Murdered Slovak journalist 'was probing high-level graft'

BRATISLAVA, Slovakia – Murdered Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak was about to publish an investigation into high-level political corruption, the country's leading newspaper said Tuesday as the killing stoked concerns about graft and press freedom in the small EU state.

Prime Minister Robert Fico has offered a one million euro ($1.2 million) reward for information leading to the killers' capture after police commander Tibor Gaspar said the motive was "most likely related to the investigative work of the journalist." 

Police found Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kusnirova shot dead on Sunday at his home in Velka Maca, a town to the east of the capital Bratislava. 

The shock murder has drawn international condemnation, with organizations including the European Union and United Nations calling for a swift and thorough investigation.

Candlelit vigils have been held for the couple, whose killing has triggered calls for fresh anti-corruption protests in the central European country after a wave of demonstrations last year.

Kuciak, 27, reported for the aktuality.sk news portal owned by German-Swiss Axel Springer and Ringier media group and focused his work on fraud cases involving businessmen with links to Fico's governing SMER-SD party and other politicians. 

He died from a gunshot wound to the chest while his partner was shot in the head, according to Gaspar.

Police reportedly found ammunition arranged around the bodies with the Pravda daily describing the scene as a "warning". 

The leading SME newspaper reported that Kuciak was about to publish an article on possible political links to Italian businessmen with alleged ties to the notorious 'Ndrangheta mafia supposedly operating in Slovakia.

Contacted by AFP, Fico's office offered no immediate comment.

The murder followed the killing in Malta of campaigning journalist blogger Daphne Caruana Galizia -- who exposed crime and corruption on the Mediterranean island -- in a car bombing on in October.

'Political earthquake'

Tom Nicholson, a British-born investigative journalist who worked closely with Kuciak, said he was investigating "the fraudulent payment of EU transfer funds to Italian nationals resident in Slovakia with alleged ties to the 'Ndrangheta" organised crime group from Italy's Calabria region.

"The (Slovak) secret service already has the gangsters' names; both Jan and I were operating from leaked intelligence documents," Nicholson wrote in an article for Politico focused on the murder.

"Slovak organised crime has never killed reporters, even in the bad old days. Whereas Italy's mafia gangs have shown no such compunctions," he said.

Slovak political analyst Grigorij Meseznikov told AFP the murder and its possible links to the Slovak political elite "could prompt a political earthquake."

"A red line has been crossed. This case could shake the electorate of the governing SMER-SD party to its foundations. However, we have to wait for the reaction of SMER-SD leadership.ʺ

Transparency International ranks Slovakia as the seventh most corrupt EU member.

The populist Fico is known for his sharp criticism of the media, once telling journalists at a 2016 press conference that they were "dirty, anti-Slovak prostitutes".

He has also used terms like "plain, silly hyenas" and "slimy snakes" to describe jounalists.

"Government officials are undermining the importance of investigative journalists instead of guaranteeing their protection," Rasto Kuzel, an analyst with the Bratislava-based MEMO 98 think tank, told AFP.

'We should finish his work'

Hundreds of people attended a night-time vigil in Bratislava for the slain couple, and a similar event was held in the Czech capital Prague.

"To murder a journalist for their work, that is maybe possible in the Balkans, maybe in the Middle East, it definitely happens in Russia, but not in the European Union," said Arpad Soltesz, a journalist with Slovakia's TV JOJ and a former colleague of Kuciak.

"There is only one answer to this kind of act – to finish his work," he told AFP. 

"Politicians have their share of responsibility for Jan's murder at least by spreading hatred against journalists."

Kuciak, he said, had been recently writing articles about "tax fraud reaching the highest levels of Slovak politics". 

Last year, thousands of mostly young Slovaks joined anti-corruption protests demanding the dismissal of senior government and police officials for alleged foot-dragging on fighting graft.

Transparency International ranks Slovakia as the seventh most corrupt EU member.

Fresh protests are expected on Wednesday and Friday. – Rappler.com