Marek Vagovič: "I became an investigative journalist by pure coincidence; I had no such plans."
Ivona Mičeková / November 1, 2019
translation and edit: Maximilián Weber, Georgios Merkouris
( 7 min read )
Marek Vagovič is an investigative journalist working for web portal aktuality.sk. He won the Open Society journalist’s award 8-times already while being nominated for the same award 18-times so far. In 2018 he won Biela Vrana (White Crow) award together with other 6 fellow journalists for the civic courage and promotion of truth in society. One of the 7 recipients of the award was also his murdered colleague Ján Kuciak. In the last three years, he published two interesting books, one is Vlastnou hlavou: Ako predal Fico krajinu oligarchom (about shady financing of the ruling Smer party and their leader Róbert Fico. “Vlastnou hlavou” refers to a leaked audiotape where the voice of Fico brag about using his head in finding sponsors for the party). The other book being: Umlčaní: príbeh Jána Kuciaka a Martiny Kušnírovej – a life story of the murdered journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiance Martina Kušnírova (Ed.translation: „umlčaní“ – „silenced“).
In the interview, you will learn how and why he ended up being an investigative journalist, how the murder of his colleague in February shaped his sense of reality, and what he plans for the future.
For the original Slovak version of the interview, click here.
Publically, you are mainly known as an investigative journalist, but how would you describe yourself?
It is difficult for me to talk about myself, so it is something others would have to define. I grew up in Petržalka, the largest Slovak settlement, where I used to do a lot of sports when I was young. I was a professional football player, and I had quite a happy and calm childhood. Later, I began to be more interested in the world around me. So, when the Velvet revolution came in 1989 it was only natural for me to take an interest in politics. I was 15-16 years old, so I was seeing the big picture as well. The fact that my father was an anti-communist also made me perceive the coming change much more intensively. Of course, we still went to discos and listened to hip-hop; I lived the life of an ordinary teenager. I studied history at university, which is also closely tied to politics. I became an investigative journalist by pure coincidence; I had no such plans.
But if you're asking from the more human side, I was perceived as a stoic by those around me; as someone who wouldn’t be brought down by something small. However, when you do this job – investigative journalism, you start to become very upset about to conditions in which we live. You start wanting to change the world from the ground up, chase corruption out of the political system and arrest all the culprits. Slowly you discover though, that it is not all that simple. And with time, you get used to the fact that this sort of journalism is a long-distance run, in which it takes at least several years before you land someone in court. Even when politicians do resign from their posts, it takes very long for society to change. With time, you start feeling so helpless you become cynical. You look at everything from distance now, while not believing that anything can be done to bring about change. Up until the murder of Ján and Martina, a lot of us thought that “our people” from the most exclusive political, business, and mafia circles would be here forever. Today, I am a greater optimist, but I am still quite sceptical. Look at all the things that washed up from Kočner’s Threema. The depth of the swamp in which we are drowning is much bigger than any of us could imagine.
At which point in your life did you realize, that you, as someone who studied history, that you were more interested in the media and begun to work as a journalist?
It was sometime after university, in 2000, when I began to work in the press agency SITA. That said I was always interested in journalism. I first sent a few columns to Robert Kotian from the journal SME, who later published said articles in the opinions section of their website. All of this encouraged me, and later they also admitted me into the aforementioned press agency. There I began to be more dedicated to politics, but mostly in a non-investigative manner. I was though, curious and quite cheeky, asking lots of questions. Eventually, everything developed in such a way that I became an investigative journalist
What exactly led you to create the actuality.sk investigative team, and how did you select candidates for this said team?
I got to know Ján Kuciak at an investigative course, organized by a Czech Centre for investigative journalism headed by Pavla Holcova. He later worked with her, on the topic of the Italian Mafia. I found Veronika Šmiralova when she was attending the journal’s media lecture while I was working there that week. Veronika is more of a reporter, but she also has natural rudeness and knows how to ask questions. For example, just as a rookie reporter, she employed herself in a company under a false identity to find out how people break laws – and quite well at that. Ján caught my attention with his interest in diligent analytic journalism. Also, we already had the experienced journalist Annamária Dömeová at Aktuality, so I was able to build a team from these three people. Today, we also have Martin Turček, Laura Kellöová and Peter Sabo on our team. From time to time, we also have other colleagues working with us, so the structure of the team is quite loose.
After the events of February 2018, do you not feel endangered by your profession?
Right now, less so than right after the murder. At the time though, a lot of us were scared. During the first few days after the murder, each time I would start my car I would have an uneasy feeling in my stomach. I didn’t know if there was an explosive hidden somewhere in there. I wanted to install a quality detector, but I found out that a quality one would cost me over 20 thousand Euros. For some time I would park my car in front of the police station. I look around myself and use the rear mirror more. After we found out that one of Kočner's commandos was watching and following us, we're all more careful. I talk in a more coded manner and use several different apps when I contact my sources so that we're not seen together. Despite all of this, however, I think that today we are relatively safe.
Did you ever ask yourself if there is a point to your job?
