“Justice is the best prevention”
An interview with American director Matt Sarnecki, creator of the documentary “The Killing of a Journalist”. Interviewer: Aleksej Tilman.
On February 25th 2018, the bodies of Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were found in their home in Veľká Mača, not far from Bratislava. The murder shocked the country, sparking the biggest protests in Slovakia since the fall of communism and leading to a political crisis that would culminate on March 15th with the resignation of Prime Minister Robert Fico.
On May 19th, the entrepreneur Márian Kočner, the suspected mastermind behind the killing, was acquitted by the Special Criminal Court. As the country approaches parliamentary elections later this year, we discussed the current situation in Slovakia with Matt Sarnecki, the director of the related film called “The Killing of a Journalist”.
ALEKSEJ TILMAN: Why did you decide to film “The Killing of a Journalist”?
MATT SARNECKI: It is a long story. The most direct reason is that I had previously filmed a documentary on the killing of journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv in 2016. That was an investigative documentary where I used CCTV footage to try to identify some of the suspects and highlight the problems with the police investigation.
When Ján and Martina’s bodies were found, people from within my organisation (Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project, OCCRP) and Ján’s friends asked me to go to the crime scene and do something similar to what I did in Ukraine with “Killing Pavel”.
I went there and realised that, obviously, Ukraine is very different from Slovakia. The police were unwilling to hand over any of the CCTV footage and the neighbours and mayor were reticent to help us. We did get some CCTV, but nothing that got us any leads.
During that visit, I worked with one of Ján’s best friends, Eva Kubaniová. In turn, Eva began collaborating with the journalist Pavla Holcová, who, in addition to conducting the journalistic investigation into Kuciak and Kušnírová’s murders, would become one of the protagonists of the documentary.
When the case file was leaked almost two years later [the reasons why this happened are covered in the film and Matt wrote about this here], Pavla began to pass me information about what was found on Márian Kočner’s phone. This included details not only about the assassination but also about political corruption in Slovakia.
That was really the point when I realised that I was not going to make another film about the murder of a journalist, but that “The Killing of a Journalist” was going to be a story about the corruption leading to Ján and Martina’s murders. I have been looking for years into the dynamics of “captured states” and it was a very interesting way to tell the story.
The film “Killing Pavel”
One of the most puzzling figures in “The Killing of a Journalist” is Márian Kočner’s defence lawyer Marek Para. Could you tell us how you approached him and how was your relationship with him during the filming?
Para is my favorite character in the film because you rarely have access to the lawyer of the accused, especially when they are well-known figures like Márian Kočner. On top of that, Marek Para is not just Kočner’s lawyer, he is also representing Tibor Gašpar [the former president of the Slovak police who resigned a few months after the murders] and Robert Fico. He is a sort of “go-to” lawyer for all those individuals that are wrapped up in the old political system.
We contacted him because when you make a documentary you want to hear from both sides. When we asked him for a meeting to discuss his participation, we expected him to refuse. Instead, he invited us to a meeting at his office and I was very straightforward in explaining why I wanted him to participate.
It was not to make him look good. I told him that we were going to have the lawyers of Ján and Martina’s families in the documentary and that they were going to give their robust arguments to demonstrate why Kočner might be guilty. I wanted him to give the best arguments that would say that Kočner is innocent. And, through dramatic story telling, I wanted him to actually do the best that he possibly could to represent his client because it would make the documentary much better.
In a way, I was rooting for him and I explained this to him. One of his concerns was that I was going to look at the messages between himself and Kočner that were in the leaked data. And I was very honest and said that I was not interested in that. I was focusing on allowing him to give the best defence of his client.
Given that, I still did not expect him to accept and I do respect the fact that he agreed to participate. I think he did quite a good job representing Kočner and the film was much better thanks to his participation.
Regarding how it was to be with him, he almost had the aura of a hipster. Of course, he was trying to charm me, the same with the other lawyers. Everyone is trying to make themselves look good. He was very gracious. We talked a lot in between the filming just about life and I was very curious asking about his family and what they think about him representing these controversial individuals. He was a pleasant person to work with, he was very cooperative. More cooperative than a lot of other people we ended up dealing with in the documentary.
I do not want to comment on whether he does it for the money or because he really believes that it is important to have the best criminal defence possible in a democracy.
I tried to give an accurate portrait of him and his job. We invited him to the premiere, but he declined. He might feel that he was not portrayed well in the documentary. I am sorry that he thinks that way, but I believe that we were very fair.
Trailer for “The Killing of a Journalist”
Moving on to the current situation in Slovakia, on May 19th, the Special Criminal Court found Kočner not guilty of ordering the assassination. Judges again ruled that prosecutors had not presented the evidence necessary to rule beyond reasonable doubt that Kočner had ordered the journalist’s death. What are the next steps in the trial?
