Murdered Slovak Journalist ‘Was Probing Italian Mafia Links’

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MURDERED Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak was about to publish an investigation into high-level political corruption linked to the Italian mafia, the country’s leading newspaper reported Tuesday, as the killing stoked concerns about graft and press freedom in the small EU state.

The weekend killing of Kuciak and his fiancee has sent shockwaves through Slovakia and drawn international condemnation, with organisations including the European Union and United Nations calling for a swift and thorough investigation.

Kuciak, 27, reported for the aktuality.sk news portal owned by German-Swiss Axel Springer and Ringier media group and focused on fraud cases involving businessmen with links to Prime Minister Robert Fico’s governing SMER-SD party and other politicians.

Slovakia’s SME broadsheet said Kuciak was about to publish an article on possible political links to Italian businessmen with alleged ties to the notorious ‘Ndrangheta mafia supposedly operating in Slovakia.

The report triggered a stern rebuke from Fico, who showed reporters several fat stacks of euro bills totalling the one million euro ($1.2 million) reward he has offered for information that could lead to the killers.

“Do not link innocent people without any evidence to a double homicide. It’s crossing the line. It’s no longer funny,” he told journalists.

– A ‘warning’ –

Police found Kuciak and Martina Kusnirova shot dead on Sunday at his home in Velka Maca, a town to the east of Bratislava.

He died from a gunshot wound to the chest while his partner was shot in the head, according to police who also reportedly found ammunition arranged around the bodies with the Pravda daily describing the scene as a “warning”.

The shooting followed the October murder of campaigning Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia — who exposed crime and corruption on the Mediterranean island — in a car bombing.

Candlelit vigils have been held for the couple, and there are calls for fresh anti-corruption protests in Slovakia after a wave of demonstrations last year.

AFP / VLADIMIR SIMICEK Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico has offered a one million euro reward for information leading to the killers of investigative journalist Jan Kuciak

Interior Minister Robert Kalinak told reporters he wanted the team investigating the murder to include a journalist, possibly the editor-in-chief of aktuality.sk.

Speaking alongside Fico, Kalinak said investigators were “communicating with Italy, of course, based on all that was written in the media”.

Police commander Tibor Gaspar, who has said the the motive was “most likely” related to Kuciak’s investigative journalism, warned reporters that publishing details of the case could tip off suspects.

“How can we do our work effectively if you are alerting some people who may be involved?”

– ‘Political earthquake’ –

Tom Nicholson, a British-born investigative journalist who worked closely with Kuciak, said he had been investigating “the fraudulent payment of EU transfer funds to Italian nationals resident in Slovakia with alleged ties to the ‘Ndrangheta” organised crime group from Italy’s Calabria region.

“The (Slovak) secret service already has the gangsters’ names; both Jan and I were operating from leaked intelligence documents,” Nicholson wrote in an article for Politico.

“Slovak organised crime has never killed reporters, even in the bad old days. Whereas Italy’s mafia gangs have shown no such compunctions.”

Political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP the murder and its possible links to the Slovak political elite “could prompt a political earthquake”.

“A red line has been crossed. This case could shake the electorate of the governing SMER-SD party to its foundations.ʺ

Fico is known for his sharp criticism of the media, once telling journalists in 2016 they were “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes”.

He has also used terms like “plain, silly hyenas” and “slimy snakes” to describe the media.

“Government officials are undermining the importance of investigative journalists instead of guaranteeing their protection,” Rasto Kuzel, an analyst with the MEMO 98 think tank, told AFP.

But Fico said he would meet the editors of top media outlets to assure them “that the protection of freedom of speech and the safety of journalists is our common priority and that it is extremely important to my government”.

– ‘We should finish his work’ –

Arpad Soltesz, a journalist with TV JOJ and a former colleague of Kuciak, said the slain reporter had been writing about tax fraud at the “highest levels of Slovak politics”.

“To murder a journalist for their work, that is maybe possible in the Balkans, maybe in the Middle East, it definitely happens in Russia, but not in the European Union,” he told AFP.

“There is only one answer to this kind of act — to finish his work.”

Last year, thousands of mostly young Slovaks joined anti-corruption protests demanding the dismissal of senior government and police officials for alleged foot-dragging on fighting graft.

Transparency International ranks Slovakia as the seventh most corrupt EU member.

Fresh anti-corruption protests are expected on Wednesday and Friday.

CREDIT: AFP

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