PM shooting hits ‘hostile’ Slovak media hard

Bratislava, Slovakia — When four bullets fired by a lone gunman hit Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico, Matus Kostolny’s life as a journalist quickly went from hard to harder.

The 49-year-old editor-in-chief of the independent Dennik N daily, branded “hostile” by the government, immediately started getting threats from readers and accusations from Fico’s political allies.

“Ten minutes after we ran the story about the prime minister being shot, I started receiving messages that I am to blame, that I have blood on my hands and will pay for it,” Kostolny told AFP.

“From day one some politicians from the governing coalition have been saying that… it is certain media including Dennik N that bear responsibility for the attack,” he said in an interview.

Domestic media had in 2018 unveiled links between the Italian mafia and Fico’s government, sparking protests that led to his resignation.

Fico is in intensive care following two long operations, but his life is no longer in danger.

He is serving his fourth term as prime minister of the EU and NATO member of 5.4 million people, leading a coalition of two centrist parties and a smaller nationalist one.

He secured this term when his centrist Smer party won a general election in September, calling for a truce over Russia’s invasion of neighboring Ukraine.

Shortly after, Fico banned four Slovak media — Dennik N, Aktuality, Denník SME and TV Markiza — from entering the government building, labeling them as “hostile media” and “unwelcome guests.”

“We have earned the label of a hostile outlet by existing and doing the kind of journalism we are doing, asking without flattering and publishing critical texts,” said Kostolny.

“Politicians don’t like this, not only Robert Fico… who actually assaulted us from the day we were established.”

Fico’s government is also pushing a controversial bill giving it control over the RTVS public television and radio broadcaster.

A breaking point

As an independent daily, Dennik N gets most of its income from readers, Kostolny said.

It was founded by a group of journalists in 2014. Four years later, Slovakia was shaken by the murder of Aktuality journalist Jan Kuciak and his fiancée.

An article by Kuciak, published posthumously, reported on government links with the mafia and open war followed between the prime minister and the media.

“Jan Kuciak’s murder was a breaking point. At that time, the society split into us and them,” said Kostolny.

He added Fico had to become more pragmatic as he was trying to avoid prison, chased by media looking for motives behind the Kuciak murder.

“He needed to win the (2023) election and come back to salvage his freedom,” Kostolny said.

Fico shifted toward extreme politics, using a stronger language to woo voters outside the typical Smer electorate.

Extremely dangerous

His uncompromising stance on journalists was reflected by the international Media Freedom Index for 2024, published by Reporters Without Borders, in which Slovakia slid 12 places to 29th in the world.

Its authors singled Fico out — alongside Hungary’s Viktor Orban — as “politicians… trying to reduce the space for independent journalism.”

Kostolny said Wednesday’s attack had made things even worse and that he now expected politicians to interfere in media work.

Deputy Prime Minister Robert Kalinak, Fico’s closest ally, said that media “lies” were the reason “why Robert Fico is fighting for his life today.”

“At the moment the atmosphere is so heated. They are pointing fingers and saying journalists, especially those from Dennik N, are partly responsible for the attack,” said Kostolny.

“This is extremely dangerous, because once you start dealing with problems using violence, you can’t be sure it will not continue.”

A father of two sons, Kostolny said he “would be lying” if he said he was not afraid.

“I’m not sure what we are in for. Over the six years since Jan Kuciak’s murder, we have found out what Fico is capable of,” he said.

“On the other hand, I’m absolutely determined to continue the service we have to provide. I can’t take fright just because they’re attacking us.”

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