• Ján Kuciak, a 27-year-old investigative journalist from Slovakia, and his fiancee were recently murdered in their home.
  • Their killers are unknown, but rumors range from the Mafia to Russian operatives.
  • It appears that the killings were related to Kuciak's reporting and writing.
  • Axel Springer CEO Mathias Döpfner explains how the rise of autocratic states around the globe has made commitment to freedom and protection of the press more important that ever.

We spent a year in anxiety, worrying about our colleague Deniz Yücel, imprisoned because he wrote things that the Turkish government did not like. He was a symbol for the risks taken by those who work for the truth. For example, the risk of sitting in prison, despite being innocent.

His situation ended well. Deniz Yücel is free.

Ján Kuciak is dead. The 27-year-old journalist from Slovakia was recently murdered, together with his fiancée Martina Kusnirova. The two of them had just moved into a new home and wanted to get married soon. The shells of the bullets that killed them lay next to their dead bodies. It was meant as a warning. A warning to other journalists who write things that some people do not want them to.

There are wild speculations about who the men behind the killers might be. Rumors range from the Calabrian Mafia, to Slovakian government circles, to Russia. It is probable that those responsible are enemies of freedom, people who are so afraid of unpleasant truths, so afraid of journalists that they are willing to carry out brutal murders for their cause.

The murder of Ján Kuciak is not an isolated case. In 2017, 74 journalists were murdered because they are journalists. According to Reporters without Borders, four journalists and two bloggers have been killed in 2018, though distinguishing between these two groups does not seem to me to make sense in this context. What is more, 307 journalists (and bloggers) are currently incarcerated somewhere because of their profession.

Expressing a commitment to freedom of the press is popular, and too often cheap. Especially when such sentiments of solidarity with those colleagues who risk their lives for the sake of independent and critical journalism are declared from the safety of a podium by speakers of sermons moved by their own morality. However, these days, such expressions of commitment are becoming more concrete and increasingly necessary for very sad reasons.

The megatrend sweeping the globe can hardly be ignored: Moderate democracies are becoming increasingly weaker. Autocratic states and their representatives (who we trivialize when we refer to them as populists) are becoming increasingly stronger. And the strongest of all are the dictatorships, systems that are infiltrating and taking over the economies and societies of one country after another. At the same time, they sentence to death people whose opinions and lifestyles they disapprove of. In such an environment, journalism is not only becoming more important, it is also becoming more dangerous.

Ján Kuciak stood for a new generation of journalists. He was a reporter for the digital news platform Aktuality, which Axel Springer operates together with the Swiss publisher Ringier. We have always been proud of this digital newspaper, because it proves that online journalism does not have to be superficial or irrelevant, but on the contrary can be especially profound, critical, and powerful. For months now, for example, Ján Kuciak had been reporting regularly in Aktuality about cases of purported tax fraud, and as a part of this story he was researching into the wheeling and dealing on a wider scale by Slovakia’s ruling party Smer.

He had his sights above all on prominent businessmen who, according to his investigations, were supposed to have business contacts to the ruling Social Democrats and organized crime circles. The reporter and his team were always unbending in their attitude. Attempts to intimidate them were not bowed down to — even when they knew that the police had failed to start any investigations into tangible dangers.

Ján Kuciak has now paid for this unbending attitude with his life.

One of the few consoling aspects of this tragedy is that, in the end, it is digitization that is thwarting the plans of his murderers. Ján Kuciak had saved the (preliminary) results of his research digitally and decentralized in such a way that, if something happened to him, people he could trust would be able to access the information. And that is precisely what is now happening. The texts that have thus emerged are not only being published in Slovakia, but also in many European publications (like WELT, for example) and reaching an international public.

Which means that just the opposite of what the murderers intended is happening: Research work and its results will not be suppressed, they will be spread to give them maximum coverage. The likelihood that the murderers and their dirty deeds will be uncovered in this way has increased considerably. A wave of research carried out in solidarity might now be the impressive retaliation of the rule of law. The commonly expressed gesture would be: We will not give up until the perpetrators are found.

We should do everything in our power to achieve this. We owe it to the two victims.

Mathias Döpfner is CEO of Axel Springer.