On 3 March, Slovaks paid their final respects to investigative journalist Ján Kuciak as he was laid to rest in Stiavnik, a small village in the northern region of the country.
Kuciak and his partner, Martina Kušnírová, were murdered together in their Bratislava apartment while Kuciak was investigating the influence in Slovakia of one of Italy’s most powerful mafia group, the ‘Ndrangheta. Tibor Gašpar, Slovak Police Commander stated in the days afterward that the murders were “most likely” linked Kuciak’s anti-corruption work.
Kuciak’s final article alleges the embezzlement of EU funds by Italian businessmen in Slovakia, and their links to the ruling party, Smer-SD (Direction – Social Democracy). Their bodies had been found by police on 25 February after family members reported their calls going unanswered.
It might seem fitting, as Kuciak spent his last few months fighting to uncover the truth behind Italian-Slovakian corruption, that final respects were paid to him in the church of Saint Francis of Assisi, heavenly protector of Italy.
Much like a saint, venerated posthumously, the importance of Kuciak’s work has been amplified in the wake of his death. It has fractured the almost-cozy political landscape in the country; political demonstrations as large as the 1989 anti-communism rallies have erupted throughout the central european country since the murders, with fury over perceived criminal links and systemically-embedded corruption resulting, almost immediately, in the resignation of the Minister of Culture, Marek Maďarič. Less than two weeks later, Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kalinak stood down, stating “to fulfill my mandate, I have to do everything to preserve stability in Slovakia.” At the time of writing, Prime Minister Robert Fico stated that he had offered his resignation to the President of Slovakia: “If the president accepts it, I am ready to resign tomorrow.”
However, despite the condemnation from Robert Fico, the mass protests and the Archbishop of Slovakia’s solemn declaration at Kuciak’s funeral mass that “evil won’t win – even if it might seem so [now],” Kuciak’s murder represents a shocking and uncomfortable focal point towards which many parts of Europe, and the rest of the world, have been converging in recent years.
Institutions under attack
The civil liberties of journalists, media groups and NGOs have increasingly been the focus of attacks across Europe in the last decade. An era of post-truth, open attacks and threats against journalists, and legal and institutional barriers to press freedom has coincided with a dramatic concentration of media power in the hands of a few powerful groups or individuals.
The increased incidence of anti-journalist, anti-media rhetoric is not the innocent product of a minority of zany politicians – violence against dedicated journalists is a bleak reality. Between 2012 and 2017, 368 journalists were murdered. One-in-five of these journalists were covering stories of corruption and in only half of these cases was somebody brought to justice.
Direct and menacing comments are not idly made. They are designed to threaten and incite hatred towards the media in general and are not confined to one particular country or ilk of politician.
In Czechia, President Milos Zeman gave a press conference in October 2017, where he brandished a fake Kalashnikov assault rifle with the inscription “for journalists.” In Turkey, journalists are routinely accused of “spreading terrorism propaganda”, with 22 journalists being sent to prison on 8th March on spurious charges of anti-state terrorism.
Slovak leader Robert Fico is equally as guilty of inciting malice towards media groups, commenting in November 2016 that journalists are “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes.” Fico’s public denunciation of the “unprecedented attack against press freedom and democracy in Slovakia” which Kuciak’s murder represents, rings hollow in light of his previous comments.
This type of rhetoric has contributed to a very real environment of fear and self-censorship across Europe, where journalists may often reside in anticipation of retribution by criminals and politicians alike. In a 2016 report, the Centre for Media Pluralism and Media Freedom (CMPF) concluded that states in Europe, including members of the EU, are “failing to a large extent” in creating a favourable environment for journalists and media actors. Countries such as Germany, Turkey, Italy and Sweden report high risks for the safety of journalists, where ‘safety’ includes physical safety as well as safety from surveillance, from disclosure of sources online and from the seizure of their computers.
The precarious position of the media
CMPF, which conducts research and training on various aspects of media freedom, worryingly stated in the report that “most of the countries report a medium or high risk regarding the risks of the safety of journalists.” Ireland sits among those reporting a medium risk for safety of journalists.
In Italy, Reporters Without Borders (RSF) have noted that 6 journalists are under “round-the-clock police protection due to death threats, mostly from the mafia or fundamentalist groups”, while politicians, such as co-founder and former leader of the populist Five Star Movement Beppe Grillo “do not hesitate to publicly out the journalists they dislike.”
Kuciak’s murder also follows the car-bombing of Maltese anti-corruption journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia outside her home in October 2017. On her blog, Running Commentary, her last post reads, “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.”
In the wake of her murder, Director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists Gerard Ryle stated that the organisation “is deeply concerned about freedom of press in Malta” while Rebecca Vincent, director of the RSF UK bureau, stated that she expects Malta will “drop significantly” in the rankings on press freedom. Although three men have been charged with her murder, the Times of Malta have reported that the mastermind is believed to still be at large.
