Threats: Romanian journalist Emilia Sercan has targeted for her investigations of the country's elite

Romanian plagiarism hunter becomes prey

Threats: Romanian journalist Emilia Sercan has become a target for her investigations by the country’s elite – Copyright CNS/AFP STR

Ann BEAD, Ionut YORDACHESKU

Romanian journalist Emilia Sercan has set herself the task of exposing plagiarism at the country’s highest level.

But her latest investigation into whether the prime minister passed off someone else’s work as his own in his doctoral dissertation has made her the subject of a flurry of threats and leaked intimate photos that she says are aimed at silencing her.

Serkan has exposed about 50 cases of plagiarism involving great and kind people over the past seven years, showing that ministers, prosecutors and judges break the rules when publishing books, scientific articles or PhD theses.

The last one to fall under her sight was the Prime Minister of Romania, former General Nicolae Chuca.

In mid-January, she published an investigation in the independent publication PressOne accusing Chuka of plagiarizing 42 pages of his 138-page 2003 military science doctoral dissertation.

Since then, the journalist has been the victim of a flurry of insults and hate speech on social media, to the point where Serkan said she felt “in danger.”

“Never before have I felt so targeted,” said the 46-year-old writer and academic, who has filed two police complaints about threats.

Chuka, a retired four-star general who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, leads the ruling National Liberal Party (NLP) after being chosen by President Klaus Iohannis, himself a liberal.

The 55-year-old prime minister denied the allegations, saying he respected the academic rules of the day.

“I didn’t plagiarize,” he insisted.

– Operation “Compromising” –

Serkan had previously received death threats in 2019 after discovering cases of plagiarism in Ph.D. theses at the country’s police academy. Later, the Bucharest court sentenced the rector and his deputy, who forced the subordinate to threaten her, to three years of probation.

But this time, stolen intimate photos taken by her fiancé about 20 years ago were used to attack her.

Shortly after Serkan sent the screenshots of the images to the police, she said, the screenshots were posted on a site in neighboring Moldova and quickly found their way to 74 other sites.

Serkan accused the authorities of “organizing a compromising operation” in order to discredit her.

The prosecutor’s office opened a criminal case, but Serkan said the investigation did not appear to be moving forward.

“At the highest government level, people are blocking the process and want to bury the case,” AFP told AFP.

“They use their power to cover their tracks and silence me.”

Prosecutors told AFP that a criminal investigation had been opened and was ongoing.

Ten press freedom organizations, including Reporters Without Borders (RSF) and the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said they were “alarmed by the persecution” of Serkan, who is also a professor of journalism at the University of Bucharest, and called for a thorough investigation.

“All this support meant a lot to me, but it seems not to the Romanian prosecutors,” she added, saying she was “furious and disappointed” by the inaction.

– Plagiarism Networks –

The journalist said that members of the prime minister’s party accused her of “choosing the wrong moment” to reveal plagiarism, as well as of wanting to destabilize the state with a war raging in neighboring Ukraine.

Three other plagiarism complaints filed against Chuka, including one from an opposition MP, were dismissed by the courts.

The new education law, which abolishes the independent body responsible for investigating plagiarism, has also drawn the ire of government critics.

It will also set a three-year time limit for prosecution in cases of academic misconduct.

Romania is considered one of the most corrupt countries in the EU, and academic fraud has had a special place in its post-communist history, with many in the country’s elite being accused of using it as a means to gain power and prestige.

Professor Ciprian Mihaly of the University of Cluj, an expert in the field, said the problem was rooted in “the proliferation of universities between 1990 and 2000 after the fall of the communist regime.”

PhDs became the key to reaching the highest echelons of power, and “we had to face the development of a real plagiarism industry,” he said.

“It’s a whole line of production and networks” that allows “incompetent people to rise to vital positions” and stay in them despite criticism.

Another Romanian prime minister, Victor Ponta, was accused of plagiarism by the scientific journal Nature in 2012 but refused to step down.

He was eventually forced to resign in 2015 after massive anti-corruption protests rocked the country. A few months later, the Ministry of Education stripped him of his doctorate in law, and he later lost a legal battle to have it reinstated.

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