Police tracking journalists, not murderers

Murdered Slovak journalist Jan Kuciák’s former colleague, Pavla Holcová, was interrogated for eight hours by the Slovak National Criminal Agency (NAKA). Questions were not related to the murder but to her work on stories as an investigative journalist. Her phone was confiscated.

Czech investigative journalist Pavla Holcová, member of Vsquare.org, who worked with Jan Kuciák on the investigation into the Slovak government’s ties to the Italian maffira, was invited by the Slovak National Criminal Agency (NAKA) for a formal interrogation on May 15. Holcová is the director of the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism and former close colleague of Kuciak. After his death, Holcová and her family family were forced to live under police protection.

The interview by members of the NAKA took eight hours. Policemen requested her cellphone with the SIM card and PIN codes to it.

— I consider confiscating cell phone of someone, who came as a witness on a good will, very unusual. In case the witness is also a journalist, who must protect its sources and colleagues, it’s a very dangerous idea — she reported in a brief interview with Vsquare.org.

Journalists are required to protect their sources of information – NAKA requested the codes to Holcová’s phone which would allow them to check the apps installed and used for communicating not only with colleagues but also with sources of information.

Czech and Slovak laws impose the obligation on journalists to protect the sources of information and to keep them confidential if necessary. For this reason Pavla Holcová refused to disclose passwords to the police but her mobile phone was confiscated anyway.

In the past, Holcová worked for the People in Need organization helping dissidents in Cuba. Since 2016 she has worked with the Vsquare.org project which connects journalists from the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and Poland. The Czech Center for Investigative Journalism, led by Holcová, has been also working together on several projects with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) and the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP).

A week ago Holcová was speaking at the briefing of the US Helsinki Commission in Washington DC. She was talking about Jan Kuciák’s death and the situation of journalists in Central Eastern Europe, exposing that politics in the region incites hatred towards journalists: “We are called enemies, we are called foreign agents, we are called mercenaries.”

On 16th of May International Press Institute issued statement saying that IPI is deeply concerned by Slovakia’s seizure of mobile phone from Pavla Holcová and that Slovak police must clarify the incident and return the device.

Beata Balogová, editor-in-chief of the leading Slovak daily SME and a member of IPI’s Executive Board, echoed that statement.“The ability to protect sources, who provide sensitive information – often risking their jobs or safety, is a crucial part of the watchdog role of journalists”, Balogová remarked.

Also European Federation of Journalists and OCCRP asked the Slovak police to immediately return the phone of Investigative journalist Pavla Holcová.

We too at VSquare believe that the protection of sources is not only our – journalists’ highest obligation but also a legal professional privilege.

Wojciech Cieśla

Co-founder and editor-in-chief at FRONTSTORY.PL, Wojciech Cieśla is an award-winning Polish journalist who, since 2016, has worked with Investigate Europe. He is the co-founder and chairman of Fundacja Reporterów (Reporters Foundation). He is based in Warsaw.