When Governments Fail to Protect Journalists: The EU’s Involvement in the Investigation of Ján Kuciak Murder

  • Viktória Klanicová
  • 18.3.2021 15:28

When in 2017 and 2018, the European Union was shaken by the reports of the killings of investigative journalists Daphne Caruana Galizia and Ján Kuciak, the European Union without hesitation supported the investigation to bring the perpetrators to justice. However, as there were continuous doubts regarding compliance of the rule of law, European Union - through active participation of the European Parliament and Europol - played a crucial supportive role in the national investigative process.

Freedom of expression with all its different forms has always been the core of any democratic society. Especially now, at a time when disinformation is heavily rising, media and journalists around the world can carry out their work completely independently promoting accurate reporting in the interest of all citizens, only if there are stable legal systems that are able to protect them. 

Despite the traditionally safe environment for journalists in Europe, the region has been shaken by two murders in the space of five months, the first in Malta and the second in Slovakia that led to questions regarding the state of the rule of law in these countries. 

 

When governments fail to protect journalists 

In October 2017, Maltese journalist and blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia was murdered by a car bomb a few metres away from her Bidnija home in Malta and in February 2018, journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová were murdered in their home in Slovakia. Both were investigative journalists who were digging into high-level cases of corruption in their countries which was reaching the highest political figures - prime ministers Muscat in the case of Malta and prime minister Fico in the case of Slovakia. 

The murders sparked major protests and especially in Slovakia they became the biggest demonstrations since the Velvet Revolution in 1989. These protests were believed to have sparked a dramatic change in public opinion in Slovakia which was also reflected in the presidential elections in 2019 and parliamentary elections in 2020. 

 

“The police closed the threat case as not a crime and it was assessed as a misdemeanor proceeding, however, in the end it was decided that Kočner threats were not even a misdemeanor.”

 

Ján died a violent death because he consistently exposed and drew attention to the criminal activities of the ones who were enjoying the inviolability of state authorities. Kuciak also wrote about controversial businessman Marián Kočner who has verbally threatened Kuciak and his family in September of 2017. 

After filing for a criminal complaint, Kuciak continued informing about the whole procedure - or lack thereof - on Facebook. A month later in October after nothing had happened, the management of the editorial board of Aktuality.sk issued a statement rejecting any form of intimidation of their reporters by anyone. Finally, the police closed the threat case as not a crime and it was assessed as a misdemeanor proceeding, however, in the end it was decided that Kočner threats were not even a misdemeanor. This was decided by the police despite having an audio recording. 

This information fueled a belief that the murder was a result of structural deficiencies in state institutions that should have protected Ján Kuciak. It also alarmed the European Union which joined the process of national investigations not only to rebuild the trust of people in law enforcement agencies but also to observe that rule of law is adhered to. 

 

The European Union helping regain trust in democratic institutions

The impact of the European assistance in the investigation process in the case of Jan Kuciak has been acknowledged in general as positive. This was emphasised when even Jan’s colleague, Peter Bardy, said that it would have been impossible to undertake the investigation without the institutional support of the EU and Europol. What role did they represent in the investigative process then?

To start off, since the initial publication of the first information regarding the murder in Slovakia, the case has strongly resonated in European institutions. For this reason, since the beginning, the European Parliament has sent a mission to Slovakia with the intention to demonstrate the European Union’s interest in the investigative process. Amid many concerns regarding the practices of Slovak police, the European Parliament also decided to set up a group of lawmakers who would continuously monitor progress in the investigations.

In addition to the involvement of European Parliament, experts from the European Union Agency for Law Enforcement Cooperation, better known as Europol, were also assisting at the request of the Slovakian authorities through analytical and forensic means from the earliest days of the investigation. The murder investigators could rely on the significant amount of data that were secured by police officers, however, it was the technical equipment of Europol that led to a quick analysis. In addition, Europol has made it possible to verify relevant information in its systems which collects data from other member states as well.

Specifically, Europol’s European Cybercrime Science Center has been able to access the content of encrypted messages sent by Marian Kočner - the controversial businessman at that time accused of ordering the murder of Ján Kuciak - on his iPhone X via the Threema application that played a crucial role in the investigative process. Without this technical equipment which also allowed for thorough analysis of the huge amount of data and video files from security cameras through special software, Slovakian investigators would have to do it manually and risk missing something important with naked eye.   

 

“The role of Europol was seen as providing a guarantee of independent and professional expertise in the process of investigation which was a crucial aspect in a society where people lost all hope in its judicial system.”

 

Moreover, Europol took part in the preparation of the police actions carried out in late September 2018 that resulted in the arrest of nine people. Overall, the role of Europol was seen as providing a guarantee of independent and professional expertise in the process of investigation which was a crucial aspect in a society where people lost all hope in its judicial system.      

Even though deficiencies in the state institutions and technical shortcomings never influenced the investigation, just the perception of corruption, and lack of trust could have had a negative impact on the public’s attitude and judgement of the investigation. Thankfully by stepping in, the European Union was able to provide much needed legitimacy and technical support during the process and so that the public can feel that the investigation was thorough and objective.  

All the reports and revelations that the European Parliament and Europol were able to make during such a pivotal time in Slovakian history should be emphasized as they clearly indicated that European Union stood on the side with people who were protesting in the streets for better functioning rule of law in Slovakia.

About author: Viktória Klanicová

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