SLOVAKIA: MEPs debate fact-finding mission: more initiatives at the European level to come, says Benedek Jávor

(European Centre for Press and Media Freedom) Benedek Jávor was one of six MEPs travelling to Slovakia in an ad hoc delegation by the European Parliament to make their presence felt after the murder of journalist Ján Kuciak. The mission’s report is out now. There was a debate in Strasbourg. ECPMF spoke with Jávor about what’s next.

On Monday, 26 February 2018 the news broke that Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová had been murdered. The European Parliament prepared an ad hoc delegation at short notice with the help of the EP information office Bratislava and the Slovak Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Over two days, the MEPs met with journalists, NGOs and government officials

The key findings concern fundamental rights-related issues and budgetary control related issues. Please find here the full report on the ad hoc delegation to Slovakia 7 to 9 March 2018.

One of the Members of the European Parliament who took part in the fact-finding mission to Slovakia is Hungary’s Benedek Jávor. In an interview with ECPMF he explains their findings, and how the debate in the European Parliament on 14 March about safety of journalists and freedom of the press will be followed-up with more initiatives at the European level.

Following the murders of Ján Kuciak and his partner, there have been large demonstrations in Slovakia’s towns and cities, and high-level resignations in the government coalition. What is your assessment of the political situation?

Benedek Jávor: I agree with some saying that this could be a breaking point for Slovakia. There are strong emotions within society after the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová. People are shocked and angry and they clearly say, this is unacceptable. This crime must be investigated. When we spoke to the organisers of the protest it was clear that those people want to live in a different Slovakia. Not in the country that is being governed by corruption and nepotism, not in a country where it is possible to murder a journalist and his fiancée. They want to live in a country governed by democracy and rule of law, in a decent country. I think that the government and particularly Prime Minister Fico has become a symbol of the Slovakia that the protesters do not support. People do not trust him and they don’t trust that the institutions work correctly. Of course, the political situation is difficult and it is not clear how quickly it will be solved. But I think that the goal to protect democracy and regain the trust of people goes hand in hand with the demands of protesters.

When talking to Slovak editors-in-chief and investigative journalists, how were you able to re-assure them that their lives are safe? That the investigations that Ján Kuciak started into the abuse of EU subsidies will be continued? And that the EU is serious about protecting journalists and promoting investigative reporting?

[These questions are asked in the context of a similar EP delegation, from the Panama Papers Committee, that went to Malta in February 2017 and met journalists, including Daphne Caruana Galizia who was later assassinated] 

Our meeting with Slovak editors and investigative journalists happened in the beginning of our fact-finding mission, just after the meeting with Slovak NGO experts. First of all, we wanted to show them clearly that the European Parliament is taking the situation seriously and that we are serious about protecting journalists and investigative reporting. We also wanted to hear from them what is the situation in Slovakia from their perspective and what are their views and feelings both regarding the murder of Ján Kuciak, but also concerning the issues of freedom of journalism, challenges of investigative work, corruption, and the alleged misuse of EU funds that Ján Kuciak had been investigating. The Budget Control Committee of the European Parliament is very interested in those findings, and we are calling on the European Anti-Fraud Office to investigate. We have also raised questions regarding the protection of journalists and freedom of media in Slovakia with President Andrej Kiska and with Prime Minister Robert Fico, as well as with other government Ministers that we have met, and with the Slovak Police President Tibor Gašpar.

The group of six MEPS who visited Slovakia include Italy’s Marco Valli, who has been very vocal and active in the fields of fighting money-laundering, financial fraud and organised crime. What can you tell us about the potential Italian connections to the case?

From what we have seen and from what we have been told it seems there are groups of organised crime also from Italy operating in Slovakia. What we know is, on 1 March, three days after the revelations, Slovak police questioned seven Italian nationals. They were released two days later. Yesterday, there has been a massive international police action and 17 persons have been taken in, according to media reports. This includes Mr. Vadala who has been connected to the people working closely with Prime Minister Fico. It is not yet entirely clear, but the police has been aware of Italian organised crime in Slovakia already in the past, and there were signs of interest from Italian organised crime groups in the country. We hear that the Slovak Intelligence Service confirmed that there have been warnings about Italian organised crime activities in Slovakia for five years. The question is why this was ignored.

Journalists across Europe – across the whole world – use Freedom of Information requests to obtain official documents that may reveal wrongdoing. According to the investigative reporting group OCCRP these FOI requests can be used by criminals to identify and track down journalists or citizens who are asking legitimate questons about their business affairs. Indeed, OCCRP believes that Kuciak, who worked with their platform, may have been killed as a result of just such a leak.

Our position is that the right of access to information is a fundamental human right and therefore there is no reason to be asking requesters for disproportionate amounts of personal data. We have raised this question with the European Commission as well, which has a retrograde policy of refusing to process information requests unless the citizen provides their personal home address. We also defend, for example, the protection of whistleblowers including their rights to report anonymously, and have been demanding that the European Commission introduces specific legislation on that. In general, we would expect officials to never transfer personal data unless it is done in a way that complies with data protection rules.

So would you support a call for an EU-wide rule that allows people making FOI requests to remain anonymous and makes it illegal for officials to pass on to third parties the personal details of those people who are asking the questions?

Yes, of course.

Beyond the fact-finding mission and the debate in the European Parliament plenary at Strasbourg ,what can the EP do or recommend in order to safeguard the lives and work of investigative journalists?

First of all you, the ECPMF, is about to announce a grant for investigative journalists to work on cross-border projects, that I have been working on for the past four years. I think that unfortunately it could not have come at a more timely moment. I will continue my work and hope that we manage to secure a continuation of this grant beyond the current call. Furthermore, with my colleagues at the Greens/EFA Group we are also pushing for a permanent funding line in the upcoming MFF [EU long-term budget] to secure financing to defend media freedom, pluralism and investigative journalism, which could include a permanent grant.

The European Parliament is going to adopt a report on media freedom and pluralism in April which calls on the Commission and Member States to protect investigative journalists, among other proposals. The compromises are currently being discussed and the draft report will be adopted in the LIBE committee on Monday 19 March.

Featured image: Bence Járdány