Bulgaria bans gambling and betting advertising in all media. What Romanian bill looks like and where it stands

A look into the issue of gambling and betting advertising in Bulgaria and Romania

Iulia Rosu, Tsvetelina Sokolova and Krasen Nikolov (Mediapool.bg), HotNews.ro, 20 May 2024

While in Romania, the bill banning gambling advertising has been amended in a watered-down form and has been sitting in the Chamber of Deputies since last year, the Bulgarian parliament has unanimously passed a law completely banning gambling advertising in all types of media. The law was strongly supported by public opinion in Bulgaria, but met with opposition – not so much from the betting companies themselves, but from the country’s main TV stations and several online media groups, Bulgarian journalists note. This article appeared as part of the Pulse journalism project.

  • Bulgaria’s bill was introduced less than a week ago and was pushed for a vote on the last day of parliament. The law also bans the opening of casinos in towns with fewer than 10,000 inhabitants.
  • National TV stations and several news websites in Bulgaria have told Bulgarian journalists that they depend heavily on advertising coming from betting companies.
  • For some private broadcasters, the millions from betting ads represent about 20-30% of their total advertising revenue. They have warned their viewers that suddenly stopping this financial flow mid-year is a blow to their independence and threatens their programming schedule.
  • But what are the risks of the media’s dependence on gambling advertising money? And what about the situation in Romania, where several journalists from Gazeta Sporturilor and Libertatea were fired or left last year after accusing Ringier management of trying to interfere with editorial content on betting-related stories.

Bulgaria’s bill, which completely bans gambling advertising in all media in the country – TV, radio, newspapers, as well as online, was proposed by the GERB (EPP) and DPS (Renew Europe) parties, garnering 198 votes in favour, with no votes against or abstentions in Bulgaria’s 240-seat parliament.

How bookmakers ended up financing the Bulgarian press

Bulgarian journalists from the independent website Mediapool.bg and Euractiv.com recall that for 10 years the parties turned a blind eye to the gambling industry that has flourished in Bulgaria since 2015, when Vasil Bozhkov, the country’s biggest gambling owner, created a massive industry through his private lotteries. Within 4-5 years, hundreds of thousands of people started scratching lottery tickets and private lotteries reached an annual turnover of €700 million.

At the end of 2019, Bozhkov’s former partners, the Naydenov family, the owners of Efbet, exposed the businessman to the government and the Prosecutor General’s Office that the private lotteries had evaded paying taxes to the tune of around €250 million. Immediately, a full-scale action was launched against Bozhkov by all state authorities in Bulgaria. In 2020, his business was shut down and the businessman fled to Dubai to save himself from arrest, Mediapool.bg journalists note. While still in the emirate, Bozhkov was sanctioned for corruption by the US Treasury Department.

But the closure of Bozhkov’s gambling business in 2020 opened up a niche for several smaller online gambling operators, which in three years have become the biggest source of revenue for Bulgarian media. TV advertising for gambling has increased significantly by 200-300%.

The number of officially registered gambling addicts among the country’s 7 million inhabitants has also risen to 36,000. Hundreds of new casinos and gambling halls have opened in Bulgarian towns and cities.

According to official data for 2023, gambling companies spent €85 million on media advertising, with the largest share going to the Bulgarian companies Efbet and Winbet and the Greek company Betano.

In 2023, aggressive advertising by gambling websites completely invaded Bulgarian TV during the World Cup in Qatar, notes Euractiv.

Bulgarian broadcasters claim media independence will be affected

Despite strong public opinion in favour of the ban, Bulgaria’s biggest broadcasters have spoken out against the new amendments, arguing that such a law could affect media independence, adding that the financial sustainability of the media, including through gambling advertising, is important for quality journalism.

“We warned that the adoption of the draft law in such a short, unprecedented timeframe and without discussions with stakeholders could seriously threaten the economic independence of the media. The draft law will have a significant impact on us as it completely bans advertising for an entire economic sector,” Dirk Gerkens, CEO of Nova Broadcasting Group (United Media), one of the two leading private broadcasters in Bulgaria, told Mediapool.bg.