RSF also claims that Italian journalists increasingly opt to censor themselves. Italian provisions on media law state that defamation committed by the press is punishable by a fine of no less than €516 or imprisonment from one to six years. In Ireland, while defamation is not a criminal offence, civil damages have run into the hundreds of thousands, and have even crossed the €1 million mark. Self-censorship is the unspoken reality of many Irish media groups today.
In an interview, Vincent cited “self-censorship” and “hostility to the media by some public officials” as having created a toxic working environment for journalists in Malta. Up to and beyond Galizia’s murder, numerous Maltese politicians attempted to discredit her work and silence her. Ten years after she launched her blog, she has been the posthumous subject of 42 civil and 5 criminal defamation cases. 7 of these cases have been brought by current or ex-government ministers and officials, including Malta’s current Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Another 19 cases have been brought by businessman Silvio Debono.
Political and institutional threats to freedom of expression are prevalent across Europe. Hungary in particular, the CMPF notes, scores poorly on editorial autonomy. Most news media outlets in the country are politically-affiliated, to the extent that factual inaccuracies, obvious biases and “chilling practices by politicians” are often observed.
Between 2012 and 2017, Hungary enacted a number of measures to restrict press freedom, and dropped 10 points in Transparency International’s (TI) Corruption Perceptions Index to 45, well below the OECD average of 68.
A 2017 report by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism showed that only 11% of people in the country believe that the Hungarian media is free from undue political influence. It was stated in the report that, since 2016, the Hungarian government has “intensified its attempts to tighten control over the media through changes in ownership, distribution of state advertising, and campaigns against critical voices”.
While most online news groups fund themselves through advertising, laws enacted in 2016 have undermined non-state media groups by levying a 5% tax on online advertising revenue. Only one in ten consumers pay for online news in Hungary.
Media threats in Ireland
Threats and media restrictions are found at home in Ireland too. In February 2016, following the Regency Hotel shooting, Independent News and Media confirmed that an Garda Siochána had formally notified a number of journalists that their safety was at risk. While violence against journalists in Ireland is rare, the CMFP has stated that there is “clear evidence” that journalists “have been subject to threats to their physical but also their digital safety via use of the Communication (Retention of Data) Act 2011”.
Threats towards the media have been taken seriously, especially since the murder of crime journalist Veronica Guerin in June 1996. Guerin, who had previously escaped two other attempts on her life, was murdered for her investigation into the activities of Irish drug lords. She was killed two days before she was due to give a speech in London. The title of her speech was “Dying to Tell the Story: Journalists at Risk”.
Despite its constitutional protection of freedom of expression, media groups in Ireland predominantly experience legal barriers to the vindication of journalists’ rights. Defamation laws in Ireland contain unworkable public interest reporting defences and the level of damages that courts tend to award act as a clear incentive for self-censorship. Furthermore, RSF contend that the Garda Siochána Act 2005 makes it “virtually impossible” to interview Garda sources. Officers who contravene the Act risk dismissal, a fine of up to €75,000 or up to seven years in prison.
In the 2014 case of Leech v Independent Newspapers (Ireland) Ltd, the Supreme Court awarded damages of €1,250,000 to Monica Leech for a series of defamatory articles published in 2004 alleging an extra-marital affair with a then-government minister. This was awarded despite the arguments of lawyers for Independent Newspapers that the “chilling effect” on freedom of the press should be taken into account.
In June 2017, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) delivered a bittersweet ruling which stated that the scale of the award in the Leech case breached the newspapers’ rights to freedom of speech. Decisions of the ECHR cannot annul the rulings of any state’s courts.
Despite the clear, pressing need to rebalance the scales in favour of media, the ‘Ireland 2040’ advertising controversy shows, unfortunately, that the Irish government is more willing to exploit the weaknesses in the modern media landscape than it is to contribute to a free, democratic and protected press.
Direct or tacit undermining of the media isn’t limited to the ruling parties of Ireland either. Solidarity TD for Dublin South-west Paul Murphy routinely engages in a battery of Ireland’s media groups. Despite claiming in a 2015 interview on the Late Late Show that he had “no personal interest in media coverage,” Murphy has used campaigns against the media to drum up support. Amid claims that host Ryan Tubridy’s interviewing had been unfair or unbalanced, Murphy tweeted “[afterwards], Ryan showed me a video of ISIS and asked me what I had to say about it.”
During Murphy’s highly publicised trial over the alleged false imprisonment of former Tánaiste Joan Burton, Murphy ran an intense online campaign titled ‘JobstownNotGuilty.’ This campaign consisted of a relentless barrage of baseless allegations of ‘mainstream media bias.’ Facebook posts which unabashedly discouraged the public from believing coverage of the allegedly politically-motivated court case, in the same breath provided online users with a shamelessly biased narrative in favour of those accused – without any pretense as to objectivity, and with a clear aim to undermine the independence of the media and the courts.