The role of a documentary in showing the power of the independent press

1557. This is the number of journalists who have been killed worldwide since 1993. The UNESCO Observatory of Killed Journalists also reported that 55 journalists were killed in 2021.

Two-thirds of these horrendous acts took place in countries where there was no armed conflict, meaning the journalists’ daily reporting and exposing wrongdoings are endangering them. [1] This fact eerily resembles the murder of the investigative Slovakian journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová. The heinous crime, which shocked Eastern Europe was brought to screen by US-born, Bucharest-based video producer and director Matt Sarnecki.

Here I would like to focus on the documentary's role in emphasizing the influence of media on political and societal change. Corruption, bribery, and mafia-style groups exist everywhere on earth. The people who commit or participate in these crimes are usually captured by the authorities. But in some cases, the police need a lead so they can start the investigation, and this is where the investigative journalists come into the picture. Ján Kuciak focused on cases of tax evasion, including ones related to the then-ruling PM Robert Fico and Marian Kočner, a Slovakian businessman. We learn throughout the film that Ján Kuciak was very passionate about his journalistic work and his future life with his fiancé. Matt Sarneck’s direction shows how the businessman kept the Slovakian state in his pockets, thus we understand why Kuciak felt it is important to reveal his dirty secrets. Politicians, police officers, lawyers, and judges were all his puppets. When Kočner felt cornered by Kuciak first he threatened the journalist and then ordered his murder. One could ask: “How did he think that he could get away with his crimes?”. Easily, since he was controlling the court and the police from the inside. Meaning that the criminal justice system that was supposed to keep Slovakian people safe was only a spider web of corrupted people.

As more and more details started to emerge about the misconduct of these officials, protests were held all over the country. Eventually, PM Robert Fico was forced to resign. Resignations of the Minister of Culture, almost immediately, and two Ministers of the Interior followed. [2] The documentary presents strong and emotional scenes of the people who were saying slogans like ”Enough of Smer” (Slovak Social Democracy, Robert Fico’s party). The citizens could only show their frustration and anger towards the government, but they wouldn’t know the level of corruption in the system, thus journalists were needed in the investigation. Fortunately, Ján Kuciak’s former colleague Pavla Holcová received a massive leak of 70 terabytes of documents, including Kočner's emails and phone records by an anonymous source. The amount of data that the journalists had to deal with looked never-ending but they wanted to serve justice to Kuciak so they continued their work even if it was risky.

The scenes of the heartbroken parents, the tearful colleagues, and the angry protestors take the audience on an emotional rollercoaster. These elements and the interviews make us feel grief, anger, and injustice. This reminded me of the German-Romanian director Alexander Nanau’s film Collective (2020) in which journalists uncover healthcare fraud in the wake of a deadly nightclub fire in Bucharest, Romania, in 2015. In both films, one tragedy and a handful of journalists are responsible for unravelling the ugly truth that lies beneath the corrupt systems. The case is similar to Alexander Nanau’s film, which reveals how diluted disinfectants led to multiple hospital infections in which the victims of the fire have tragically passed away. This film points out how the so-called labs and the mafia-like-styled hospital managers were taking advantage of the healthcare system.

As mentioned earlier, Ján Kuciak was getting serious threats from the oligarch, Kočner, but the police wouldn’t take it seriously even though the journalist reported it. Kuciak was let down by the justice system which he was partly trying to protect, and many victims of the nightclub fire were let down by the healthcare system which in an ideal world should be saving them.

In my opinion, the documentary misses to address two important questions related the investigative journalists. First, how have the investigative journalists coped with the murder of their colleague? And how has this incident changed their everyday journalistic practices and routines when it comes to achieving and maintaining safety? According to Urbániková & Haniková’s article, the most frequently mentioned action that helped Ján Kuciak’s colleagues to get through the emotionally challenging period was working hard. [3] And almost all the journalists admitted that at some point after the murder, they felt unsafe and in danger, and feared for themselves and their families.

In both films, the free and independent press will call out corruption, injustice, hypocrisy, and bribery. As Oscar Wilde would say: “The truth is rarely pure and never simple.” However, investigative journalists would go after the truth even if meant for them potentially risking their lives.


Dimashky-Korompai Tímea
ELTE BTK Film Studies


[1] Bajada, S. (2020). The protection and safety of journalists in the EU (Bachelor's thesis, University of Malta)

[2] Školkay, A. (2019). What does the murder of a journalist, and follow-up events, tell us about freedom of the press and politics in a European country?. Central European Journal of Communication, 12(1 (22)), 25-43.

[3] Urbániková, M., & Haniková, L. (2021). Coping with the Murder: The Impact of Ján Kuciak’s Assassination on Slovak Investigative Journalists. Journalism Practice, 1-21.