You can not kill the story

When Marek Vagovič, the editor of Jano Kuciak from his news portal Aktuality, called me at 8 AM on Monday morning, I had no idea how his message was going to turn my upcoming days upside down. He asked me to sit down and explained me that Jano and his fiancée Martina were brutally murdered at their home in Slovak village of Velka Mača.

He told me it was the work of professional – one bullet to Jano´s chest, one bullet to Martina´s head. And as I am the one who worked closely with him on his last big investigation, I should immediately ask for police protection. We both knew this assassination was nothing personal, as Jano was one of the most calm, silent and peaceful persons we both have ever met.

It took me a while before I started to understand what happened. My brain was on fire and the rest of me was shaking with cold. I was unable to focus and I was unable to speak. But I had to act immediately and let the rest of the team – our Italian colleagues from IRPI and other colleagues from OCCRP, know what happened to keep them safe. Because our last joint investigation with Jano was focused on links between the most powerful Italian mafia called ´ndrangheta and the most powerful Slovak political party SMER. This combination made it to an explosive story that might have cost Jano and Martina their lives.

I’ve known Jano Kuciak for five years. And those five years were intense. Jano was not only one of the most reliable colleagues I have ever worked with, he was also a friend. During those years, we were dealing with plenty of stories. Some of them with very complex money laundering schemes, taking us to exotic offshore destinations such as Belize or Vanuatu. Some other stories were absurd, some were going nowhere because we never found the last missing piece of evidence. Together, we were uncovering cases such as Panama or Paradise Papers or working on Balkan criminals present in Slovakia. Jano was always happy to help, never showing frustration from my repetitive questions and dumb jokes.

On the last investigation, we have worked for the last 18 months. This is probably a time that few journalists can imagine. Jano´s editorial team at Aktuality.sk nevertheless understood the importance of this case and generously allowed him as much time as he needed to do it properly.

Over the last half year we talked several times a day, because we both felt that only little was missing and the story would be done and ready for publishing. Instead, the incomplete investigation – unfinished due to brutal circumstances, was published by all Slovak media at midnight on February 27th.

We both agreed we want to build the whole case based on dry facts and sober way of writing, without bombastic screaming and scandalous revelations. Because the bare and dry truth in this story is already scandalous enough.

Jano, in his orderly way of working, had all the evidence well linked to the story, well archived and well explained. Also, he shared with the rest of the team all the evidence, documents, analysis and comments on ever piece of information we discovered together. This helped not only us, but also the team of Aktuality.sk to fact check Jano´s stories, and more importantly, as it turned out, also keep on working on the leads and follow the stories Jano was prevented by the murder to finish.

The murder of Jano taught me couple of important things. How important it is to collaborate and share and forget the deeply rooted desire for exclusivity and competition fight. The second thing I have learned is the fact that you can not kill the story or the idea. Even if you try hard.

Pavla Holcova

A Czech journalist, Pavla Holcová is the founder and editor-in-chief of the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism. She is an editor at OCCRP and a member of ICIJ. She was a John S. Knight Fellow at Stanford University (2023). Pavla is the winner of the ICFJ Knight International Journalism Award and, with her colleagues Arpád Soltész and Eva Kubániová, the World Justice Project’s Anthony Lewis Prize Award. She is based in Prague.