Pavla Holcová Accepts ICFJ Knight International Journalism Award

By: ICFJ | 11/10/2021

I would like to express my thanks to ICFJ, and to all the people from OCCRP and who pushed me (and my limits) to be the journalist I am today.

For me, it all started in a Cuban prison. I was a human rights defender, supporting Cuban independent media and journalists – or  what was left of them after a crackdown. Paul Radu, a founder of OCCRP network and previous recipient of this award, and I delivered training and equipment to dissidents. One morning, the police arrested us, and put us in a tiny, dark room. Paul talked about cross-border investigative journalism and I decided I wanted to be part of it. Luckily, I was naive enough to really do it.

In 2013 I founded the Czech Center for Investigative Journalism with no money, no connections, no readership, no sources and no idea how to run a media enterprise.

That year, I did my first story with OCCRP about investments of the Azerbaijani ruling family in Czech Republic. I worked on the story with Khadija Ismaylova, who got arrested and sentenced to 7.5 years in prison for alleged financial fraud. So OCCRP created Project Khadija to send a message: You cannot imprison a story. We aimed to finish Khadija’s articles and expose the corruption of those in power. Khadija was released after a year and a half in prison with help from a lawyer, Amal Clooney.

In 2015, a small team of us got hit with eight lawsuits after our investigations in the Panama Papers project. That made us even more resilient.  

2018 was probably the toughest year in my life after my friend and colleague, Slovak journalist Jano Kuciak, and his fiancé, Martina Kušnírová, were murdered. Martina was browsing the internet for wedding gowns when the killer came.

I was grief-stricken and wanted to lock myself in my bedroom and never come out to face evil again. But I understood that if I gave up, I would fail -- maybe not as a journalist, but definitely as a friend.

So we teamed up with the best Slovak journalists to finish all the stories Jano started. We got access to the cellphone data of the lead murder suspect. We reconstructed how the murder happened. We exposed the system of corrupt judges, businessmen, politicians and law enforcement. The system collapsed. Slovakia changed.

But our job is not done. The job of a journalist is never done. This recognition is not for me. It is for all the people who make change happen, including those in Slovakia who protested the murders of Jano and Martina, and those who worked on Khadija’s stories when she was in jail. We have the power to make the changes happen. We just need to claim it.

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