November 1 was the last time Gazeta Sporturilor (GSP), Romania’s leading sports publication and one of the oldest media brands in Europe, was published in print.
It was closed overnight without any notice. Within four months, the publication, owned by Swiss media group Ringier, has seen its editorial coordinator and editor-in-chief dismissed and its print edition shuttered, while it remains without a CEO.
The reason? “Different visions on the business strategy and print losing money”, says the company. “Intrusions in the editorial independence and request to show articles in advance”, say the journalists.
The first to learn the news regarding the print edition’s closure were the people from the distribution warehouse, who were visited in the morning by two lawyers and the interim managing director of Ringier Romania. They were informed that the print edition was canceled for good, and that they would be out of their jobs in 20 days. The journalists later received written confirmation through an official email from the company.
Staff were also informed that the GSP newsroom will be moved to new headquarters and Cătălin Tolontan, the editorial coordinator of GSP & Libertatea, the other flagship media owned by Ringier in Romania, will no longer oversee GSP as part of the restructuring. Tolantan does retain his position as the editorial coordinator of Libertatea.
The move was explained as a purely business decision, due to shrinking revenues from print. However, for some staff it felt like the ultimate act of revenge: both an act of isolation and the denial of a decent “burial” for the almost 100-year-old newspaper.
In Romania, Ringier owns, among others, Gazeta Sporturilor and the country’s leading daily newspaper Libertatea. Gazeta Sporturilor is the main sports publication in Romania, and is also known for its corruption investigations that led to the conviction of two ministers of sports and for its articles about match-fixing, bribery, or the spread of gambling addiction. For its investigations regarding corruption in Romanian hospitals, also showcased in the award-winning film Collective, Gazeta Sporturilor was praised for its journalism by important media outlets around the world.
Libertatea is a former tabloid which was transformed into a middlebrow newspaper, focused on relevant current affairs and investigative journalism, with a strong editorial team and a growing reputation. Besides its own editorial content, Libertatea published relevant articles produced by smaller independent newsrooms, giving them a larger platform and moving important topics into the mainstream space.
Growing unease and dismissals
The story that led to the abrupt closure of the print edition started some months earlier, in a hellish summer for the two newsrooms.
On July 7, Rinigier announced through an internal note that Mihnea Vasiliu, the general manager of Ringier Romania, would leave the company. The news was a shock for the newsroom and the industry, as Vasiliu had held this position for 12 years, and was considered one of the driving forces within the company. Twenty days later, Vasiliu died of a heart attack in Bucharest.
On October 3, Rinigier also announced the departure with immediate effect of Gazeta Sporturilor’s editor-in-chief, Cătălin Țepelin, “due to differences of opinion on the strategic direction of the publication”. For the general public, the news came as a surprise, but the problems in the two sister newsrooms had been piling up for some time.
The same day, more than 90* staff working for Gazeta Sporturilor and Libertatea accused the management of editorial infringements and pressures in an open letter, claiming that the editor-in-chief was forced to leave because he did not agree to show Ringier management in advance articles related to gambling companies that were also advertising clients.
In that open letter, and later in an editorial published by deputy editor-in-chief Dan Udrea in the final print edition, the journalists noted that on October 20, 2022, Stilian Shishkov, a representative of Ringier Sport Management Group, said that he considered the separation of commercial and editorial content “a big problem”. Shishkov reportedly told them: “Well, I see a big problem with this. Actually, we work very closely in Bulgaria and we see better results that way”.
In September 2022, Libertatea published an investigation regarding a real estate company, where Claudio Cisullo, who is also on the Ringier board, held a management position. Cisullo complained about the article and the journalist to some of the shareholders and heads of the Ringier company. A solution offered was for the journalists to show the articles in advance, for validation by the management. The journalists refused and editorial coordinator Cătălin Tolontan published a piece highlighting some of the pressures received by the newsroom.
According to the journalists, the pressure continued to mount in 2023. On July 31 and August 8 2023, Țepelin, the then editor-in-chief of Gazeta Sporturilor, was asked to show, in advance, articles concerning advertising clients, with explicit reference to the gambling industry by three of Ringier Sports Media Group’s (RSMG) bosses. These episodes multiplied in the following weeks, culminating with a request for a face-to-face discussion.
The journalists’ open letter said: “(..) six editors-in-chief and deputy editors requested a meeting with Ringier management in Zürich. Ringier agreed to meet only with Cătălin Țepelin and Cătălin Tolontan. The meeting took place on August 28 at Ringier’s Zürich headquarters. The two journalists submitted an official appeal to the Ringier boards, signed by 25 editorial managers and people from other departments of Gazeta Sporturilor and Libertatea”. The journalists said they had not received any response until the dismissal of Cătălin Țepelin.
“They will come after you, the ones working in the editorial team”, Cătălin Tolontan says Mihnea Vasiliu told them before leaving Ringier in July 2023, “and, yes, sadly this is now confirmed”, concluded Tolontan in an interview with Euronews Romania.
