Romanian journalists sound the alarm about the symbiosis between gambling and sports websites

A report about an event at the University of Sofia, dedicated to role of gambling business’ media funding for journalism and society

Tsvetelina Sokolova, Mediapool, 4 April 2024

Bulgaria and Romania have almost similar problems with the unbridled boom of gambling, with aggressive advertising of betting in the media, and with the coverage of this industry by journalists. This is the main conclusion that can be drawn from a lecture by Romanian journalists, organised at the end of last week by the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication (FJMC) of Sofia University, the Cultural Studies Network and “The Bridge of Friendship” – a blog by BNR journalist and Radio Romania correspondent Vladimir Mitev.

The purpose of the event was mainly educational, but the people in the room got into a verbal clash after the intervention of a lawyer from a Bulgarian gambling association, who had come specifically to listen to the lecture.

The journalists Iulia Roșu and Răzvan Luțac (the latter via online connection – note of Cross-border Talks) talked about the problems with media freedom in Romania, caused by the funding of political parties and the filing of SLAPP cases, as well as the influence of gambling ads.

By the end of 2023 Roșu was deputy editor-in-chief of the well-known investigative publication Libertatea and Răzvan Luțac was a senior journalist at Gazeta Sporturilor, a sports publication affiliated with Libertatea, but also wrote for Libertatea. Luțac was part of the investigative team of Gazeta Sporturilor/Libertatea, covering cases such as Gala Bute, Hexi Pharma, Colectiv and the medical investigations after Colectiv.

The investigative film “Colectiv” was nominated for an Oscar a few years ago.

“Libertatea” is owned by the Swiss media company Ringier, and Gazeta Sporturilor is a joint venture between Ringier Romania and Sportal, which also operates on the Bulgarian market. Back when the Romanian sports publication was purchased in 2018, founder and Sportal Media Group director Stilian Shishkov commented that the company would invest in the media’s technological infrastructure and offer “smart advertising solutions for sports fans and betting in Romania”. 

On 6 December 2023, however, Ringier announced a “restructuring programme” and “cost-cutting”. It led to the dismissal of editor-in-chief Cătălin Tolontan, deputy editor-in-chief Iulia Roșu and the print editor Camellia Stan, as well as a number of other journalists. The officially stated reason was a refocus towards digital content revenue. Shortly before that, in November, the print edition of Gazeta Sporturilor was closed down suddenly without journalists being notified.

“The “restructuring” came amid allegations by journalists at Libertatea and Gazeta Sporturilor of interference by their owners in editorial independence. The accusations, which were strongly denied by Ringier, were related to an alleged attempt by company representatives to screen articles about gambling firms before publication.

“Any and all efforts by external actors or management to meddle in the newspaper’s editorial independence, particularly regarding its reporting on the gambling industry and those affiliated with it, must be met with strong opposition. While financial sustainability is important and always required for a media company to retain its editorial independence, any suggestion from management of weakening the firewall between the advertising teams and editorial newsroom to achieve it must always be challenged,”  the International Press Institute commented on the case.

The journalists’ organisation has announced that it and other media freedom organisations will conduct a fact-finding mission to Romania in 2024 on media freedom and independent journalism. One of the topics will be “will also scrutinize the increasing corrosive impact the gambling industry is having on the integrity and credibility of both current affairs and sports journalism in Romania, and the main figures associated with the betting industry responsible for the alleged pressures on editorial freedoms.”

Symbiosis between sports sites and gambling industry

The risks of the symbiosis between sports websites and the gambling industry are the violation of journalistic standards, the abuse of the functions of journalism, the undermining of public trust in the media, etc., Iulia Roșu commented in her lecture in Sofia. She quotes her colleague Cătălin Tolontan, who argues that “the symbiosis between sports media and betting companies is leading to the gradual abolition of the principle of separation of editorial from commercial media policy. This means abandoning one of the fundamental elements guaranteeing the right of citizens to be fairly informed”.

The discussion that followed at FJMC included an intervention by lawyer Miglena Dimitrova. She said that she is part of the Bulgarian Gambling Association, in which Sportal BG also participates, and the representative is Stilian Shishkov.

