Tens of thousands gathered at rallies throughout Slovakia last night in remembrance of 27-year-old journalist Jan Kuciak on the first anniversary of his killing.
Kuciak, who was investigating tax fraud of several politically-connected businessmen, was found shot dead along with his fiancee Martina Kusnirova at their home last year, sparking mass protests that would lead to the resignation of former prime minister Robert Fico.
One year later, Slovaks are still waiting for justice for the journalist as it remains unknown who is responsible for the murder.
In Bratislava, an estimated 20,000-30,000 gathered holding placards and illuminated mobile phones to demand a full and independent police investigation, accusing the government of interfering in the matter. Speaking to the crowd chanting “We are with you”, Jozef Kuciak, Jan Kuciak’s father, echoed those calls.
“Everyone can make their own judgement about what kind of democracy we live in and whom should actually apologise,” he said.
The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), an organisation Kuciak collaborated with, believe that the government was guilty of leaking Kuciak's Freedom of Information requests ahead of his death. At the time of his death, Kuciak had been investigating an alleged connection between Italy's 'Ndrangheta crime syndicate and high-ranking officials in the Slovak government. The story was published posthumously by Kuciak's news outlet, Aktuality.
"Even though the gathering was meant as a commemorative event, it definitely was a protest gathering,” said Michaela Terenzani, editor-in-chief of English-language newspaperThe Slovak Spectator.
“A year after the murder, politicians should be working to provide journalists with better protection and to ensure that the police and judicial authorities are operating in a completely independent manner,” Pauline Ades-Mevel, head of the EU-Balkans desk for Paris-based non-profit group Reporters Without Borders, wrote in a statement.
“Instead, the opposite is happening. Certain politicians seem to be concerned above all to defend their interests and protect themselves.”
Slovak Prime Minister Peter Pellegrini meanwhile called for unity and peaceful protests in a video published on social media.
“Let’s commemorate the murdered peacefully,” he said. “It is a memento and dignified message that we all wish for such events never to happen in our society again.”
The anniversary of Kuciak's death comes at a time when media freedom throughout Central Europe has plummeted. Former Prime Minister Fico, who is still the head of his party has called journalists “filthy anti-Slovak prostitutes” while in the Czech Republic, President Milos Zeman once famously turned up at a press conference with a fake Kalashnikov inscribed with the words “for journalists”.
Violence against journalists in Europe is also on the rise. Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese reporter covering corruption and money laundering, was 53 when she was killed in a remote-controlled car bomb blast outside her home in Bidnija in October 2017.
According to the latest Reporters Without Borders World Press Freedom Index, the death of Kuciak has plunged Slovakia 10 places down to 27th, while Malta fell 18 places to 65th.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has choked funding to independent media outlets and last year consolidated the country’s vast pro-government media into one large conglomerate, while in Poland, several journalists were threatened with prosecution for reporting on corruption within the ruling party. Hungary and Poland ranked 73rd and 58th for press freedom respectively.
“The traditionally safe environment for journalists in Europe has begun to deteriorate,” the non-profit said in an analysis.