In February 2018, a young Slovak investigative journalist named Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend, Martina Kusnirova, were brutally murdered in their home in Velka Maca, east of Slovakia’s capital, Bratislava.
Before being gunned down, Kuciak had published several articles that focused on investigating tax fraud of several businessmen with connections to top-level Slovak politicians. A former soldier, Miroslav Marcek, pled guilty to shooting Kuciak and Kusnirova and was sentenced to 23 years in prison in April 2020. Marcek claimed he was hired by an associate of an allegedly mafia-linked local tycoon to kill both Kuciak and Kusnirova.
The couple’s deaths prompted major street protests unseen since the 1989 anti-Communist Velvet Revolution and a political crisis that led to the collapse of Slovakia’s government.
NE Global spoke with investigative journalist Pavla Holcova following a commemoration for Kuciak and Kusnirova that was organized by Italy’s University of Padova. The ceremony highlighted their contribution to the defense and advancement of human rights and the rule of law.
Holcova is an investigative journalist and media founder from the Czech Republic who works across borders to expose crime and corruption at the highest levels of government. Her investigation into the brutal murder of her colleagues helped unmask the perpetrators and contributed to the downfall of the former Slovak government of Robert Fico.
For her fearless reporting, Holcova was named a 2021 Knight International Journalism Award winner, presented by the International Center for Journalists to honor outstanding reporters who have an impact on the profession.
Federico Grandesso (FG): Is it still dangerous to be an investigative journalist in Slovakia or has something changed after the (Kuciak and Kusnirova) murders?
Pavla Holcova (PH): The message after the murders was clear – by killing a journalist you’re not able to kill the story that they were working on. I think people will think first before killing another journalist. In Slovakia, these days, there’s a revolution going on that’s bringing new risks to society. I can’t be sure of what will come next, especially for investigative journalists. It’s really difficult to assess if it’s a better, safer place for journalism now or not.
FG: Many people have been arrested thanks to your investigative reports. So you are getting some results, right?
PH: We are part of a network of investigative journalists that is called The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP). So far, nearly $8 million has been returned to the state budget and over 500 people have been indicted or sentenced. So, yes, investigative journalism has had a real and tangible impact. There have been many studies that are actually saying that people consider investigative journalism to be the best way to fight corruption.
FG: You were following this case quite closely. Do you think that we know everything about the Kuciak-Kusnirova case, or is there still much more to be found in the shadows?
PH: I believe that the investigators, for example from Europol, really did a stellar job in collecting and analyzing the data. They carried out the investigation even though they were under massive pressure from Slovakia’s top leaders. That said, I still believe that we’ll never know the full story. We never do. We may still discover new leads, new details, but we will never know the whole story.
FG: Are the activities of the Italian mafia in Slovakia and the Czech Republic serious, because in other countries, like Germany, we think it is?
PH: I need to highlight that the Italian Mafia had nothing to do with the murders of Kuciak and Kusnirova. It was a Slovak issue. A Slovak businessman ordered the killings. But still, the Italian Mafia, especially the ‘Ndrangheta (the Calabrian mafia) is present in both Slovakia and the Czech Republic. They are active in subsidies fraud. They make a lot of money on subsidies, which they invest into real estate. They are present but not as visible as, for example, in Germany.
FG: From the political point of view, do you think there was a change after the public’s reaction and the sort of ‘revolution’ that followed?
PH: There was a huge change and a huge hope because the system collapsed after more than 12 years of being unshakable. That was because of the gravity of the case. It caused it (the government) to collapse within a couple of weeks. The change was very visible and tangible. But, it’s still ongoing. We are not there yet. We are still in some kind of consolidation phase of society. I’m afraid people are losing patience with the new changes. Right now the system and the new government are in a hurry, partly because of the pandemic situation, but partly because they are have no experience at being in charge.
FG: How is it important for you to be in contact with other journalists from all over Europe?
PH: Because I’m very focused on international investigations, for me it’s critical to be in touch with other journalists in other countries. Quite often the most important information about what’s happening in your home country can’t actually be found there. Instead, you need to start somewhere else. We stay in contact through the OCCRP Network, including in Italy, where we have contacts. So, there is an European network. We also have a network outside of Europe, OCCRP is now global – in South America, Southeast Asia, Australia, and in the US.
FG: What can Europe do to support investigative journalists? What do you want to ask Europe for?
PH: What is really important for us as a journalists, because we quite often feel that we are on the front line and providing information to the public, is that we have some backup. We also need money to do investigations because we have a very, very limited pool of people and institutions that can be a financial resource. We need money to support our core operations. Maybe a European program would be a good idea, because we can’t take money from our governments, but we can ask the European Union.
FG: Security is also important?
PH: Yes, for us, it’s really important that someone keeps an eye on us and our cases, especially so we don’t feel left alone and forgotten. For us, as journalists, we have to dedicate much more of our time to explain what we need, including talking to European leaders on a regular basis. This could be seen as engaging in politics or having an agenda, which is what we can’t do. That’s why we have to have dedicated people who do it for us.
FG: What can you say to new journalists that would like to start their careers? It’s important to have new voices out there.
PH: It’s important to have young journalists involved. I mean, otherwise, I can’t imagine that I could ever get a better job. Even if it brings risks and sadness, I think it’s important because thanks to our job, we can sleep peacefully at night because we know we don’t give up and we want to keep on fighting.
FG: What is the best way to work without risking too much?
PH: The best suggestion I can give to journalists who want to achieve this goal without risking too much is to think about cooperation. You know, sometimes journalists believe that they need to keep all the information to themselves. If they share this kind of information, if they cooperate with journalists from other media, they are safe because it is possible to kill a journalist, but it’s not possible to kill a network of journalists.