It is hard for me to pass judgment. “The Killing of a Journalist” was not meant to determine whether Kočner is guilty or innocent, but it was aimed at presenting a picture of politics in Slovakia. I was expecting the court’s decision and there will be an appeal.
The families’ lawyers have already said they will appeal the decision and the trial will go back to the Supreme Court. It will probably take another year before the next sentence.
As for the May 19th verdict, I found it interesting that Alena Zsuzsová – a close associate of Kočner – was found guilty of ordering Ján and Martina’s murders. Without considering how the judicial system works, it is logically difficult to understand why Zsuzsová has been found guilty but Kočner has not. For example, she did not have the motives and the means to organise the murders but it is not really my role to express an opinion about it.
I could say that I respect the court’s decision and it does not matter if I believe it is right or wrong. There were problems with the case. There is no direct evidence linking Kočner. There are no fingerprints on the gun, nothing like that. It is not an open and shut case.
I would just say that I respect the decision. I feel horrible for the families just because they were looking for closure. They believe that Kočner was guilty but let the judicial process play out.
In the last part of “The Killing of a Journalist”, one of the protagonists says that the European Union should stop giving funds to Slovakia to make the authorities act against corruption. At the movie screening I attended, journalist Lukáš Diko, the editor-in-chief of the Ján Kuciak Investigative Center, repeated the same idea. Would you agree with this approach? Do you think it is the most effective way to fight corruption?
First of all, it is one opinion, not everyone’s opinion. It is not easy to say that the European Union must stop funding countries with deep corruption problems even when, in places such as Slovakia and Hungary, there is evidence that such funds end up in the hands of people connected to the power system.
I do not think there is one answer. Cutting funds to countries may not necessarily solve the problem. There are potential unintended consequences from doing something like that. For example, populist politicians might say: “Okay, the European Union is not our future. If they do not finance us, let’s go our own way, let’s look East.”
This is what is happening in Hungary. The government is looking East, towards Russia. Even if you look at Slovakia, Fico, who once was considered a pro-western politician, has become more sympathetic to the Russian cause.
So, I am not saying that cutting funds is the solution because it could backfire. There will always be different narratives, misinformation and reinterpretations concerning the events.
After the May 19th sentence, I was thinking about why Fico defended Kočner publicly. What was the political utility of that? I have concluded that he did it to muddy the waters. Since we do not know what is true and what is not, people do not believe anything and start thinking that everything is a conspiracy. The same thing has happened in the United States with Donald Trump.
In summary, to answer the question, I would say that I do not think this is the answer due to its unintended consequences. But, at the same time, there should be consequences for Ján’s death. If European funds are being used by politicians to get rich, then maybe it is better to cut them.
In a sense, the same reasoning can be made regarding the sanctions against Russia. By sanctioning Russia, are we punishing the average citizen or the regime? Will the average citizen blame the West for the sanctions or their own government? Sometimes various tools can be used. Even Joe Biden said that sanctions are something we resort to in order not to go to war.
Will there be a follow-up to “The Killing of a Journalist”?
I am currently working on other projects. I am following the trial, but there will not be another documentary. As I said earlier, “The Killing of a Journalist” did not try to answer the question of whether Kočner is innocent or guilty. We will probably add more title cards at the end but that is not going to change the audience’s experience of watching this film.
I am very interested in seeing what will happen in Slovakia with the elections in September. Direction – Slovak Social Democracy (Fico’s party) is currently polling first and Peter Pellegrini’s party [the prime minister between 2018 and 2020] is polling second.
I think that it is likely that Fico will return to power. What would it mean for Ján’s legacy and the massive protests after his killing? COVID-19 and the complete incompetence of the current government have brought the country to this situation, but I hope that, whatever happens, some lessons have been learned and an environment like the one that led to the murder of Ján and Martina will not be recreated.
I always ask myself how to prevent such cases and the answer is always democratic institutions. If we look at Russia, many journalists have been killed over the last twenty years, and in no case has the instigator been identified. At least, in the European Union with Ján in Slovakia and also Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, the alleged masterminds have been charged. And that shows the importance of democratic institutions and the rule of law.
Justice is the best prevention.
This article was originally published in Italian on the Meridiano 13 website and social media channels.
Matt Sarnecki is a senior producer at Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and produces documentaries and investigation explainers. His previous documentary “Killing Pavel”, about the murder of investigative journalist Pavel Sheremet in Kyiv, Ukraine, won the Investigative Reporters and Editors Medal in 2017 and the DIG Award (Italy) in 2018.
Aleksej Tilman is an Italian Communications Specialist with a strong interest in the Caucasus. He covers the region for Meridiano 13 and other outlets, including Q Code Magazine and Valigia Blu.
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