Murdered Slovakian couple were to marry this weekend

Thousands protest again across Slovakia over killing of Jan Kuciak and his fiancee

 

Martina Kusnirova planned to marry investigative journalist Jan Kuciak this weekend in her hometown in northeastern Slovakia, but instead Gregorovce will hold a memorial concert on Saturday for the young couple who were shot dead in February.

The double murder shocked Slovakia and triggered a crisis of confidence in a ruling elite that is accused of covering up corruption and alleged links between political figures and the Italian mafia that Kuciak revealed in his last story.

Ten weeks after the apparent contract killing, several government ministers and the national police chief have resigned, but the gunman has not been caught and many Slovaks suspect the old guard is still running their country by the same old rules.

On Friday, thousands rallied again across Slovakia to demand sweeping reforms, an end to graft and impunity, and protection for the kind of independent, investigative journalism that police believe made Kuciak a target for assassination.

The latest in a series of demonstrations – the biggest here since Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution – came amid rising concern over alleged political pressure on RTVS, Slovakia’s public television and radio service.

Several prominent reporters have left the broadcaster in recent months, and in April dozens of RTVS staff wrote an open letter complaining of “a hostile atmosphere” and criticising station managers who are seen as government loyalists.

This week, more than 200 journalists from other Slovak media signed a letter denouncing the “normalisation” of RTVS – the term used to describe the crackdown on liberal dissent that followed the brutal suppression of the 1968 Prague Spring.

“Silencing journalists and replacing them with obedient propaganda is the first step towards introducing dictatorships and totalitarian regimes,” they wrote to bosses at the broadcaster.

Crime gang

The role of RTVS “is to serve the public that pays you, not the political force that for two months since the murder of Jan Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova has been trying to silence our colleagues”.

Kuciak (27) discovered personal and business links between figures in the ruling Smer party and alleged members of the Calabrian ‘Ndrangheta crime group, whom he suspected of fraudulently accessing EU farm subsidies in eastern Slovakia.

All those named in Kuciak’s final article deny wrongdoing, but the fallout from his investigation and subsequent murder prompted the resignation of Slovakia’s long-time prime minister Robert Fico, as well as two interior ministers, a culture minister and the national police chief.

Smer and its coalition partners remain in power, however, and Fico is still regarded as Slovakia’s de facto ruler, dominating his handpicked successor, Peter Pellegrini.

Having run Slovakia for 10 of the last 12 years, Smer and its allies hold great sway over the country’s politics and business worlds – as well as public media that they are accused of trying to muzzle during an unprecedented wave of protests.

Matus David, a foreign news editor who worked at RTVS for seven years until his contract was not renewed last month, said the atmosphere at the broadcaster was becoming “more and more toxic”.

“We signed the open letter with dozens of our colleagues and we criticised management on a daily basis, and we said that we don’t trust them because they come from a background of being political spokespersons,” he said.

‘Stand up for freedom’

“They said there were mistakes in our work, but did not give us any evidence of these,” said his former colleague Kristian Cekovsky, who covered Slovak news for eight years at RTVS before he was also released last month.

“One of my managers told me, referring to the fact that we signed the open letter, that ‘every action generates a reaction’. She said this was the ‘unofficial reason’ for letting me go.”

Jaroslav Reznik, the general director of RTVS, told a parliamentary committee this week that “despite everything published in the media, I declare that RTVS news service is working freely”.

“At the same time, I stress that while I’m in this post no other power will interfere with the broadcasting of RTVS.”

Many reporters trace the broadcaster’s problems back to last August, when Reznik took over at RTVS with strong backing from the nationalist SNS party that rules in coalition with Smer.

He secured the post despite having attracted widespread ridicule in his previous job running the state Tasr news agency, where he signed and was then forced to scrap a co-operation deal with Russian propaganda outlet Sputnik.

In January, Reznik cancelled RTVS’ investigative news programme “Reporteri”, which was the only show of its kind on Slovak television.

“One of the lessons that Jan Kuciak’s death taught us, is that the public must stand up for freedom of the media,” said the organisers of Friday’s mass protest.

“We call not only for decent police, courts and offices, but also for decent and independent media that are not the servants of politicians. That is why we publicly reject the normalisation that has started at RTVS.”

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