As It Happens

Canadian friend remembers 'gifted' Slovak journalist, murdered amid corruption investigation

Canadian journalist Tom Nicholson remembers his friend and colleague Jan Kuciak, who was murdered while investigating connections between the Italian Mafia and the Slovakian government.
Hundreds of candles have been placed in front of a portrait of Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kusnirova in the center of Bratislava. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images)
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Tom Nicholson said reading the investigation by the slain Slovakian journalist  — who was also his friend and colleague — was a "bittersweet" moment, because there was still so much more of the story for Jan Kuciak to tell. 

The 27-year-old reporter and his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, were found shot in their home last weekend.

Police are saying that the killing is likely connected to Kuciak's investigation into alleged links between the Slovakian government and the Italian Mafia.

The investigation, published in the Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project after Kuziak's death, alleges that two top advisors to Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico have business relationships with members of the notorious Italian 'Ndrangheta Mafia, and that those Mafia members are embezzling European Union funds intended to boost Slovakia's economy. 

Nicholson is a Canadian journalist who recently resettled in Ladysmith, B.C., after living in Slovakia for 26 years. He began to investigate this story in 2015, but said he was never able to ever confirm the link between the government and Italian Mafia the way Kuciak did.   

He spoke with As It Happens host Carol Off about Kuciak's work. Here is part of their conversation. 

Tom, what was it like to read and see Jan's story, published today?

It was bittersweet because there was some fine reporting in it, but it's clear that the story was unfinished because Jan lost his life before he could complete the job.

Slovakia's top police officer says investigative reporter Jan Kuciak was shot dead in his home together with his girlfriend. They were found dead on Sunday evening in their house in the town of Velka Maca, east of the capital, Bratislava. (Aktuality.sk via Associated Press)

What was the connection that Jan Kuciak was making between the Italian Mafia and the Slovak government?

He was tracing the antecedents of some Italian nationals who have been located in Slovakia for at least 10 years ... and have been doing business there with Eurofunds — which are transfers from European Union countries to poorer countries to bring them up to speed economically.

And what he was showing was that these Italians have family connections and direct connections to the 'Ndrangheta organized crime group in Italy. And that in fact they not only were receiving enormous largesse from these Eurofunds in Slovakia, but that the ringleader, Nino Vadala, had actually formed companies and done business specifically with two people in the prime minister's office. 

One young lady, a former beauty contestant whom the prime minister himself elevated to the position of his senior advisor in 2015. And another man who was the head of security council in the prime minister's office. So these were fairly close political relatives of the prime minister himself.

And these two people are very close to the prime minister and he found a direct link between them and the Italian Mafia.

That's correct. And the specific link was that they had formed companies together.

But also that this Italian's Facebook page was full of endorsements of the ruling party. Pictures of him with his arms around the shoulders and thumbs up with members of the ruling party and so on.

So it wasn't just a pair of otherwise uninteresting links, it seemed to be part of a pattern.

Picture taken near the village of Velka Maca, Slovakia, shows front pages of various Slovakian newspapers reflecting on murder of Slovak investigative journalist Jan Kuciak and his girlfriend Martina Kusnirova. (Michal Smrcok/News and Media Holding via AP)

Did Jan ever speak about fearing for his life?  

No he didn't. He graduated from university five years ago and that was the first time he wrote me.

At the time I'd just been fired from my job for reporting on a scandal against the wishes of my employer and he said…"I love the reporting and it really confirms to me that I'm in the right job because I really want to do something meaningful."

And that's, in fact, what he ended up doing. Very quickly, within five years, he established himself as a very gifted and conscientious reporter.

It was also his fiancée, Martina Kusnirova, killed at the same time and the police are definitely linking this to Mr. Kuciak's reporting. So what's been the reaction in Slovakia, as far as you can tell?

As far as I can tell, almost universal disgust. And not quite a losing of hope, but it's definitely a seminal moment because corruption... for a long time has been an organizing principle of Slovak politics.  

But this is something different. This is not only organized crime directly connected to the prime minister's office, but also a really heart-wrenching murder of a young couple who were just about to get married. And honestly they were just children.

Prime Minister Robert Fico said his government was offering one million euros ($1.2 million) for information leading to the killers' capture. (Vladimir Simicek/Getty Images)

There is a photo of the prime minister of Slovakia, Robert Fico, who is announcing that there is a reward of one million Euros for any information. But at the same time this story is about his office, about people close to him. What do you make of that?

It's a stunningly tone deaf reaction. On the one hand, yes it does show that he has this dawning awareness that this is something that's really, really going to be politically difficult to overcome.

But on the other hand it's cartoonish, comical and absurd and just low.

I don't know, I mean I think everyone normal at least shook their head and said, "My God, what are we doing?"

And have we heard anything from the two people in his office who are tied, according to Jan's article, to the Italian Mafia?

Yes. Yesterday the prime minister was warning people not to report names because the innocent will be injured by this. And today Ms. Trošková and Mr. Jasaň left their jobs and said they would be gone until the conclusion of the investigation.

But it's not going to end there. The culture minister resigned saying he couldn't continue to serve in the wake of this event.

And, OK, the culture minister may not be an earth-shattering move, but he is one of the founders of the prime minister's party so it is more significant than it appears on the outside.   

With files from the Associated Press. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

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