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Romanian journalists call for action after facing threats, intimidation

Two prominent Romanian journalists say they’ve faced threats and intimidation for publishing stories critical of powerful public figures, raising the specter of fresh rule-of-law concerns in the country.

Emilia Şercan, an investigative reporter who has written extensively on allegations of academic plagiarism by top officials, told POLITICO that last September, while she was investigating allegations that Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă had plagiarized a large portion of his doctoral thesis, photos stolen from one of her computers appeared on foreign adult websites, in what she called “a clear attempt to intimidate me.”

Şercan, who is also a lecturer on journalism at the University of Bucharest, said that after her investigation was published this January, she received a threatening message on her mobile phone that referenced those pictures. She screen-captured the message and forwarded it to local police as part of a criminal complaint. But then, her message to the police was itself leaked online, which Şercan said led her to suspect institutional insiders were part of the attempt to smear her.

She then made a separate complaint, but Şercan said she felt police officers did not take it seriously, especially those whose bosses had been the subject of her investigations over the years.

The interior ministry said in response in a public statement that it condemned attempts to intimidate journalists, and it had “trust that the institutions responsible for investigating criminal cases will clarify” the journalist’s complaint.

Şercan went public last week with her account, slamming what she called a “kompromat-style” campaign against her that pointed to complicity from police officers.

She told POLITICO that the European Union should “closely monitor how the institutions meant to ensure the protection of citizens operate, and how the Romanian government does or does not guarantee freedom of expression.”

The European Commission has monitored Romania for corruption, judicial reform and organized crime concerns since it joined the EU in 2007, and the EU executive’s most recent rule-of-law report last summer praised reform efforts by Bucharest in recent years.

Cristian Pantazi, the editor of Romanian news website G4media.ro, said he experienced intimidation recently after publishing an article criticizing conspiracy theories spread on social media about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine by a professor at the country’s state military academy.

Pantazi said he gave the academic time to respond to the allegations before publishing, as is customary, but then Pantazi’s wife was contacted by an employee at the institution who urged her to stop her husband from releasing the article. Pantazi published another article detailing the threats from the academy’s employee.

In a response to Pantazi’s report on the professor, the military academy said its employees’ posts on social media are their individual responsibility. The academy employee also apologized and said his intention was not to make threats to the reporter’s wife.

NGOs including ActiveWatch and the Committee to Protect Journalists have spoken out to defend both Pantazi and Şercan. The Council of Europe published a statement on its website detailing what happened to Şercan, saying she was a “victim of [a] smear campaign.”

Prime Minister Ciucă told local media through a spokesman that he denied plagiarizing his academic work and demanded a quick investigation into the journalists’ reports of intimidation.

“The Romanian government completely supports freedom of the press. Romania is a democratic country where the right to be informed and freedom of expression are sacred,” the prime minister’s spokesman said. “Prime Minister Nicolae Ciucă demands that competent authorities investigate any form of intimidation of journalists and that guilty are held accountable.”

Regarding Pantazi’s complaints, spokespeople for Ciucă, a retired high-ranking general, told local media the prime minister condemns the intimidation of journalists and demanded inquiries to establish the guilt of the perpetrators.

“The attempted intimidation by a representative of a military institution is extremely grave, especially when it is addressed to the family of a journalist. It is a symptom of the impunity these military cadres think they are enjoying because in similar cases they got away with no consequences,” said Pantazi.

A spokesman for the government declined to comment further when approached by POLITICO.

Şercan said the prime minister should respond more forcefully and argued that not putting more pressure on law enforcement to properly investigate would at least indirectly make him an “accomplice.”

“The time that has already elapsed has given those involved the opportunity to cover their tracks,” she said. “A strong political message is required from leaders.”

Şercan expressed concern that her case may already be making other investigative journalists in the country think twice about tackling sensitive topics.

“Romanian press, including because of this case, is being discouraged from doing its job,” she said. “I think other journalists interpreted this case as though a similar thing could also happen to them.”

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