Can Slovakia’s New Anticorruption Movement Avoid Common Pitfalls?

In late February 2018, news that Slovakian anticorruption journalist Jan Kuciak was shot to death at home—the first murder of a journalist in Slovakia’s modern history—shocked the country and world. Slovakians demanded that the government, controlled by the corruption-plagued Direction-Social Democracy (SMER-SD) party, investigate the brazen attack and hold the perpetrators accountable. Tensions escalated in the days following Kuciak’s murder after his last unpublished story surfaced, exposing connections between advisors to SMER-SD Prime Minister Robert Fico and a prominent Italian organized crime syndicate. Fico resigned shortly thereafter, a development which proved to be the beginning of the end of SMER-SD’s twelve-year reign. By the February 2020 general election, voters decisively ousted SMER-SD in favor of the emerging anticorruption-focused Ordinary People and Independent Personalities Party (OLaNO).

Much of OLaNO’s appeal stems from party leader and current prime minister Igor Matovic, a self-made media mogul. His signature communication method was posting videos exposing graft to social media (similar to Russian anticorruption hero Alexei Navalny, whom this blog recently discussed here). In one of Matovic’s most widely viewed videos, he filmed himself in Cannes outside the luxury home of a former SMER-SD politician holding signs saying “Property of the Slovak Republic” and alleging that the home was illegally bought with taxpayer money. Matovic also traveled to Cyprus and posted a video of mailboxes belonging to shell corporations connected to Penta, a multi-million-euro investment group; the video claimed that Penta had used the companies to evade 400 million euros in taxes. Each of Matovic’s videos garnered several hundred thousand views in a country of less than 5.5 million, which helps explain why the February 2020 election boasted Slovakia’s highest voter turnout in 20 years.

Now, just one year into its mandate, OLaNO and its coalition are hard at work rooting out corruption. The government arrested and prosecuted dozens of current and former public officials involved in graft. Those targeted include high-level figures, such as the former Finance Minister, the head of the State Material Reserves Administration, the Director of the Agricultural Paying Agency, and more than a dozen judges, including a member of the Supreme Court and the former Deputy Minister of Justice. OLaNO is also pursuing a number of legislative efforts, including aggressive judicial reform.

Can Matovic and OLaNO finally cleanse Slovakia’s reputation as the corruption “black hole of Europe”? Maybe. But while the story of an outsider stepping forward in the wake of a national scandal and securing electoral victory with an anticorruption political agenda may be a first in Slovakia’s modern history, it is not an unknown tale on the world stage—and (spoiler alert!) the story often doesn’t have a happy ending. To be sure, difficult political dynamics and entrenched domestic corruption can hamper even the most earnest anticorruption efforts. Nevertheless, examples from other countries provide some cautionary tales of how populist leaders elected on anticorruption platforms can sometimes lose their way, and offer some lessons that Matovic, OLaNO, and their supporters should take to heart going forward. Three lessons in particular stand out:

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Defending Those Who Expose Corruption: Defamation Safe Harbor Legislation to Protect Investigative Journalists

In May 2017, Russian journalist Dmitry Popkov, who investigated corruption in local governments, was shot five times and found dead in his backyard. The perpetrators were never identified. In October 2017, a car bomb killed Maltese journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, who had been investigating possible corruption by Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat. Although three suspects were charged with carrying out the attack, the masterminds behind the plot were never found. And in February 2018, an unidentified hitman killed Slovak journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, both 27, in the couple’s newly-purchased home. Kuciak was in the middle of an investigation of the Italian organized crime group ’Ndrangheta and its corrupt ties to Slovakia’s governing political party SMER. Slovak officials arrested seven suspects allegedly connected to the ’Ndrangheta and the murder, but did not find enough evidence to file charges and released them 48 hours later. Although weeks of mass demonstrations led to the resignation of the Slovak Prime Minister, the perpetrators of Kuciak’s murder were never held accountable.

Sadly, these are not the only such incidents. Reporters Without Borders states that last year 39 journalists were murdered because “their reporting threatened political, economic, or criminal interests.” And in many of these cases, despite government assurances of a thorough investigation—and despite a 2013 United Nations Resolution that urges Member States to conduct “impartial, speedy and effective investigations” of journalist murders—the perpetrators are never brought to justice. Perhaps this is not surprising. After all, these murders are often associated with sophisticated crime syndicates that leave few traces for investigators to follow, and an effective investigation would require significant resources and expertise beyond the capacity of many governments. (In some cases, such as Caruana Galizia’s murder, assistance from Dutch forensic experts and the FBI enabled local authorities to arrest suspects linked to the attack, but this is not regular practice.) Perhaps more importantly, resolving the murders of journalists who expose public corruption is not always in the interest of government officials, at least when doing so might provide further evidence of the government’s corrupt acts and expose officials implicated in the journalist’s work.

Given these weaknesses, many corrupt officials and associated criminal networks may conclude that killing a journalist before a story is published may be an effective way to eliminate it altogether. Sadly, this is indeed often the case. But not always: One of the striking things about the recent case in Slovakia is the decision of Kuciak’s employer, the news website Aktuality, to publish his unfinished article. And it appears that this decision to publish, not just the murders themselves, contributed to the massive public outcry and political backlash that has already forced the Prime Minister and several other high-level officials to resign.

Publishing a journalist’s unfinished article is not common practice for newspapers; it was likely done in the Kuciak case because the investigation was almost finished. Usually newspapers are hesitant to publish due to fear of defamation lawsuits, which are a drain on the publication’s resources and reputation. So-called SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) are filed in jurisdictions with strong defamation laws in order to intimidate journalists and media outlets, and prevent them from publishing certain articles. Some members of the European Parliament have been pushing the European Commission to protect investigative journalism by adopting anti-SLAPP measures.

Another reform measure, which hasn’t yet been part of the conversation, would be to create a special exception to defamation laws that would apply when a media outlet publishes a story, on a matter of public concern, by a journalist who was murdered before the story was complete. In other words, countries should enact a “safe harbor” from the ordinary operation of defamation laws in these special circumstances—one that would allow for the expedient dismissal of defamation suits against media outlets that publish the incomplete work of a murdered journalist.

Creating such a safe harbor would have a number of important advantages, and only very limited downsides:  Continue reading