Ján Kuciak wasn’t just a colleague — he was a good person. One who couldn’t be bought or scared off
Zuzana Petková / May 1, 2018
(First published by eTrend.sk 26.02.2018, 14:05. Published by permission. Translated by Linda M. Steyne)
(5 min read)
[WRITTEN AND PUBLISHED THE DAY AFTER INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST JÁN KUCIAK AND HIS FIANCÉ MARTINA KUSNIROVA — BOTH 27 YEARS OLD — WERE FOUND SHOT TO DEATH AT POINT-BLANK RANGE IN THE HOME THEY WERE FIXING UP TO MOVE INTO FOLLOWING THEIR WEDDING IN MAY 2018 – ED.]
The mood at the top settles over an entire society. We have long been witness to high-ranking politicians insulting the work of the free press. We have seen how threats made against an investigative journalist were not dealt with and even doubted. The status and role of journalists in society have been eroded out from under them. So, too, has their protection. Even so, I never thought that there was so little protection that I would now be in tears, grieving for a colleague and friend who was the victim of an assassin.
I first met colleague and friend Ján Kuciak years ago when he came to the TREND offices as a rookie reporter to do an overview and analysis of a series of news stories I had written. I do not even remember what scandal they covered. I think it might have been the solar panel business connection to the majority party. In any case, I was surprised by this young reporter’s conscientiousness, attention to detail and ability to analyse the facts.
We, journalists, can often be superficial in our work, only touching the surface, quickly moving on from one topic to the next, and jumping to another story when we hit an obstacle elsewhere. Janko was not like that. He always followed a story through to the end. It was this tenacity, along with his courage, relentless determination, and tireless sense of justice that most likely got him killed.
Janko and I worked on many stories together even though we were from two different news outlets. And despite the fact that he grew as a reporter and showed all the signs of becoming one of the best investigative journalists Slovakia has, Janko remained modest, sometimes to the point of being ordinary. That had its advantages because those he wrote about often did not expect that it would be Janko asking the well-formed, evidence-based questions. Janko was not the type of reporter who was handed information which he would then publish without question. Most of his discoveries came from studying publicly available sources, from digging into companies’ annual financial reports and comparing them with financial disclosure records. He was always about doing the right thing, never about getting an exclusive or achieving fame as a journalist. Those were things he wished for others.
Janko always willingly shared information, and when Xénia Makarová and I won the Journalism Award for our work on Ladislav Bašternák [A SLOVAK BUSINESSMAN WHO HAS BEEN UNDER INVESTIGATION FOR FINANCIAL MATTERS – ED.] and tax fraud, he along with Marek Vagovič [HEAD OF THE INVESTIGATIVE UNIT AT THE AKTUALITY.SK NEWS OUTLET AND JANKO’S BOSS – ED.] were the first to congratulate us.
A year ago, I gave Janko all the documents I had put together in my investigation into tax fraud and the original criminal case, which was later dropped, against controversial businessman Marián Kočner. He found some connections that I had missed and published a series of news stories on them upsetting Mr Kočner to the extent that he threatened Janko. Although he filed a criminal complaint with the police, Janko’s concerns were not given much credence. Minister of the Interior Róbert Kaliňák (Smer-SD) [WHO RESIGNED MARCH 21, 2018 – ED.] made light of his fears and even made fun of them. Today, when he has to cancel his official program — a Smer-SD event in honor of International Women’s Day — he is no longer laughing.
I do not see a connection between Marián Kočner and what happened this last weekend. Considering his very public feuds with journalists, I do not think he would carry out any one of his threats. But there were many influential people (and bastards) whose nerves Janko got on. I tried repeatedly to get Janko to come work at TREND. I made him a great offer, including excellent work opportunities and salary. He turned me down on principle every time. It bothered him that TREND is owned by Penta [A CENTRAL EUROPEAN INVESTMENT GROUP – ED.]. His colleagues at Aktuality.sk laughed at my attempts to get him to TREND: “Our Janko isn’t for sale, only for rent.” They were referring to his selfless willingness to help me with whatever stories I was working on.
We were supposed to go get a beer this week. Janko loved beer. He would probably have told us about the story he was working on. It was supposed to be something big. That will not happen now.
One enduring memory I have of Janko is from just last November. Together with the Czech Centre for Investigative Journalism we were digging through the infamous documents known as the Paradise Papers and struggling to get through Malta’s registry data. Janko was willing to pay hundreds of euros out of his own pocket to get copies from the registry that would help us figure out the links between Slovak companies and businesses in tax havens. He spent all day on my behalf going through thousands of documents in Prague. He then drove the three hours back to Bratislava in the middle of the night and, not wanting to wake my children by ringing the doorbell, waited for an hour in the dark in his car, in the freezing cold, outside my house until a light came on. Then he transferred the files to my computer, turning down my offer of coffee and breakfast. He was one of the kindest people I have ever met. Janko was just a good guy.
Recently, Janko had bought a small house outside of Bratislava which he was fixing up himself. He was looking forward to not only moving into it but also to getting married to his girlfriend. It is particularly horrific that both of their lives were snuffed out in that dream house.
Janko, I owed you an evening out for that work you did on the Paradise Papers. Instead, I will be buying a bouquet of flowers to put on your grave. When they killed that journalist in Malta [CARUANA GALIZIA WAS SLAIN OCTOBER 16, 2017 – ED.], a local newspaper ran the headline “The Pen Is Victorious over Fear”. Janko, I am determined to continue working on the stories you were investigating. And I am not the only journalist committed to doing so.