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Keeping the Criminality Myth Alive: Stigmatisation of Roma through the Italian Media

11 March 2005

Claudia Tavani1

That Roma living in Italy face persistent discrimination in all aspects of their lives is not news. Whether they are Italian citizens or not, immigrants or refugees, Roma do not enjoy equal rights with the rest of the people living in Italy. This becomes obvious even by simply watching television and reading newspapers, which often involuntarily – but sometimes more willingly – help to perpetuate the negative stereotypes of Roma. I myself have witnessed on a number of occasions TV programmes (news reports but also very popular shows) which in one way or another made negative comments on Roma, reinforcing the stereotypical views of the rest of the Italian society. The purpose of this article is to provide the readers with a better understanding of the climate of intolerance surrounding Roma in Italy. Before going into the details of what I have come across, I will briefly point out the main national and international legal instruments that, if applied in good faith, can have an impact on the life of Roma in Italy. I will then move on to describe a recent show I saw on the Italian TV which inspired me to write a letter to one of the most popular web-forums of the country. Further, I will give an account of the outrageous comments on my letter that I have received, illustrating the attitude of the majority of Italians towards Roma.

The Italian Legal Background

Article 10 of the Constitution of the Republic of Italy states that the Italian juridical system "conforms to the norms of international law […]." Italy has ratified many international instruments that aim at protecting and promoting human rights, including protection against discrimination and minority rights. On 13 October 1975, Italy ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; on 15 September, 1978, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights as well as the International Covenant on Economic Social and Cultural Rights were ratified.

At the European level, Italy has ratified the European Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms (ECHR) on 26 October 1955; the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities entered into force for Italy on 3 March 1998. Italy however, has not yet ratified Protocol 12 of the ECHR and the Council of Europe Charter for Regional or Minority Languages. In addition to these instruments, Italy has also signed the Central European Initiative Minority Protection Document (19 November 1994), a non-binding document the signing of which is a symbol of the political will to improve the conditions of national minorities.

In July 2003, the Italian government has adopted a decree transposing the EU Race Equality Directive2. Following the decree, a new one (legislative decree of 9 July 2003, n. 215) was adopted to create an enforcement body within the Department for Equal Opportunities (Dipartimento per le Pari OpportunitUntil then, the only Italian governmental entity that addressed issues related to minorities and discrimination was the Directorate for Civil Rights, Citizenship and National Minorities within the department for civil liberties and immigration of the Ministry of Interior. Established in 1994, this body aims at promoting and protecting constitutional rights; however, it does not have any specific functions related to the Roma.

As a Member of the European Union Italy has also signed the Constitution of the EU on 29 October 2004, which incorporates the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the Union at Part I, Title II.

Italy is one among several European countries where Roma are often denied citizenship. The "New Norms on Citizenship" (Law n. 91 of 5 February 1992) establish precise rules for granting Italian citizenship. These include residency on the country's territory for a period of at least 3 years and/or having been born in the country. Nevertheless, Roma who have been present in Italy for over 30 years and whose children were born in the country have not been given citizenship. In the best case, some of them are provided with permits to stay for a limited and usually short period of time3.

Article 3 of the Constitution provides for equality of treatment, by conferring equal status and equality before the law on all citizens "without distinction as to sex, race, language, religion, political opinions, and personal and social conditions." In the Italian legal system, the main framework for the implementation of the principle of equal treatment and non-discrimination is incorporated by the statutory rules contained in chapter IV of Act n. 286 of 1998 regulating immigration and the legal condition of foreigners. Although the Act is devoted to the legal condition of foreigners, the section concerning discrimination applies also to Italian nationals.

As of today, Italy has not recognised the Roma as a national minority. Law n. 482 of 15 December 1999, entitled "Norms concerning the protection of linguistic and historical minorities" ("Norme in materia di tutela delle minoranze linguistiche e storiche") recognises the presence in Italy of at least 12 different minorities, but the Government has not found it appropriate to include the Roma within the scope of the law4 . Indeed, although Italian authorities admit the necessity of a comprehensive policy that aims at the full integration of the Romani and Sinti communities present on the Italian territory, when discussing Law n. 482, the government expressed various doubts regarding the recognition of Roma as a national minority. Officially, the main questions regarded the type of minority status to be given to Roma (some maintained that Romani groups should be included among the historic minorities, others thought that Roma are too heterogeneous to fall under a specific minority category)5. In reality, the problem was more of a political nature: The centre-left coalition leading the government preferred not to include Roma amongst the recognised minorities in order to avoid obstructions on the part of the right-wing parties that may have eventually lead to the rejection of the law itself. Instead, the Chamber of Deputies (the lower chamber of the Italian Parliament) decided, at its session of 17 June 1998, to introduce a separate law entitled "Norms concerning the protection of the Roma minority" ("Norme in materia di tutela della minoranza zingara"). However, as of the beginning of 2005 no such law has been introduced, nor is there discussion of introducing it in the near future.

