Slovak journalist Jan Kuciak was investigating possible links between political figures in his country and the Italian mafia before he and his girlfriend were murdered, Slovakian media reported on Tuesday.
The bodies of Kuciak (27) and Martina Kusnirova were found at his home in a village east of the capital, Bratislava, on Sunday. They had both been shot, in a killing that police said was probably connected to the reporter’s investigative work.
The crime shocked a country in which scandal-tainted politicians and businessmen often denounce journalists, but physical attacks on the press are rare.
To add to the sense of unease in the nation of 5.4 million, a major fire on Tuesday struck the main tax office in Kosice in eastern Slovakia, where Kuciak had reportedly been looking into suspicions of tax and EU-funding fraud involving local businessmen and the Calabrian mafia, known as the ‘Ndrangheta.
Sme, a major Slovak newspaper, said Kuciak had been investigating possible links between the ‘Ndrangheta, figures close to Slovakia’s ruling Smer party, and an adviser to the country’s prime minister, Robert Fico.
“Connecting innocent people with a double murder – that crosses the line,” Mr Fico said on Tuesday when asked if his associates could be implicated in the case.
He spoke to journalists with interior minister Robert Kalinak and police chief Tibor Gaspar, standing beside a table stacked with what they said was €1 million in cash – the government’s reward for anyone helping to solve the murder.
Mr Gaspar confirmed that police investigators were in contact with colleagues in Italy and investigating a possible link to the ‘Ndrangheta.
“We are also checking out that theory, and we are working with everyone who comes to our attention,” he said.
Mr Fico, who has led Slovakia for most of the past decade, has assigned the case to a special team of prosecutors, intelligence agents and police investigators.
Kuciak published stories on possible shady dealings connected with a luxury apartment block in Bratislava, and last year he complained to the police about threats received from a businessman featured in his articles.
The residential complex has been at the centre of a scandal in recent years, due to alleged tax fraud in the sale of flats belonging to Ladislav Basternak, a property developer and business associate of Mr Kalinak.
Mr Fico happens to live in a rented apartment owned by Mr Basternak; they, and Mr Kalinak, deny any impropriety or illegal activity.
People have been laying flowers and candles at a makeshift memorial to Kuciak and Ms Kusnirova in Bratislava, where a major protest march is planned for Friday to denounce crime and corruption and demand that their killers are caught.