The Editor Leading the Fight for Independent Journalism in Slovakia
DESPITE THREATS TO PRESS FREEDOM IN THE COUNTRY, Kostolný and his team of journalists plough ahead.
It has been a tumultuous year in Slovakia. Last February, Jan Kuciak, a young investigative journalist reporting on suspected links between the Italian mafia and the Slovak government, was murdered in his home outside Bratislava, along with his fiancée. Kuciak’s death led to the country’s largest demonstrations since the Velvet Revolution of 1989, with tens of thousands of people protesting in the streets calling for a “decent” Slovakia. Within a month, Prime Minister Robert Fico and his entire cabinet were forced to resign.
This March, the country elected civil activist and lawyer Zuzana Čaputová, who campaigned on a promise to “stand up to evil,” as its new president. The country is now fighting to define its identity as a liberal, progressive democracy in the run-up to the upcoming European elections.
In the midst of all this stands Matúš Kostolný, the editor-in-chief of Denník N, an online news portal that is working tirelessly to keep independent journalism alive in a system where money can often buy media support.
Kostolný launched Denník N in 2015 after the newspaper he was working for was bought out by Penta, a Slovak financial company known to have been complicit in numerous high-profile corruption scandals.
“Penta is not just a financial group, but a symbol of corruption in Slovakia,” says Kostolný. “We knew what their idea of independent journalism was, and that idea was completely different from ours. So, I decided I would leave to form a new independent newspaper. To my surprise, half of the newsroom came with me.”
Since then, Denník N has emerged as a voice of truth for Slovak readers. The news site mixes daily news coverage with investigative pieces that doggedly challenge complacency and corruption in the Slovak government.
Kostolný and his team have quickly earned the trust of the public, gaining over 30,000 paid subscribers in the last two years—more than any other paper in the country.
“I think the reason people support us is because we are really independent,” Kostolný explains. “We don’t have any political influence behind us, we don’t have any oligarch paying to have his own voice in the paper. We are dependent only on our readers.”
This journalistic independence is no small feat in the country today. Over the last two years, Slovakia has slid down 15 places on the World Press Freedom index rankings, and troubling details about the governing party’s connections to Jan Kuciak’s murder continue to emerge. Last month, Marian Kočner, a powerful businessman with known ties to the ruling party Smer, was arrested on charges of ordering Kuciak’s death. On April 1, the country’s Deputy General Prosecutor resigned after it was revealed that he had been communicating closely with Kočner since 2017.
“Before the murder of Jan Kuciak, I thought Slovakia was a normal, democratic European country where journalists were not killed,” says Kostolný. “But now we are thinking much more about the danger our journalists face and we are trying to act bravely.”
Despite the risks, Kostolný and his team have reasons to be hopeful about the future of press and politics in their country. Denník N continues to gain more readers every month. Many of their most popular articles are long-form investigative pieces challenging corruption and government secrecy.
“Last year was a tragic year in Slovakia, but the reaction of the people was very optimistic,” he says. “It gives me hope that in fact, there are many people in Slovakia who care about their country, and who care about journalism. They are not afraid.”
This article appears in Are We Europe #4: This Is Not An Elections Issue