Commercial broadcasters argue to Mediapool journalists that they will be deprived of huge annual revenues, making it difficult to broadcast major sporting events.

The Bulgarian business weekly Capital wonders whether the reduction in revenues of the largest private TV channels is aimed at controlling them by political actors.

“Sounds too good to be true. For one thing, Bulgaria’s biggest media outlets rely on this money, and if the ban comes into force immediately, it will blow the budgets of Bulgarian broadcasters and publishers. I mean, we are definitely talking about a targeted strike against them in an election situation,” said Sibina Grigorova, editor-in-chief of the Boulevard Bulgaria website. According to her, the ban cannot be effectively implemented in the online space, which is why it will continue to flood the internet audience, but will hit 20 media outlets financially.

The Mediapool journalists note that “TVs and websites have become too dependent on gambling advertising, raking in around €100 million in 2022 and almost €80 million in 2023”.

“Freedom of expression threatened from within”

There are also voices in the Bulgarian press welcoming the new law: “It is not appropriate for private broadcasters to justify the presence of gambling in their programmes on grounds of public interest. Freedom of expression is threatened, but it is threatened from within the media itself,” says Zhanna Popova, associate professor at the Faculty of Journalism and Communication in Sofia.

Representatives of Nova TV (United Group) admit that they are dependent on gambling operators, but stress that “the agenda of a TV station cannot be determined by sponsors and advertisers, they must be separate”.

“We have forgotten what the main mission of the media is,” Zhanna Popova, associate professor at the Faculty of Journalism and Communication in Sofia, told Mediapool.

What the Bulgarian shareholder who also owns Gazeta Sporturilor in Romania says

Contacted by the same journalists, Stilian Shishkov, founder of Bulgaria’s largest sports news site, Sportal.bg, and co-owner of Gazeta Sporturilor in Romania, in shareholding with the Swiss Ringier Sports Media Group, does not believe there is any way to technologically restrict advertising on platforms, social networks, blogs, podcasts etc.

Shishkov says the ban will put Bulgarian companies at a disadvantage on the global market by losing advertising budgets.

“Giving better terms to foreign companies than to local entities is called capitulation in the context of the state and the law. Foreign companies that will become beneficiaries of contracts with gambling operators will not be subject to sanctions in Bulgaria, will not pay taxes, will not have employees,” Shishkov added.

Shishkov is also the founder of the Bulgarian Association of Gambling, an organisation that aims to create a complete ‘gambler’s experience’ by bringing together the media and bookmakers. The founders and board of directors of the Gambling Association are Shishkov, Martin Petrov (his right-hand man and co-founder of Sportal.bg and digital advertising agency Digital ID) and Miglena Dimitrova, a lawyer and, according to her, a clinical therapist who used to hold webinars funded by the state programme for the prevention of gambling addiction.

The association led by Shishkov, established in 2021, won a project funded by the National Programme of Youth Activities, under Article 10 of the Gambling Act, by the Ministry of Youth and Sport the same year. The programme is funded by fees collected from gambling and betting firms, but has sparked a series of scandals and allegations of corruption, according to Bulgarian journalists.

Shishkov’s association has thus implemented the project “Prevention of gambling addiction among young people” until 2022. A project called “Bet on yourself, not on gambling. Don’t get addicted!” for which they received the sum of 118,149.40 leva (about €60,000). The addiction prevention project meant building a dedicated website, Facebook page, paid content right on the Sportal.bg website, run by Shishkov, webinars held by lawyer-therapist Miglena Dimitrova, also on Sportal.bg.

The same site publishes under the News – Sports and Business category news and partnerships with betting and gambling firms, encouraging its readers to gamble.

But the founder of Sportal.bg is convinced that such a measure will lead to an increase in the “grey” sector and the state will no longer be able to collect taxes.

“As the experience of other European markets shows, restricting advertising leads to an increase in the activity of unlicensed sites, which reduces the state’s ability to collect taxes from gambling activities and provide protection for these users,” Shishkov said.

