On 20 February, Delo ran the headline: "Matjaž Rogelj—First in Computer Science in the World." The daily Dnevnik proclaimed: "Matjaž Rogelj conquers the World." The national wire service, STA, and the other major dailies ran similar headlines geared to strike pride in the hearts of Slovenes. And rightly so: a home-town boy had won the unofficial world championship of computer science in Rio de Janeiro.
Two days later, however, Dnevnik was singing a different tune with the headline "Do We Really Have a World Champion?" It now appears that Rogelj had not only fooled STA and the major dailies with a fraudulent story but also milked USD 40,000 to 55,000 out of the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport over the course of the past four years.
The devil is in the details
Prior to the investigation into the affair (conducted only after the story had already been published), little was known about Matjaž Rogelj. A 22-year old fourth-year student at the University of Ljubljana, Rogelj sent a press release to STA which proclaimed him the champion of an unofficial world championship in computer science that had taken place from 4 January to 18 February in Rio de Janeiro.
Four years ago, according to the press release, Rogelj had become the European champion after winning the national contest with the highest scores on the continent. A 30-member international expert group helped him prepare for the world championship, where he emerged victorious over six other competitors, among whom were three PhDs and two with Master's Degrees. He was the youngest competitor.
STA took the press release at face value and distributed it to the country's media outlets. Most ran it, and no one along the line bothered to verify the story. Slovenia is a small, little-known country and most people around the world confuse it with Slovakia. This is no secret to Slovenes. It seems the drive to drum up national pride was more important than journalistic professionalism.
Better late than never?
Only after Dnevnik had printed the story did anyone at that paper bother to look into it. Immediately it became apparent that the whole thing was a fraud. No computer professionals contacted by Dnevnik knew anything about any world championship. No media outlets in Brazil had any mention of it on their websites, nor did the website of the university, which supposedly hosted the event.
Even the website of the competition, which Rogelj included in his press release, proved to be out of commission. As did the website of the Sat 5 Institute in New York, which was named in the press release as the championship's organizer. When a journalist from Dnevnik tried to call the Sat 5 Institute, no one answered.
This is not the first time that the wool has been pulled over the eyes of the Slovene media. In 1998, a sort of professional prankster named Joey Skaggs pulled off a similar stunt. He sent press releases to media outlets around the world saying that a Ljubljana-based institute was conducting bio-genetic experiments on human beings. Internationally, few took notice, but the Slovene media fell for the ploy.
Here, it must be mentioned that Skaggs is good at what he does. Very good. Over the course of his 30-year career, he has successfully pulled pranks on heavy-hitters such as CNN. But is this any excuse for not verifying sources?
On 26 February, Delo published an interview with Rogelj. The interviewers aggressively prodded Rogelj to either produce hard evidence or to come clean that the whole thing was a sham. Rogelj could produce nothing other than a certificate from the competition and the notification that he had placed first.
He did admit, however, that he received USD 20,000, once in 1999 and again in 2000 from the Ministry of Education and Sport (now the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport). Later, reports spoke of a third disbursement of USD 15,000. The lack of professionalism shown by the country's media in not verifying the story suddenly paled in comparison to the revelation that a government ministry had funded the fiasco.
Sleeping on the job
Last week's Mladina glosses over all of the issues but one: the role of the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport. The ministry's role is unclear, as they have decided not to release any information about the affair until they have met with Rogelj and established exactly what happened.
What is known is that from 1997 to 2000, Rogelj submitted applications to the ministry for funding for his preparation and participation first in the European, then the world championship. Unofficial reports say that he provided no more documentation about the championships to the ministry than he did to the media. A total of three ministers in the four-year period approved his requests, amounting to between USD 40,000 and 55,000.
Mladina reports that the total budget for the Ministry of Education, Science and Sport for "student competitions" is USD 99,500; in 2000, the ministry paid out some USD 80,000. Thus, the amount of money Rogelj received was clearly no small sum for the ministry.
Even so, apparently no one at the ministry thought twice about Rogelj's applications or bothered to investigate the championships. It would be one thing if this happened under the watch of a single minister; perhaps it could have been a fluke. However, no less than three men held that post since 1997, and the approval of Rogelj's applications under each one points to a serious internal problem at the ministry.
Just when you thought it couldn't get worse...
Upon discovering the scam, the ministry called on Rogelj to produce documentation of how he used the money. Rogelj did not respond. So, on 7 March, the ministry turned the case over to the Ljubljana police, who issued a warrant for his arrest.
On 12 March, Rogelj was taken into custody at Ljubljana's Brnik airport. After questioning, the police determined that the crime for which he was under suspicion did not allow them to hold Rogelj, and so he was released into his parents' custody, without issuing any statement to the press.
Rogelj's attorney, Dr Peter Čeferin, maintains that the police prevented him from speaking to his client for almost two hours after they had taken him into custody, even though Čeferin requested to speak to Rogelj at the airport, which is permitted by law.
In the face of the allegations, Marko Pogorevc, the general director of the police, ordered an internal investigation into irregularities. On 19 March, the press secretary of the police administration, Miran Koren, gave a press conference to announce that the investigation had found that the officers at the airport had not fully followed protocol, but that their errors were not substantial and did not violate Rogelj's rights. It does seem, however, that the officers in question will have to answer for their mistakes.
Who is (most) to blame?
The Ministry of Education, Science and Sport set a second deadline for Rogelj to produce documentation showing how he used the funding he had received, which expired on 19 March with no answer from Rogelj. On 20 March, he met with Ljubljana police, but gave no statement.
It is still unclear what will happen when the case goes to trial, or even what the charges will be. The media aspect of the prank is relatively harmless and it seems he will bear no consequences for it.