The presence of a large body of legal instruments of which the Roma can avail themselves to defend their rights does not automatically translate into adequate measures to prevent and remedy discrimination against them. Furthermore, the government has not made any serious efforts to fight prejudices against Roma in society. A good starting point would be to monitor the media – the language and visual images they use – and make sure that these do not resort to stereotypical and humiliating portrayal of Roma. A good balance should be established between the right to freedom of the press and that of freedom from discrimination. The show I saw about two months ago prompted me to underline this necessity.

Le Iene Show and Its Discriminatory Allegations

While spending a short vacation in Italy in November, one night (Monday, 1 November 2004) I decided to relax in front of the TV and watch what used to be one of my favourite shows, called "Le Iene Show." This is a very popular show, which makes political satire and investigations in economic, legal, political, social and even sports fields. The show is watched on average by over 3,000,000 people every Sunday and Monday night. That night they had a short documentary about the international traffic of stolen cars6. One of the members of the team of "Le Iene" recounted how, in the previous year, the show had helped the Italian police identify a man who had robbed a woman by paying with a fake check for a luxury car he bought from her. In October 2004, the police detained a group of criminals involved in international traffic of stolen cars. A police officer interviewed during the November 1 edition of the show pointed out that members of this band were Italian citizens as well as people of Romani ethnicity. He added that a "nomad camp"7. (which was then shown in the documentary) had been monitored by a police patrol. The journalist then asked the viewers to notice the big new caravans in the camp. He commented that the camp looked like a luxury car dealer shop and added that it did not look like the typical nomad camp because it was too neat and tidy. The implication was that it was impossible for places inhabited by Roma to appear so neat and clean meaning that the only Roma who can attain a decent standard of living are the ones involved in illegal activities. The police officer went on to say that the police patrol also followed a car which had just been sold and inside it there was a nomad. While the car had stopped at a car service, the police managed to fix a satellite antenna on it in order to be able to follow the car's direction. The car went from Bari, in South Italy, to a villa in the outskirts of Brescia, in the north. The police officer made an ironic comment that the villa belonged to "persons without property," referring in particular to the nomad who had been arrested, thereby exposing the nomad's allegedly false claim that he was homeless. The same car was then brought to Spain and thanks to the co-operation of the Spanish police and the Interpol, the criminals involved in the traffic were arrested. The brief documentary then ended. But my thoughts did not end with it.

The Letter to Italians, the Daily Web-Forum of the Corriere Della Sera

Needless to say, I was shocked at seeing that a TV show I held in high respect showed a documentary which would negatively impact the image of Roma in the Italian society. I asked myself: If among the alleged criminals, apart from Roma, there were also Italians, what was the reason to point a finger at the Roma? If the journalists showed Romani camps, would it not have been fair to also show houses belonging to non-Roma involved in the criminal activities in question? Why was the name of the Romani suspect mentioned in the beginning of the documentary and then repeated throughout, while the names of the other suspects were not mentioned once? Was this a way of implying that the Roma was the sole and main organiser of the criminal activity? And was there any need to comment on the fact that the nomad camp was actually clean and tidy and the caravans were nice and large rather than being just wrecks? Did Le Iene want to imply that only Roma involved in criminal activities can attain a decent standard of living while the rest is condemned to a life of grime? Did they forget about the vast majority of Roma who respect the law and wish to integrate into our society? Did they not realise that their documentary might only contribute to the perpetuation of negative stereotypes of Roma?

With these questions in mind, and hoping to find out more about other peoples' thoughts on the topic, I decided to write a letter to one of the largest online forums, called Italians, which appears every day on the Corriere della Sera8 web-site. Readers and participants in this forum are generally well-educated people, often living overseas, and supposedly open-minded. Knowing the attitude of the people in Italy (including the editors who select the letters for publication in the forum), I had little hope for my letter to be published. However, probably because the letter discussed a popular TV show, a few days later it was on the web9. Together with the letter, which briefly reported what I had seen in the show and my questions about it, my email address was provided, to encourage a debate. And what a debate I was involved in!

My email was flooded with letters of indignant people, who made the most outrageous comments. I suppose these only minimally reflect the way Italians feel about Roma – let's not forget that the readers and participants in the forum are usually quite liberal, educated and open minded, and this is not necessarily the case for the rest of the Italian society. I worry that in reality Italians feel even worse about Roma. But it is hard to believe that people can feel any worse than this. What follows is emblematic.

The Comments on the Letter From the Forum

Most of the comments I have received were extremely racist and left little space for debate. I have translated a number of them which expressed their point in a more substantive way10. Only one or two comments showed a very remote interest of the authors to learn more about Roma. I must also underline that I disagree with these comments, and I have tried as best as I could to respond to them but this only encouraged more racist comments in response.