Gambling advertising in the media will only be allowed for the state lottery “Bulgarian Sports Totalisator”, which must use its profits to finance Bulgarian sport.

Once the law is passed, gambling companies will only be allowed to advertise outdoors on billboards at least 300 metres from schools, kindergartens, universities, gambling halls and sports facilities and equipment, except for children.

What’s happening to advertising in Romania

At the end of April, a law came into force in Romania that removes slot machines from towns with less than 15,000 inhabitants. Hotnews went to the Prahova Valley to see what the halls look like once the law is enforced. On the other hand, the new amendments do not ban betting, so those halls that do have betting will remain open. Another amendment adopted on 9 April provides for the reduction of outdoor billboards for gambling to 35 square metres.

Another bill that would have banned betting advertisements was amended by the senators in a milder form and then forgotten in the Chamber of Deputies. It will happen in February 2023. The original form of the bill completely banned gambling advertisements, including online. The bill was also supported by a Declic petition, which has since been signed by almost 200,000 people.

Senators in the Legal and Culture Committees amended the law by proposing a watered-down version: betting and gambling advertisements to be placed on TV between 23.00 and 06.00 (as the law currently stipulates), and the same interval to be maintained for live broadcasts. However, it is possible to insert a graphic element of the gambling brand followed by the message “Be responsible!” during live sports broadcasts, regardless of the time.

At the same time, the bill prohibits public cultural, sports or famous people from appearing in gambling advertisements. At the moment, several sportsmen and women, usually former football greats, and some journalists are appearing in betting ads.

Currently, the law allows gambling and betting spots to be placed at any time if there is a live broadcast of a sports competition. The proposed amendments were voted by the PSD, PNL and UDMR.

The draft law received the Government’s point of view in March 2024 and is to be put to a vote in the Chamber of Deputies. Six other bills on gambling and sports betting are waiting in Parliament.

On 5 October 2023, the Government adopted an emergency ordinance that sets higher taxes for the gambling industry, bans alcoholic beverages in venues, increases the guarantees posted by companies and requires operators to have their headquarters in Romania.

What happened in Romania. The Gazeta Sporturilor and Libertatea cases, the firing of journalists and Ringier’s connections with the betting industry, in an IPI report

In April this year, a report by the International Press Institute (IPI), one of the world’s leading press freedom organisations, analysed what happened in the latter part of 2023 in Romania. At the time, several journalists were fired or resigned from Gazeta Sporturilor and Libertatea after accusing attempts at editorial pressure from Ringier Sports Media Group management over articles covering the betting industry.

Ringier denied the pressures, but within three months it fired Gazeta’s editor-in-chief, Cătălin Țepelin, Gazeta’s deputy editor-in-chief, Dan Udrea, Gazeta and Libertatea’s editorial coordinator, Cătălin Tolontan, and Iulia Roșu, deputy editor-in-chief of Libertatea, i.e. four of the journalists who had reported these attempts to interfere in the editorial.

The IPI report also mentions that the print edition of Gazeta Sporturilor was closed down overnight and that several Libertatea reporters subsequently announced their departure from the company.

In addition, the IPI also draws attention to the power of the betting industry in Romania, an industry estimated to be worth €2.2 billion in 2024, and to the links that Gazeta’s co-owner, Stilian Shishkov, has with this industry.

“At the root of the scandal was the influence of the betting industry in Romania and allegations that a member of the Ringier Sports Management Group tried to pressure journalists into covering the gambling industry. GSP is 49% owned by the Bulgarian company SMAK MEDIA EOOD. It is represented by Stilian Shishkov who is the CEO of Ringier Sportal Media Group in Bulgaria and founder of the Bulgarian Gambling Association, a lobbying organization for the gambling industry,” the report said.

Another example of the relationship between the betting industry and the press mentioned by IPI is the news that “Superbet founder Sacha Dragic has bought 40% of the shares of Romanian news agency News.ro and launched a news aggregator, informat.ro.”

Dan Duca (Hotnews) and Bulgarian freelance journalist Maria Cheresheva contributed to this article.

Photo: (source: Pixabay, CC0)

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