Slovaks rallied on Friday to demand an end to graft and honour Jan Kuciak, the Slovak investigative journalist shot dead last week, as police pour over his work to probe alleged high-level political corruption linked to the Italian mafia.
Demonstrators rallied at 25 marches across the country, including in the capital, Bratislava. Other commemorative gatherings took place in two dozen cities abroad, including London, Paris and Brussels.
Kuciak, 27, and his fiancée Martina Kusnirova were found shot dead last Sunday at his home in Velka Maca, a town to the east of Bratislava, raising concerns at home and abroad about media freedoms and the level of corruption in Slovakia.
He reported for aktuality.sk, a news portal owned by German-Swiss Axel Springer and Ringier group, focusing on fraud cases involving businessmen with links to Prime Minister Robert Fico’s governing SMER-SD party and other politicians.
At the stroke of midnight, aktuality.sk published Kuciak’s last, unfinished investigative report on possible political links between people close to Fico and Italian businessmen with alleged ties to Calabria’s notorious ‘Ndrangheta mafia, supposedly operating in eastern Slovakia.
“Two people from the circles of a man who came to Slovakia as someone accused in a mafia case in Italy have daily access to the country’s prime minister,” Kuciak wrote in the article titled “Italian mafia in Slovakia. Its goblins extend into politics.”
“Italians with ties to the mafia have found a second home in Slovakia. They started doing business, receiving subsidies, drawing EU funds, but especially building relationships with influential people in politics – even in the government office of the Slovak Republic. They owned or still own dozens of companies. Their property is worth tens of millions of euros,” it read.
Slovakia’s leading SME broadsheet had first revealed details of Kuciak’s investigation on Tuesday. The report triggered an angry rebuke from Fico, who showed reporters stacks of euro bills totalling the one-million-euro 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 warned.
The Kuciak 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.
Slovak police commander Tibor Gaspar, who has said the motive was “most likely” related to Kuciak’s investigative journalism, warned reporters that publishing details of the case could tip off suspects.
Conservative opposition MP Igor Matovic called for Gaspar and Interior Minister Robert Kalinak to step down.
“Kalinak and Gaspar bear the responsibility for the security of people in this country and due to their failure to prevent this brutal assassination they should step down,” he told reporters.
Tom Nicholson, a Britishborn investigative journalist who worked closely with Kuciak, wrote in an article for Politico that “the (Slovak) secret service already has the gangsters’ names; both Jan and I were operating from leaked intelligence documents.”
“Slovak organised crime has never killed reporters, even in the bad old days. Whereas Italy’s mafia gangs have shown no such compunctions,” Nicholson said.
Political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov said the murder and its possible links to the Slovak political elite “could prompt a political earthquake,” adding that “a red line has been crossed that could shake the electorate of the governing SMER-SD party to its foundations.”
Fico, who once told journalists they were “dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes,” met the editors of Slovak media outlets Tuesday to assure them of his government’s commitment to the “protection of freedom of speech and the safety of journalists.”
On Thursday, Gaspar told reporters that individuals taken into custody during raids in the eastern town of Michalovice were “persons mentioned” by Kuciak in connection with the “Italian track.”
Slovak media reported that among the seven held was Italian businessman Antonino Vadala – the owner of several companies – and some of his relatives, alleged by Kuciak to have links to ‘Ndrangheta and contacts in the Slovak government.
A prosecutor in the Italian region of Calabria, Nicola Gratteri, told Italian radio meanwhile that “it is likely that the families of the Calabrian mafia are behind the murder” of Kuciak.
He was echoed by Italy’s antimafia prosecutor, Gaetano Paci, who called the journalist’s murder a “milestone.”
Marek Vagovic, the head of the team of investigative journalists at aktuality.sk, said that Kuciak’s murder was “the end of an era” in Slovakia, saying he expected greater pressure on investigator to investigate and prosecute “serious crimes” like corruption.