Of course. And in the first weeks after the murder, I asked myself if it's all worth it. I came to the conclusion that I will continue in my work until the perpetrators and organizers of the murder of Ján and Martina are caught, lawfully tried and sentenced. I do not know if I will keep doing this until retirement, but for now, I feel the need to keep doing this job.
Did you ever consider engaging in politics from another angle? That is, as a politician?
I get this question more and more. I had offers, and interesting ones at that, from the political environment, but for now, I am rejecting all of them. I do not want to enter politics at the current time. You lose all privacy, something of which I already have little. You see, after the murder of Ján Kuciak, the reporters who were working with him became publically known. Other than that, politics are a dirty business these days. And I do not have the will to devote energy to fight with things like disinformation, purposeful distortion of the truth, half-truths, and the constant attempts at discrediting. I know very well how the world of politics works – how everything can be blown out of proportion, misinterpreted, or falsely compromising. I do not deny that one day I might enter the public sphere through politics, but I do not intend to do so now. Even a reporter can be useful to society, as far as it comes to purging it from corruption and clientelism.
Over the past three years, you have published 2 books. Could you please describe them to us, and how they came to be? Why did you choose the topics that you chose? Did you consider others? And how long did it take?
The first book about Fico – Vlastnou Hlavou – was a logical voicing of my work since I was probably most intensively dedicated to SMER party out of all of the investigative journalists. Since around 2001 I documented the most important reports of the party, most of which I started myself as well. I unveiled the oligarchic background of SMER, publicized the audio recording with the likeness of Fico’s voice, and the sponsored deal between the party head of finances, Fedor Flašík and the businessman Ľubomír Blaško. In the book I took advantage of my years of experience and described the events behind the scenes, the sort of things that are not normally reported about. For example, I even explained the content and contextualized various meetings with sources.
We didn’t plan the book Umlčaní. We wanted to honour and pay tribute to Ján and Martina and present them to all of Slovakia while spreading their message. People knew next to nothing about them since Ján was a humble and meek man that didn't publicize himself. There simply existed the need to inform people about his job and to explain why he and Martina were exceptional. The book came to be relatively quick, and at the beginning, there wasn't a clear plan for it. We had a rough outline and decided on who will write about what. Then I editorially put it together with my colleague Mirka Sojkova. However, the book is not only a memory; a large part of the work is an analysis of Ján’s worker. Readers appreciate that it is concise and clearly explained.
We are planning another book as well. If my schedule allows me to, I would like to write a Vlastnou Hlavou 2. I wanted to write it this year, but momentarily I am editing a book for my colleague Jan Petrovič. He is writing about the Slovak mafia, the first history of the mafia, from the revolution up until today. He goes into detail about individual groups of organized crime, their crimes, murders, backing and so on. He also talked with people who experienced the war in the underworld, people who are both free and behind bars – for example, Mikuláš Černák, with whom he had a big interview. My colleague did his research diligently – he studied court rulings, explosion sites and collecting a large number of authentic photographs which were not made public up until now. The book will come out in November, at the time of the 30th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.
So sometime around spring, I would like to begin with the writing of Vlastnou Hlavou 2. We will see how the elections go – if they end the sad story of Robert Fico, or if he will get another chance and rise from the ranks of the dead. The first book ended with the Bašternák scandal, so I want to map out other cases in the second part – namely Kočner, Threema, the hitting and following of journalists, but also protests and political changes, which followed the murder of Jan and Martina. If everything goes according to plan, it will be done by autumn.
We often talk about the things in Slovakia that don’t work. According to you, what does work in Slovakia?
For starters, we have a good approach to information from public sources. It is thanks to an information law from 2001 that we can use registers from financial statements, rights and so on. In this sense, we are a very open country, even in comparison with other countries. This, of course, doesn't stop traffickers from hiding their origins through shell companies at home or abroad, but it does make things harder for them.
I think that, if we had more money for schools and healthcare and we went through basic reforms these institutions would function well. A lot of capable and skilled people that love their jobs work there. They are just demotivated by the way things are. Government administration is improving and becoming more available online: we no longer spend as much time waiting in offices as we did 20 years ago.
Since we live fast lives, we fail to notice how much Slovakia has grown since the revolution. Many moan about how it was better under socialism, but I wouldn’t change it back for the world. As a society, we have never been better, and I do understand that people in outlying regions have it hard. In this regard, we still have to make a lot of changes, so the difference between the city and the countryside slowly diminished.
How do you look into the future? What do you want to dedicate yourself to in the coming years?
I do enjoy writing books, so once more; maybe I will be just intensively dedicated to this task. There is a lot to write about. I also enjoy the discussion program NA ROVINU, which I moderate on the aktuality.sk webpage. If I get the opportunity, perhaps I will one day moderate something similar on radio or television. Occasionally I also do speeches at schools, which is an amazing source of feedback. I am a little less fascinated about editing [he laughs]. But I believe that it is the responsibility of the older journalists to hand skills over to the younger ones and teach them how to investigate. So that, to put it shortly, another generation will grow up to carry the torch of Ján Kuciak. And maybe in the future, I won’t be in the front lines and focus on ordinary journalism.