Ringier Sports Media Group (RSMG) reacted two days after the open letter and all the public reactions, saying that “the timing of this decision, in the context of ongoing discussions about editorial freedom and independence, could lead to misunderstandings. However, it is important to stress that the two situations are not linked. The RSMG management has consistently stated that the decision regarding Cătălin Țepelin is purely managerial and operational”. In a third press release, Ringier Sports Media Group says they “categorically reject the major disinformation about alleged interference in the work of our GSP journalists” and that “strategic discussions between editorial and commercial teams are a common procedure in media companies around the world”.
Ringier and the gambling industry
Gazeta Sporturilor is owned by Ringier Sportal SRL, whose shareholders are the Swiss trust Ringier Sports Media Group AG (51%) and the Bulgarian company SMAK MEDIA EOOD (49%), represented by Stilian Shishkov. Shishkov is also one of the founding members of the Bulgarian Association of Gambling, a lobbying body of the gambling industry. The members of the association include some of the most important gambling companies as well as Sportal.bg, a media company owned by Ringier (majority shareholder) and Shishkov (minority shareholder).
The betting industry is also an important source of revenue for Gazeta Sporturilor. Paginademedia.ro reported that Dan Puica, the interim CEO of Ringier in Romania, said in a meeting with the newsroom that Robin Lingg and Stilian Shishkov, the heads of Ringier Sport, had told him that “we rely commercially on the betting industry”.
Gambling industry: A powerful force in Romania
There are few restrictions on gambling advertising in Romania. Commercials to betting or gambling can be broadcasted on TV after 23.00, with the exception of the situation of being broadcasted during a sports event. Gambling ads are broadcasted the whole day on sports channels, and also on general interest channels when they broadcast sports events. There are no restrictions for this type of advertising on outdoor and online channels. According to the Romanian Joint Industry Committee for Print and Internet (BRAT), in 2021 the biggest investor in online advertising in Romania was the betting company Superbet, with a budget of around 7 million euros, followed by another betting platform, Betano, with 3.3 million euros. Libertatea reports that in the first 10 months of 2022, almost half a million ads for betting, lotteries and gambling were broadcasted on TV, representing 3.6% of all spots broadcasted on TV.
According to Ziarul Financiar, a financial newspaper, Romanians spent a record 2.4 billion euros on betting in 2022, about 15% more than the previous year. The gambling and betting market went up 40% in the last five years. In one of the poorest countries in the EU with a population of 19 million, there are more than 12,000 halls (sports betting plus slot machines) and 400,000 online accounts on gambling websites.
There are currently several legislative initiatives that would limit the powers of the gambling industry but none of them passed the parliamentary process, being blocked in different stages in parliament. In early October, immediately after the dismissal of the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Sporturilor, the Romanian prime minister, Marcel Ciolacu, declared in a government meeting,“It’s not normal for the betting industry to have so much power. During the pandemic, they sat at the government table. Now they threaten politicians and fire journalists. I think that’s enough, it’s gone far enough”.
The same day, the government passed an emergency measure focused on fiscal measures on gambling that allows only for companies registered in Romania to operate, and also increased taxation. But this measure has only a limited effect. While the state will receive more taxes, its citizens will remain at the mercy of the industry, with no real measures taken to address issues like advertising or the spread of halls around the country.
The summer of 2023 was long and complicated for the people working for GSP and Libertatea. The abrupt closure of GSP’s print edition was a major blow, but the journalists have continued to fight. As part of its November 2 edition, Libertatea published the last print edition of Gazeta Sporturilor. “This is our editorial decision”, Libertatea wrote. “Because the shareholders own the brand, but the owners of a publication’s content were, and are, the readers. The sports lovers of Romania, after 99 years, during which time they have been the foundation and the purpose of this newspaper, deserve our respect and love”.
Romania will have a super election year in 2024, with four separate votes, including presidential, EU, and (likely) national parliamentary elections. And the media are vulnerable: politicians are pouring, non-transparently and without accountability, public money into the media; businesspeople seem to consider editorial independence obsolete and bad for business; and the public doesn’t trust media and is not willing to protect it.
Why is this story important? Because it is a cautionary tale for the region, where business interests seem to gain power over the public interest, and where the public interest and the democratic process remain unserved.
*The initial letter was signed before being published by 70 people working for the two outlets. After the publication, more signatures gathered, reaching 96.
Editors’ note: This is a guest article written for the International Press Institute (IPI). Separately, IPI wrote to Ringier Sports Media Group on 17 October 2023 to raise concerns about the dismissal of Cătălin Țepelin. In its response, Ringer Sports Media Group rejected any claims that the decision was made due to editorial disagreements and rejected allegations of interference in the work of GSP’s newsroom. It said the decision regarding Tolontan was taken due to strategic and operational differences. In the wake of the abrupt closure of the print edition and additional developments, IPI is preparing to respond with further questions in the coming week.
This article was commissioned by IPI as part of the Media Freedom Rapid Response (MFRR), a Europe-wide mechanism which tracks, monitors and responds to violations of press and media freedom in EU Member States, Candidate Countries, and Ukraine. The project is co-funded by the European Commission.