Not long after Robert Fico formed the new government for the fourth time, he swiftly proposed significant changes that would severely erode democratic institutions and protection of freedom of expression in the country. ARTICLE 19 is concerned that legislative changes proposed by the new government will affect the rule of law and will further hinder the prolonged quest for justice for the murdered investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. Additionally, we are alarmed that Fico has launched a new battle against critical media, and has made clear his ambition to severely restrict civic space. We call on the new government to fulfil its obligation to protect and enhance the tenets of democracy in Slovakia and retract from any moves that would undermine them.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned by the deteriorating situation for freedom of expression, media freedom and protection of civic space in Slovakia. The attempts to curtail the space for freedom of expression must be treated with the utmost seriousness by the international community.
We would like to highlight the following three concerns.
Accountability for violence against journalists and tackling corruption
On 6 December 2023, the Slovak Government tabled the proposal to abolish the Office of the Special Prosecutor and subsume it under the general prosecution branch of the law enforcement. The government agreed to approve the closure through fast-track legislative procedure. The move could result in shutting down operations as soon as 15 January.
The Special Prosecutor’s Office was established in 2004 to deal with the most serious crimes and sensitive corruption cases, including those linked to Fico’s SMER party. After its abolition, cases will be transferred to the Prosecutor General’s office, which had previously annulled investigations in several high-level corruption cases.
In its 2023 rule of law report on Slovakia, the European Commission sounded the alarm over allegations of politically-motivated decisions and recommended limiting the Prosecutor-General’s power. The imminent closure of the Special Prosecution has induced great concern over government accountability and the erosion of the rule of law in the country, specifically due to the key role the office plays in tackling corruption. The decision sparked nationwide outcry, including protests, and firm criticism from opposition politicians and President Zuzana Čaputová. The European Commission urged Slovakia to refrain from advancing on the amendments without ‘thorough consultation with stakeholders at national and European level’.
ARTICLE 19 is deeply concerned about what the closure of the Special Prosecution would mean for the struggle for justice for Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová. The Special Prosecutor was investigating their murder – a crime that sent shockwaves through Slovakia and eventually toppled the previous Fico government in 2018. Though the perpetrators have since been sentenced to long prison terms, the alleged mastermind, Marian Kočner, an entrepreneur with close ties to Fico’s Smer party, continues to evade punishment. Following a retrial that found him not guilty – a decision ARTICLE 19 and partners at Media Freedom Rapid Response strongly condemned at the time – Kočner’s case is set to be heard in the Supreme Court.
We recall that under international human rights standards, states must ensure accountability for all violence, threats and attacks against journalists through impartial, prompt, thorough, independent and effective investigations. The UN Human Rights Council Resolution 33/2 specifically calls for the creation of special investigative units to deal with crimes against journalists. We are concerned that dissolving the Special Prosecutor’s office will ultimately entrench the ongoing impunity, as securing full justice for the murder of Ján Kuciak and Martina Kušnírová. would become even harder. Ján Kuciak’s father was one of the first to sign a petition against plans to abolish the office.
Attacks on civil society and shrinking civic space
Following the signing of the coalition agreement in October, Robert Fico declared his intention to introduce a new law that would designate civil society organisations receiving funding from abroad as ‘foreign agents’. He also asserted that the incoming government marked the conclusion of ‘an era where Slovakia was ruled by non-governmental organisations’.
Although Fico attempted to draw parallels to the 1938 USA Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), his proposal mirrors a highly controversial Russian law that has long become a key means for the Kremlin’s crackdown on civil society. Given the nature of Slovak civic space, with foreign funding making up a crucial contribution to organisations’ budgets, the legislation would inevitably curtail their capacity to operate freely and engage in public interest issues.
ARTICLE 19 has long criticised attempts to restrict the work of civil society organisations through ‘foreign agents’ laws. Previously, we highlighted that these types of restrictions are rarely compatible with international and regional human rights standards. Democratic societies depend on vibrant civic space and the free flow of information. Restricting them does not bring stability. Instead, it fosters discontent with the suppression of fundamental human rights and foments instability.
Attacks on media freedom
ARTICLE 19’s concerns over the rule of law and the shrinking of civic space are compounded by the continued attacks against the media.
Shortly after assuming the Prime Minister’s post, Fico took aim at four leading media outlets: Markíza, Denník N, SME, and Aktuality.sk (where Ján Kuciak worked before his murder). Fico declared the outlets ‘hostile’ and accused them of spreading ‘hatred and absurdities’ and ‘doing politics’ without taking responsibility. He has made it clear that journalists associated with those outlets are not welcome to press conferences or on government premises.
ARTICLE 19 is concerned about these statements, especially in light of Fico’s and the SMER party’s long track record of targeting critical journalists. Over the years, Fico has been repeatedly hostile to journalists and engaged in smear campaigns against them. He has labelled journalists as ‘an organised criminal group with the aim of breaking Slovak statehood’ and encouraged the police to investigate them. In the lead up to the 2023 general elections, the SMER party published 174 social media posts smearing journalists. Verbal attacks, often fuelled by malicious remarks from top politicians, are a common tactic deployed by authorities, which ARTICLE 19 has documented around the world. In Slovakia, they constitute a primary threat to journalists, as they fuel impunity and contribute to the growing public distrust in the media. The Slovak government is also planning to cut the funding of the public broadcaster RTVS and divide the media into two separate entities.
ARTICLE 19 reminds Prime Minister Fico and the new government that banning journalists from entering government offices constitutes a breach of law and international standards. Both the Act on Publishers of Publications and the Act on Media Services require public authorities to provide information to the media.
ARTICLE 19’s recommendations
ARTICLE 19 urges PM Fico and the Slovak government to immediately refrain from further actions that undermine the fabric of a resilient civil society. A rushed procedure to abolish the Special Prosecutor, whose work has led to several successful convictions for corruption, is a blow to the independent judiciary and may jeopardise future attempts to hold power to account. The continued impunity for the murder of Kuciak and Kušnírová is the most prominent example. The government must commit to and take action to secure justice for Ján, Martina and their families – that includes putting on trial those who ordered the murder.
ARTICLE 19 also calls on the Slovak government to abandon the proposals for the harmful foreign agent law, which in other contexts has proved to be no more but a weapon against public participation.
Lastly, we reiterate that journalists should be able to carry out their vital public service and watchdog role without fear of intimidation or attack. A country that merely a few years ago mourned an investigative reporter killed for his valuable work must step up to protect independent media, not label them as enemies or turn the public against them.