Thousands of Slovaks Protest Against Corruption After Murders

(Bloomberg) -- Thousands of people took to the streets across Slovakia to protest against corruption after the murder of a journalist who reported on alleged links between organized crime gangs and people close to the government.

More than 10,000 people marched in freezing temperatures in the capital Bratislava and thousands more gathered in other cities on Friday, according to newspaper reports and television footage. Police declined to give any crowd estimates for the demonstrations, which were organized by civic groups in reaction to the first high-profile murder of a journalist in the small post-communist European Union member last week.

The protests are escalating pressure on Premier Robert Fico, who oversaw his country’s entry to the euro zone and an economic boom fueled by foreign investment but has faced public discontent over shortcomings in tackling corruption. The premier, now in the middle of his third four-year term, has so far defied calls to fire the interior minister, who is one of his closest allies in the cabinet.

“We have to defend ourselves, and our defense is the truth,” Martin M. Simecka, a member of the editorial board of newspaper Dennik N, told the crowd at one of Bratislava’s main squares. “I wish I could say that we can count on this government in our defense. But I can’t say it, because I don’t believe it.”

The country of 5.4 million was rattled when police found reporter Jan Kuciak and his fiancee shot dead in an execution-style attack. Officials have said the killings may be linked to Kuciak’s investigations into activities of organized crime gangs, including the Italian mafia.

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Press freedom in Slovakia hasn’t declined as much as in its neighbors Hungary or Poland, but tensions have risen between the government and news outlets after a spate of reports on opaque procurement and tax-fraud cases linked to politicians.

Christophe Deloire, the director-general of Reporters Without Borders, on Friday said he asked Fico to “express regret after insulting journalists and commit to avoid weakening investigative journalism.” Fico has for years attacked media for publishing what he said were unsubstantiated reports of connections between state officials and illegal deals. He has likened journalists to "filthy prostitutes."

In his last story, Kuciak’s linked several businesses operating in Slovakia to the Italian mafia and detailed past connections between the companies and two of Fico’s aides. The officials -- a security council director and a former contestant in the Slovak round of Miss Universe pageant who worked as Fico’s assistant -- stepped down until the investigation is completed. They both rejected any connection with the murders.

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