Editor’s Note: Kate Maltby is a regular broadcaster and columnist in the United Kingdom on issues of culture and politics and is a theater critic for The Times of London. She is also completing a doctorate in Renaissance literature, having been awarded a collaborative doctoral degree between Yale University and University College London. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.
In Košice, Slovakia’s second largest city, citizens gathered Tuesday morning to watch as a fire engulfed the regional tax office. It was the second major drama to hit the city in two days. On Sunday night, police found the bodies of 27-year-old Ján Kuciak and his fiancée, Martina Kušnírová. Kuciak, a respected journalist, had been investigating links between local businessmen, mafia and national politicians in a major tax-evasion scandal.
The burning tax office held the very documents to which Kuciak had sought access. Tibor Gaspar, the head of the Slovak police, said it was likely Kuciak’s murder was connected to his work and Slovakian Prime Minister Robert Fico is offering a reward of 1 million euros for information about the murder.
Threats to journalists aren’t new in contemporary Europe. But the recent increase in violence is dramatic. Kuciak’s murder comes within six months of the death of Daphne Caruana Galizia, who was killed by a car bomb in Malta while investigating alleged fraud by members of the government. Last month, the European Banking Authority confirmed that it was conducting preliminary inquiries into the Pilatus bank, a Maltese financial entity that had been suing Caruana Galizia at the time of her death. She had accused the bank of inappropriate and undeclared links with the family of Malta’s Prime Minister and alleged that the latter was heavily involved in international tax evasion. As Ján Kuciak may well have learned this week in Slovakia, investigating the finances of senior politicians can be a dangerous activity.
Condemning the murder of Kuciak, censorship watchdog Index on Censorship also pointed out that another journalist investigating corruption in Eastern Europe, Parim Olluri, was seriously assaulted outside his home in Pristina, Kosovo, last August. He had recently published a major editorial on corruption by former Kosovo Liberation Army commanders, which had led to him being condemned as disloyal to the Kosovar cause on social media.
The EU has condemned the killings of both Caruana Galizia and Kuciak, with senior figures tweeting Tuesday that they would pressure Slovakia for a full investigation. But it is a mark of the EU’s failing authority that it is no longer able to guarantee within its borders its much-vaunted values of liberal democracy like freedom of the press. Caruana Galizia’s son Andrew tweeted Monday, “my family warned the EU Commission that with my mother Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination Malta had set a new standard of permissible behavior within the EU and that others would soon die if decisive action isn’t taken.”
Why this should matter to international readers? Perhaps because human rights are everybody’s business. But perhaps also because the atrophy of media freedom is a contagious disease. It spreads from nation to nation. It is clear, as her son argues, that Caruana Galizia’s unsolved murder has emboldened other powerful and shady figures in Europe to kill and threaten other journalists with impunity. It is also clear that the growing trend by American politicians to demonize the journalistic profession has implications for the safety of journalists abroad.
Last year, the watchdog Freedom House reported that global press freedom had declined to its lowest point in 13 years in 2016. Although American journalists remained safer than their international counterparts, the nonprofit report indicated that “When political leaders in the United States lambast the media, it encourages their counterparts abroad to do the same.”
President Trump’s fondness for the phrase ‘fake news’ is well known. What is less well known is that since his arrival on the global stage, the world’s most authoritarian dictators have adopted Trump’s catch phrase to justify imprisoning journalists.
As Senator Jeff Flake noted in his resignation speech last year, the Syrian dictator Bashir Assad responded to an Amnesty International report that 13,000 people had been killed at his Saydnayaprison by saying, “you can forge anything these days, we are living in a fake news era.” Last December in Myanmar, officials described the very existence of the Rohingya minority, and their killing by Buddhist nationalists, as ‘fake news’.
Shortly after these remarks were reported, Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, were arrested in Myanmar while investigating genocide against the Rohingya people. They remain in jail. Their final report, published by Reuters during their trial, makes clear that their work constituted an admirable and comprehensible indictment of crimes against humanity by policemen and paramilitaries. Most journalists jailed around the world, like Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, are held on charges such as possession of state secrets or terrorism, but according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 21 are now imprisoned on the Trump-esque charge of ‘false news’.
President Trump has stood by as his favorite dictators have ridden roughshod over the rights of journalists. At least 177 journalists in the Philippines have been killed since 1986; four since the arrival of President Duterte in June 2016 – but that didn’t stop President Trump from laughing at a joint press conference as Duterte dismissed the journalists in the room as “spies.” Last May, the official newspaper of the Chinese regime ran the headline: “Trump is right, fake news is the enemy, something China has known for years.” It concluded: “Given US President Trump’s frequent claims that his nation’s leading media outlets are mass producing fake news in order to advance their own political agendas, it’s rational to at least wonder if negative stories about China by the Western media are fabricated lies.” No doubt the People’s Daily would also claim it’s a foreign lie that 41 journalists are currently behind bars in China.
There is, of course, a difference between the murder of journalists by private enemies and the intimidation of them by the state. Ján Kuciak and Daphne Caruana Galizia were not prosecuted by the government, although both seem to have angered some very powerful politicians before their murders. But whether or not these murders were directly linked to journalists’ confrontations of those with power, threats to journalists and the normalization of a culture of “fake news” can bleed into each other. In January of this year, a man was arrested after repeatedly calling the CNN offices to issue threats such as “Fake News. I’m coming to gun you all down.” When the US President repeatedly labels a news organization “fake news,” can he really wash his hands of responsibility when an individual actor uses that rhetoric to frame a death threat?
Journalists who expose the corrupt and the powerful deserve protection, no matter where they live. That requires legal protection for their activities. But it also requires a culture that accepts the importance of telling difficult truths about the ruling class. As long as the US president continues to portray journalism as the professional refuge of the pesky and parasitic, that culture is undermined in Košice as is it in DC.