Crowds protest against former Slovak PM’s attack on media

BRATISLAVA (Reuters) – Thousands took to the streets of Slovakia on Friday demanding former prime minister Robert Fico stop public attacks on the media and civil society groups eight months after he was pushed out of office by the furor over the murder of a journalist.

Fico resigned under pressure from mass demonstrations in March but remains chairman of the ruling Smer party and protesters on Friday said he was still driving policy behind the scenes.

Crowds massed in the capital and seven towns in rallies organized by ‘For A Decent Slovakia’ – a group of mostly students and NGOs which has organized a string of demonstrations against Fico and says it has no link to the opposition.

Organizers said they were angered when Fico released a video message on Tuesday addressed to “the clowns in the media”, telling them: “We will win the general elections again and I hope it hits … you really hard.”

In Slovak, “hit” can mean ‘impact’ as well as ‘shoot’. A day later, more than 300 journalists wrote an open letter saying Fico’s words made them a target and appeared to be a reference to the murder of journalist Jan Kuciak in February.

Kuciak, who had been working on a story on EU subsidy fraud by politically-connected businesspeople, was shot along with his fiancee at home in what prosecutors say was a contract killing.

Kuciak’s death prompted the biggest protests in Slovakia’s post-communist history, leading to a government shake-up. Fico was replaced by his deputy Peter Pellegrini, disappointing many that no snap elections were held and same three-party coalition stayed in power. The next vote is due in 2020.

On Friday, the crowds chanted: “We are here for free, nobody paid for us to come” – a response to past accusations from Fico that foreign powers were stoking the demonstrations against him.

(Reporting By Tatiana Jancarikova)