The cold-blooded murder of Slovak
investigative journalist Jan Kuciak was also a cold slap across the face
of modern Europe. That the public watchdogs — the beloved members of a
profession that is sometimes more reviled than admired — could be halted
simply by a brutal act of violence seems to portend a further breakdown
of European values. There has been much handwringing about what to do.
This is an especially important issue for
me. As the editor of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting
Project (OCCRP), security is something I think about every day. I also
think about Jan every day.
At the time of his death, he was working
with my organization on an investigation into the ‘Ndrangheta, a
powerful and dangerous Italian criminal group that has infiltrated many
countries around the world, including Slovakia.
Together with his colleagues and his employer, Aktuality.sk,
we finished and published Jan’s last story. It showed that a group of
Italian businessmen who Italian police described as ‘Ndrangheta had
infiltrated Slovakia over a decade ago and procured more than €70
million in farm subsidies through their connections to Slovakia’s ruling
This week the EU Security Commissioner
Julian King called for new legislation to protect journalists.But is it
even possible to legislate security? Are there any EU laws that could
have protected Jan?
There could be.
First, there is the question of how Jan’s
subjects — and probable killers — knew he was working on a story about
them. As we’ve learned, Jan had filed requests for information to
several Slovak public agencies — a standard journalistic practice. The
authorities deny that they had tipped off the subjects of his research
about his requests. But they are the only people who knew about the
investigation besides myself and four or five other people. We even
encrypted our email conversations.
In other places in Europe, it’s common
practice to provide such requests freely to the targets, and in similar
situations, other OCCRP partners have gotten calls from businessmen or
politicians demanding to know why they were being investigated.
There are no specific laws in place that
protect requestors’ identities or their inquiries, and no laws that
sanction government employees who release their information. Had this
dangerous situation been fixed, Jan might still be alive today.
There must be legislation that protects
the identities of journalists, or civil society actors, who are
fulfilling their role as public watchdogs. We could call it Jan’s Law.
Greater transparency also makes our lives
safer. Reporters’ jobs are much easier when government agencies publish
information that ought to be public on their websites, enabling the
reporters to find what they need without talking to anyone.
There is one more area of law that can
and must be changed. To understand why it’s important, you have to
understand how and why journalists are murdered.
Killing a journalist is not a step taken
lightly — not even by organized criminal groups, corrupt businessmen, or
powerful politicians. At some point, a basic cost-benefit analysis
takes place: What do I gain from killing this journalist and what do I
risk? Changing this cost benefit analysis in journalists’ favor is
critical to how we protect ourselves — we have to raise the costs and
reduce the benefits.
The most obvious benefit of killing a
journalist is that you also kill the story. We worked hard to deny Jan’s
killers that benefit. That’s why we hurried to finish and publish his
last story. And we will continue to write more stories about the topics
he cared about, as will his employer. We must make it absolutely clear
to the people who killed him that they seriously overestimated the
benefits of sending in their assassins.
The second part of the equation is
harder. The truth is that there’s very little risk to killing a
reporter. Statistics from the Committee to Protect Journalists show that
while 70 percent of reporters killed are murdered for their story, only
10 percent of journalists’ murders are ever solved. That compares to a
typical rate of 50 to 90 percent for other murders.
Why are journalism murders so hard to solve?
In the first place, such killings are
hard to investigate even for well-meaning police forces. The assassins
will often be from a professional murder squad. The body may not be
found. These professionals know how to do their jobs, and if they are
caught, they are often willing to serve the time as is required by their
professional responsibilities. Many of the 10 percent charged with
journalism murders are just the trigger men, and not those who
ultimately greenlighted the assassination.
But not all police forces are well-meaning.
Murdered journalists are often working at
the nexus of crime and government, as Jan was doing. In Slovakia,
Hungary, the Czech Republic, Malta, and many other European countries,
that nexus is large and growing. It’s even worse in potential EU members
to the east, where countries like Serbia and Montenegro are arguably
already captured criminal states. It’s not just the ‘Ndrangheta, but
many other criminal groups that thrive in the rich environment of public
corruption, poor rule of law, and weakened democracy.
These populist governments not only fail
to support free and open democratic values, they undermine and attack
journalism and the freedom of speech it represents. Slovak Prime
Minister Robert Fico called Jan and his colleagues whores. The Czech
prime minister held up an automatic weapon with the words “for
journalists” written on it. These are countries not likely to root out
As long as this behavior continues, the risk side of the equation will work against the protection of journalists.
But one thing might help tilt the scales.
If the EU were to pass legislation to
mandate a special commission to watch over the investigation of
journalism murders, that could go a long way to raising the risks for
the criminals. We could call it Daphne’s Law in honor of murdered
Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia. If a group of experts with
forensic skills and a strong political mandate could help advise local
police and verify their procedures, it would help well-meaning law
enforcement do their job. It would also help overcome the lack of
political will among local authorities, or even the active undermining
of the police that often scuttles such investigations. If the EU takes
an active, if only advisory role, it will go a long way to helping solve
more murders and document local corruption.
If action isn’t taken, more journalists
will die. Organized crime and corruption is on the rise in countries
ruled by populist governments, and journalists are squarely in its way.
The pressure will only get worse. We can’t allow the murder of
journalists to be normalized. We don’t want to look fondly on the days
when the murder of a journalist caused a prime minister to lose their