Emilia Sercan has been an investigative journalist for over 25 years.
Emilia Sercan has been an investigative journalist for over 25 years. © Ioana Moldovan

Romania: Defying Kompromat

“I couldn’t be bribed or stopped with death threats, but maybe I was supposed to be embarrassed enough by intimate pictures to be silenced.”

Friday, 8 March, 2024

I’ve been an investigative journalist for over 25 years, and since 2015 I have published over 100 articles exposing how senior Romanian officials in key institutions - politics, law enforcement, intelligence, military, the justice system - have plagiarised massive parts of their doctoral dissertations. I’ve also exposed how those plagiarists operate as a network, using their influence and power to legislate, regulate or investigate to cover their academic fraud.

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In Romania, a PhD brings higher income, easier access to office and faster career advancement, as those with post-graduate degrees are exempt from certain mandatory exams or promotion criteria. A PhD also opens a second career path in universities for public officials who have lost their positions. That means the academic fraud and incompetence hidden behind diplomas infiltrates institutions key to Romania’s national security: politics, law enforcement and the judiciary.   

"When these attempts to silence me failed, the harassment began."

From my vantage point, this is like an academic mafia, with protection systems and influence networks able to bend the law. One example: since 2022 there has been no legal path in Romania to revoke a PhD for plagiarism. The constitutional court decided you can only revoke a title within a year after it was awarded. 

In 2015, after I exposed six plagiarism cases in six weeks, everything became harder - and even dangerous. When I started, I had to file a simple request at the National Library to access a thesis. After I published the first investigations, the procedure itself became time-consuming and restricting - for example, you can read some dissertations only on a specific computer at the library, and you are not allowed to take photos. 

Then they basically tried to buy me. It was funny. I was offered the position of director of communication for one of the ruling political parties. I said, “I'm not a public relations person, I'm a journalist.”

I was later approached and told that if I stopped publishing plagiarism stories I would be appointed editor-in-chief for a leading national newspaper.

When these attempts to silence me failed, the harassment began.

It started online, on my social media accounts. Then, in 2019, I received death threats via text message. 

It turned out that these were orchestrated by the rector and vice-rector of the Police Academy, after I published several stories about endemic plagiarism in their university, starting with the plagiarised dissertation of the rector, who was a general in the Romanian police. 

A Romanian court confirmed the rector and his deputy pressured one of their subordinates, a young officer working at the Police Academy, to send me death threats. Both were convicted in 2021 for incitement to blackmail.

I continued to publish my stories. On January 18, 2022, I revealed that the then-prime minister Nicolae Ciucă - a former chief of the General Staff of the Romanian Army – had plagiarised his doctoral dissertation. The next day, I received a very explicit threat via email, “You will pay for this, and we will follow you everywhere - on the street, on your work, in your house - even in your intimate moments.”

"Overwhelming public support greeted my decision to speak out."

I immediately filed a police complaint. (The prosecutor, after failing to find any suspects in nearly two years, closed the case as “not one of public interest”. I appealed; the judge ordered the prosecutor to reopen the investigation.)

A month after that email threat, on February 16, 2022, a stranger sent me a Facebook message with five pictures taken by my former fiancée some 20 years ago.

They were personal pictures taken in my own home - stepping out of the shower wrapped in a towel or wearing only pants and a T-shirt. 

I quickly screenshotted the Facebook message. Via a Google search, I found those five pictures uploaded on more than 30 adult sites.

The next day I went to the police and filed a criminal complaint, forwarding the female police officer the screenshot of the Facebook message received the day before.

Forty minutes after I left the police station, the screenshot and pictures had been uploaded on a Moldovan website owned by a fugitive former Romanian lawmaker, convicted of corruption and now living in Moldova. Within hours, dozens of Romanian news sites linked to this webpage.

How was it possible for a digital piece of evidence in a criminal file to be published on the internet less than an hour after I filed my official complaint? I suspect the screenshot was leaked with the intention to intimidate, harass and discredit me and my work. 

I filed a complaint, but the internal police investigation officially found that the screenshot was published on the internet on a different site hours before I filed it as evidence. 

However, two expert cybersecurity reports concluded that the site indicated by the police as the first to have published the screenshot uploaded the image a day after it became evidence.

I believe that the leak was a sophisticated, highly organised kompromat operation against me – followed by a cover-up. Both the police and the prosecutor’s office ignored solid evidence and buried the case.

But I learnt an important lesson: speak out immediately. For six weeks I was quiet. I was ashamed. I felt guilty for images that showed me leaving my own shower, in my own house, wrapped in a towel - and for wearing only pants and a T-shirt at home. I still thought the Romanian state was willing to protect its citizens, as the law requires. 

Maybe they took my six weeks of silence - and my trust in the state’s institutions and the rule of law - as signs of vulnerability, of weakness. I couldn’t be bribed or stopped with death threats, but maybe I was supposed to feel embarrassed enough by some private pictures to be silenced - and maybe to reset my professional priorities.

I was not. 

But a kompromat operation against you also comes with a personal cost in terms of your time, your energy and your focus. Filing complaints, finding evidence and fighting a judiciary unwilling to probe unlawful conduct in an institution meant to defend the law is exhausting and leaves you without the full resources to do your job. 

In 2021, before the kompromat operation, I published 21 articles. In 2022, the year of the kompromat, I wrote only 12 articles, many of them about my case. In 2023 I published only seven articles - and four of them were about my struggle for justice.

So in a way, the kompromat operation was successful: I couldn’t carry out my job as a public interest journalist as I wanted and as I had previously done. 

So my message is this: when you feel you’re a target of a threat, harassment or a discreditation campaign, speaking out is your key defence. Bring it into the public domain as soon as possible. Don’t let anybody take advantage of your silence - especially when those benefiting are state actors.

I’ve also learned that the public knows the difference between right and wrong. Overwhelming public support greeted my decision to speak out. 

This is the best of lessons: it makes you remember every day why you’re still standing, why you’re still fighting, and why you must refocus, somehow, on the job you believe in.

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