Investigative journalism is essential for a healthy democracy
by Sophie in ‘t Veld, Member of the European Parliament
Last week I stood at the house where Ján Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kusnirova lived. A picture of Ján and Martina shows a loving young couple, full of life. But candles and flowers against the wall of their house are testimony of the horrible crime that was committed inside those same walls, the crime that ended their lives brutally, two weeks ago. With colleagues from the European Parliament we drove up to the village where Ján and Martina had moved not long ago, and we paid tribute to them.
The visit to Jn and Martina’s village was part of the programme of a two day fact finding mission of a European Parliament delegation to Slovakia, following the murder of the young couple. Ján was an investigative journalist with aktuality.sk, writing about corruption, fraud with EU funds, organised crime, the Ndrangheta, and possible connections with government circles. Was he killed because of his work? We don’t know. The murder had all the hallmarks of a professional killing, and exposing wrongdoing is likely to get some powerful people really upset. Maybe upset enough to kill for. Four months earlier, Daphne Caruana Galizia, another courageous journalist digging into stories of corruption and crime and possible involvement of politicians, was blown up in her car on Malta. Not just a murder. A warning.
Two journalists killed in the European Union because they did their job: scrutinising those in power. Investigative journalism is essential for a healthy democracy. They literally keep power in check. The killings are an attack on democracy.
It does not just affect Maltese or Slovakian democracy, but the European Union as a whole. In addition, it would appear that fraud with EU (agriculture) funds was at the heart of the story. That is why the European Parliament, as it did after the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, decided to send a delegation to Slovakia. In two days time we had an intense programme of meetings with key people, including people denouncing criminal activity as those being accused of it. We met among others the President, the Prime Minister, the Minister of Home Affairs, the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Agriculture, the Court of Auditors, the Public Prosecutor, the Payments Agency for EU agriculture funds, the chief of police and of its fraud unit, journalists, NGOs, organisers of the demonstration, opposition parties, and others. And we visited the house of Ján and Martina.
Our detailed report will be issued next week, and it will be debated in the European Parliament. Our findings are alarming. Although in Slovakia clearly the legislative framework is solid, all basic democratic institutional structures are in place, and media and civil society are active and well developed, it is clear that there is a parallel reality of corruption, fraud, state capture and organised international crime. In this shady world, it is difficult to distinguish between truth, half truths, lies and imagination. This uncertainty creates a climate of deep distrust and frustration of citizens with the public institutions. That is devastating for democracy. It it also a major obstacle to cooperation within the EU, in particular police and justice cooperation.
We found a nation that is in shock, traumatised and angry. But also a nation that is resilient. Slovakian people fight back and refuse to surrender their country to crooks. It is true we have seen very disturbing developments. But we have also seen ten of thousands of people taking to the streets, brave journalists carrying on the work of Ján Kuciak, civil servants working with dogged determination towards a transparent and accountable public administration, politicians not afraid to criticise their party colleagues, young people demanding a better future for their country.
We will propose concrete measures by way of follow up to our fact finding mission. But our visit was also a message. A message saying: we are watching, there will be no impunity for the crimes committed. And a message to the people of Slovakia: we stand shoulder to shoulder with you as Europeans to defend our shared values.