Lawyer Dimitrova asked the Romanian journalists to point out specific emails, words or actions that could be defined as “blackmail”. She also questioned the volume of the illegal gambling market in Romania.

The organisers, however, stopped the verbal skirmish between the Bulgarian lawyer and the Romanian journalists by explaining that the event was a lecture and not an interrogation or a pleading in a courtroom, as the journalists had not come to the lecture with their lawyers. “University halls should remain a free place for talks. This is not an interrogation but a conversation. Please try to understand how important it is to have courageous journalists and how difficult it is for them to live with this constant surveillance,” Assoc. Prof. Zhana Popova – who is one of the orgnizers at FJMC, subsequently wrote on his Facebook account. Lawter Dimitrova responded that she was not conducting an interrogation, just asking questions.

Journalist Iulia Roșu explained that she had mentioned the gambling association because of its membership of a sports media outlet alongside several bookmakers. “How can a sports publication maintain its editorial independence in this case?” she asked. 

Ivan Radev from the board of the Association of European Journalists (AEJ-Bulgaria), who is also a former correspondent of the Romanian news agency Agerpres, also asked whether it was right for a media covering sports to be part of a gambling industry association.

The lecture was also attended by a representative of the PR company servicing Eurohold and Euroins – other Bulgarian companies affected by the Libertadia investigations, but he did not take the floor.

Boycott of influencers who advertise gambling

In Romania, betting companies, as well as related aggressive advertising, have flourished in recent years, Iulia Roșu said during her lecture. “Romania is like a big open-air casino”, the journalist illustrated, describing the huge and attractive gambling advertisements.

She also talked about an interesting social media campaign aimed at exposing and boycotting celebrities in the country who advertise gambling. In the “Empty Plate Movement” started by Silviu Faiar, people leave emojis of empty plates on the social media pages of celebrities or influencers who take money from the gambling industry to advertise bets.

“I question the leadership position of a person who advertises gambling,” said lawyer Sylvia Petkova, who also took part in the event at FJMC. She explained that gambling addiction almost always leads to the commission of crimes because it cannot be served with anything other than money. In her words, in the mainstream in Bulgaria it is still institutionally believed that addiction is a choice. However, in her view, the explanation is neurobiological and physiological and not related to choice. One of the typical manifestations of addiction is the inability to stop, Petkova stressed.

As in Bulgaria, in Romania gambling is one of the biggest sources of funding in advertising, marketing, sports and media.

“Have you ever wondered why gambling funds sports? It’s not virtue and charity, it’s investment. Because gambling is mostly funded by sports betting,” says Iulia Roșu.

According to its data, the number of betting shops, including gambling halls, casinos, bingo halls and lottery shops, in Romania is around 12 000. Slot machines number around 80 000. Online betting licences have been issued to 35 operators. About 400 000 online gambling accounts are registered.

There are over 100 000 officially registered gambling addicts in the country, but it is estimated that 15% of the country’s adult population gambles. Romania is the third country in the EU with the highest online activity at over 57%. The official figure for gross gambling revenue in the country is around 600 million dollars, but the real figure is believed to be much higher. By comparison, in Bulgaria the turnover in the gambling industry is believed to be several billion leva annually.

In October 2023, the Romanian government introduced legal restrictions on the gambling industry – outdoor advertising up to 35 sq. m., mandatory company registration in Romania (not in Malta, for example), a ban on displaying the prizes from the games, an increase in the responsible gambling levy from €5,000 to €500,000 per year, a ban on the supply of alcohol in gaming halls, etc., the Romanian journalists listed.

Unlike Bulgaria, gambling advertisements in Romania are only allowed between 11:00 pm and 6:00 am. However, this does not apply to the broadcasting of live sporting events. As in Bulgaria, many football teams are sponsored by betting companies.

* The author is a lecturer at the Faculty of Journalism and Mass Communication of Sofia University.

** Mediapool and Cross-border Talks are ready to publish additional positions or comments of the persons mentioned in the report. 

Photo: (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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