The reader of the Romanian sports newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor was surprised by a report on adulterated disinfectants in April 2016.
Journalists Catalin Tolontan, Razvan Lutak and Mirela Neag published (and dedicated all of the newspaper’s print cover to) a series of reports on a corruption scheme between the Romanian government and the country’s pharmaceutical industry. Adulterated products killed dozens of people in the hospital after the Colectiv nightclub fire in 2015.
The story led to the resignation of the Minister of Health, Patriciu Achimas-Cadariu, and is told in the documentary “Collective” (2019), by Alexander Nanau. The work, with two Oscar nominations, will be presented on Sunday (18) by “It’s All True” – available for free on the festival site at 12 noon.
“The best investigation was done by a sports newspaper,” shouts a protester in the film.
“I don’t know why we sports journalists [fomos procurados pelas fontes]”Tolontan, 52, jokes in a videoconference interview with Folha.” It is easier for you to resist the pressure from the government and the big pharmaceutical companies because nothing in this world puts as much pressure as the football fans.
With decades of sports experience, the then-newspaper editor even traveled to Rio during the 2016 Olympics, amidst health surveys. It was then that he revealed that the sports equipment purchased for the Romanian delegation was second-rate – a scandal that brought down the president of the country’s Olympic committee, Alin Petrache.
He argues that sports journalism can play an important role in the health crisis of the Covid-19 pandemic and also in times of hate speech amplified by politicians like President Jair Bolsonaro (without a party).
How the bore [jargão jornalístico para informação exclusiva] the most important part of a historic health crisis came to you? I don’t know why we sports journalists [fomos procurados]. I think this is valid for all sports journalists: we are trained from day one not to please the public, because it is impossible to please the fans, as you know very well in Brazil. If you write about a flu, the next day Fla fans, flu fans and Corinthians too will be upset. And not just the fans, but the players, sometimes even the coach.
It is easier for you to resist the pressure from the government and the big pharmaceuticals because nothing in the world puts more pressure on you than football fans.
We have been working with surveys for over 25 years and we have even seen the captain of the national team, who was my idol in my childhood, Gheorghe Popescu [ex-Barcelona], end up in prison. He was arrested after our club money laundering investigation. With this, we gained the trust of the public year after year. After the fire [da Colectiv], doctors and people from the pharmaceutical company came to see us. We have a reputation for being fearless. Of course, this is an exaggeration, but it is the image of our work.
How did the debate go to put a public health headline on the cover of a sports newspaper? In Romania, the Colectiv fire is a chronology. Our whole society is linked in some way to the affair, it was a mourning across the country for these young people and for the thousands of Romanians who went to unsanitary hospitals. For me, as a journalist, it doesn’t matter if you are a sportsman or a politician, you are a news reporter in the first place. Every big investigation, at the beginning, is a little news and a lot of curiosity. We are not able to refuse the news just because we mainly cover sports.
Do you think there is a separation between sports journalism and other fields? That’s what Collecitve means for journalism around the world. We don’t deserve credit for this, the credit goes to the manager and his team. The purpose of the film is to pursue the responsibility of the government, it is the job of all journalists. We have a saying in Romania which is: sports journalists are responsible for chants [em inglês, corners, mesma palavra para o escanteio do futebol]. This is a big advantage for us, because when we ask questions [às autoridades], did not give us importance. They said “too bad, they do not understand public health, medicine”. And our response to that was: OK, so we don’t understand, so as governors of a democratic state, please explain to us as if we were a fourth grader. And they were shocked. Because it is quite difficult to explain corruption in plain language.
In Brazil, there are those who defend a thought that sport and politics do not mix. Is it like that in Romania? The first reaction of the public is: I am on this sports site, not to see politics, but to watch sports, to distract myself. And this is also an advantage, because the reader is less skeptical when reading the information from a sports newspaper. The public knew that we were not one-sided, that we would treat the parties like teams.
But if we have good information, it is our duty to communicate it to them. L’Equipe, the sports journalism bible, reported on sexual abuse and sport was just the starting point. The same with doping. We talk about sport at the start, but that involves medicine, crimes, links with the mafia sometimes, a lot of money. Sport is just the tip of the iceberg.
What is the role of sports journalism during a health crisis like the one we are going through today? The same public money is spent on building stadiums as on hospitals. So the role is simply to find the facts, to be very precise. And being precise is a matter of life and death in our profession. One of the first lessons in sports journalism is that if you make a mistake, the fans …
Is there an advantage to being a sports journalist at the moment? I have attended six editions of the Olympic Games, hundreds of games. And I don’t know if there is a journalistic specialty that is obliged to finish the article by the time the game ends; write in real time, telling the meaning of the game and not just the movements. You’re trained to be really fast, which is a big plus for the audience after all.
If there is a protest in the city, it can also be an advantage to have a sports reporter there, because he knows the crowd, he will not be afraid of it even if there is violence. Because that’s what we do all the time, people have been cursing us for our work for 30 years, even before social media, in stadiums.
With social media, fake news and offensive messages sometimes get more audiences than scoops. How to cope? I think that’s the main problem, not just in sports journalism, not just in journalism, but in our democracies. If you are a professional, in any field, and you are not strong enough to stand up to public satisfaction, you are lost. And if you’re afraid of public comment, you’re lost. Of course, it is very difficult to resist, because there is a lot of hate speech, xenophobic, ultranationalist, unbalanced comments, propaganda. [política], people paid to attack you. The reporter cannot look for popularity, but for facts. The public has the right to have opinions, but the facts do not change. Facts are like the results of games.
In the film, you debate the commentary of a reader who uses the word genocide to characterize what is happening in Romania at that time. Why didn’t you veto the comment? For you, who know a little about the Bolsonaro government, would it be correct to use that word to refer to it? Sometimes if you use the word genocide as an opinion, it’s not a court verdict, just an opinion. And the public is free to use that kind of opinion. But when we talk about genocide, hate speech and populism, we know that in Romania. Our last president [Traian Basescu] he was an extreme right-wing populist.
When I was in Brazil for the Olympics, I went to Petrópolis, because the writer Stefan Zweig went into exile and died there in 1942. And he uses the term “genocide” as follows: Europe s self-destructed by a genocidal spirit that begins with hate speech, fear, bad decisions and powerful people who do nothing against the populists. I am making this comparison not only for Brazil, but also for us. Unfortunately, you have an almost modern model of this populist.