voting with their hearts, they will vote with their minds and Robert Fico will not win. And not for the sake of me or for the journalists, but because Robert Fico will do incredible harm to Slovakia, and the lies he’s telling today will only be the foundation for him taking revenge for everything that was done to him. That is, [he’ll try to change] the fact that law enforcement authorities investigate people who are actually suspected of really serious criminal activity, and he will cement us into the kind of system that we remember from the period of Vladimír Mečiar. I think that no one who cares about Slovakia and wants it to be a country where they want to live in safety and happiness wants that.

Do you think that after the elections, Slovakia will manage not to become a certain type of oligarchic autocracy, like Hungary?

I think that the majority of political parties that are in the parliament today, as well as a large part of the parties that have a chance to be elected to the parliament, do not want Slovakia to become the second Hungary. So I can imagine that a kind of consensus coalition can emerge here, which will be based not on parties trying to stand out or distinguish themselves from one another, but on parties trying to make it so that Fico does not rule and that Slovakia can continue to be considered a standard, Western-type democracy, so that women, sexual minorities, communities, disadvantaged people will not have to fear for their rights, so that the economy here will be handled in such a way that it will help to improve the quality of life for everyone. Not buying part of the electorate with one-time packages, 14th, 15th, 16th pensions. So I think there is a potential for a coalition to form here that will want to run the state responsibly, but that is more of a wish for now. We shall see what the reality will be.

If we look back over the last five years with a focus on the media, what changes have occurred in the media environment in Slovakia after the murder of Ján and Martina?

From the beginning, there was a group that was interested in continuing the work of Ján Kuciak. We opened up all the sources we had and provided our fellow journalists with Jano’s findings to continue on those topics. Gradually, of course—it’s completely logical and it’s very right—we started to be competitors again, but in the case of some media, that collegiality and cohesion remained. An understanding that we are stronger together and that we can be competitors on the market, but we don’t have to be mean to each other, we don’t need to be exploited by third parties to do work that the media is not meant to do. On the other hand, you can see media owned by oligarchs, for example, they have already gone their own way. They, without qualms, make propaganda or help lawyers, people who are on the run today, who are being prosecuted on suspicion of serious crimes, in order to question their guilt, to influence public opinion. So the media is behaving—I don’t want to say just like before the murder, because I think that part of the media came together and understood that together they will be stronger and that was actually the message of Ján Kuciak, who wanted to unite journalists across the media industry. But then there are parts of the media that are  not there to do journalism in the public interest, with loyalty to the reader or viewer, and with understanding that we must seek the truth. Their position is completely different, but we can’t do anything about it. This is happening all over the world.

When you look at everything we talked about and combine it with the legacy of Ján and Martina and what was created in society, do you think the legacy of change in Slovakia, the fight against corruption and oligarchy, is definitely gone, or is it still here and will continue?

I think that this legacy is still here. I feel it around me. I don’t claim that it affects society as a whole, but it’s not just in my bubble. I see that people are more open, they are not afraid—or at least are less afraid—to say something when they see something that is not right. I believe that people’s eyes have been opened. What I don’t like to hear is the question of whether the murder of Ján and Martina had any meaning. The murder had no meaning, such murders are not meant to be meaningful. It was an unprecedented, senseless murder that should not have happened. It should not be an eye opener for people when innocent people are murdered. Jano was not a martyr, Jano did not choose to be killed. Ján and Martina were murdered. That’s a completely different story. I still think it is important that a considerable part of the population does not want to live in a corrupt environment, that they want to live in a just state, under rule of law. And I believe that this change will last for them, and for us, for a very long time and other people’s eyes will be opened without someone having to be murdered because of it.

What stage is the trial at now?

Currently the proceedings are such that what was investigated, and what the criminal court senate dealt with, in 2021 is being repeated today. Many court motions pass without having to be repeated, some interrogations are not repeated and are only re-read from the file. It’s just that today, more attention is paid to proving what was said in that communication in Threema. Plus, this case is connected to the order for the murder of prosecutors and lawyers. It concerns the prosecutor Šufliarsky, the former prosecutor Žilinka and the former lawyer, -now special prosecutor, Lipšic. So this is the new point in the process.

This interview has been edited for clarity

The original, Slovak version of this interview was published on icjk.sk


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Lukáš Diko

Lukáš Diko is the editor-in-chief at the Investigative Center of Ján Kuciak (ICJK). An experienced journalist and media leader, he was previously director of news and journalism at RTVS and editor-in-chief of news at Markíza television.