For example, one person who wrote to me pointed out that a large part of the Roma – he was not sure whether it was the majority of them or not, but in any case this part was too "visible" – refuse to work because of their "culture" and indeed in their culture stealing is considered a respectable profession: When Roma get a job, they do not take this seriously, and keep sending their children to beg in the street or to steal. He went on to say that the Roma believe they have a right to be assisted, but they do not even care enough to carry documents with them. He believed that this is a well-known fact, although the authorities of the EU Member States refuse to admit it, and instead, insist that Roma are discriminated by a racist society. These – he said – only exasperate the society, which ends up hating the Roma, even those who are not actually involved in criminal activities. He concluded by saying that the Roma should make an effort to respect the law, that one cannot refuse to work because of his culture and demand assistance and then complain when he is discriminated.

Another person wrote the following equation: Italian criminal=jail; Roma criminal=poor, marginalised person-why-don't-we-help-him-get-integrated-into-our-society. He then added that this assumption is unfair. A third person said that I should simply try to live next to a Romani camp, and promised that if I end up complaining about the unbearable situation he would understand my reasons and would not call me "racist." A person living in Piacenza told me about the time when a Romani camp was placed near his neighbourhood, and how this fact lead to a series of burglaries in the neighbourhood. He added that once he found two young Roma (aged around 15, he said), stealing from his cellar, and only because he noticed their young age he decided not to beat them up. Furthermore, according to him, just outside the city, in an area called Pittolo, a group of nomads built a huge villa, and it was well known that such buildings were built on illegal activities. He then complained that, if the residents of the area dared protest about this, there were always people like me, politically correct, to protest against such complaints.

A woman asked me if I was really that naive, if I have ever dealt with any Romani person and if I really believed that the Roma want to integrate in our society? She also said that the Roma do not belong to any human category with whom it is possible to have any dialogue, and the only thing non-Roma could do is to tolerate them and succumb to their cunnings. She went on to express her disappointment with the fact that Romani children went to school dirty and full of lice, they infested the rest of the school and the school staff had to wash them because the stench they emanated was unbearable. These children, she continued, were often violent and aggressive; they appeared to be frustrated by their condition, being so different from the rest of the pupils. She emphasised how teachers felt embarrassed by the low achievement of Romani children, who did not receive any support from their parents, who rather than helping them with their studies, would drop them at traffic lights and street corners to beg. The writer then wondered if this was the way of achieving integration.

Further comments pointed out that the Roma do not integrate because they do not really care about integration; that Roma receive benefits for the poor and they do not want to give them up. Someone said that we should not care about the integration or ghettoisation of Roma and indeed when it comes to Roma, we are never racist enough. Another said that if Le Iene did not show any of the Italian citizens arrested for the traffic in stolen cars, nor their houses, this was definitely because they had not made false claims – that is, that they did not have houses and were poor. According to this person, to say that 99% of the Roma live in the dirt means only to say the truth; the Romani culture is parasitic and there is no difference between a thief and a Romani person. The same person defined culture as "creation, debate, opening up to the world, thirst for knowledge, a walk towards new forms of expression", and claimed that those who close in themselves do not create culture but conflict. He asked whether piles of garbage and thefts can be considered culture. If this was the case, he commented, he observed the highest manifestations of culture and should be happy to be able to enjoy multiculturalism! Furthermore, he believed that in reality stereotypes are perpetuated by those who, for the sake of being politically correct, attempt to defend what cannot be defended.


The emails I have received in response to my letter show that there is a long way to go before full equality will be achieved and before discrimination against Roma – by public institutions or by private citizens – will disappear. However, on 2 December 2004, six members of the Lega Nord party (called "Leghisti") were convicted for having taken part in a campaign under the slogan "Gypsies out of our town," which included collection of signatures, posters all over the town of Verona, press conferences and newspaper interviews which all incited racism and discrimination against Roma and Sinti. The Leghisti insisted that they had been campaigning in favour of legality, and that they wanted to expel the Roma from the town because wherever the Roma placed their camps, an increase in illegal activities had been registered.

The sentence against the Lega Nord members represents a huge victory for the Roma and Sinti in Italy, and for the democratic values in general. It shows that people who publicly discriminate against Roma should not and will not go unpunished, and it helps to build trust in the legal system. It will help create the basis to prevent and punish those who publicly discriminate against Roma or incite racial discrimination and violence. Of course this is only a small step, but nevertheless an important one.


  1. Claudia Tavani is a PhD candidate in Law at the University of Essex. Her current research focus is the Roma minority of Italy.
  2. A. Simoni, "Executive Summary on Race Equality Directive: State of Play in Italy", 17 October 2003, available at State of Play in Italy, accessed on 4 January 2005.
  3. Many - but not all - of the Roma living in Italy are not Italian citizens. In any case, their legal status within the country means little in terms of protection from discrimination, equality of rights and fair treatment. Whether they are citizens or not, the Roma living in Italy face everyday discrimination in most aspect of their lives.
  4. In the Italian legal system the concept of minority is closely linked to that of language, as expressed by Article 6 of the Constitution which states that "the Republic shall safeguard linguistic minorities by means of special provisions."
  5. Thirteenth periodic reports of States Parties due in 2001, Addendum, Italy, n. 4 above, para. 232.
  6. This can be viewed in full at Truffa auto 2 and by clicking on "Truffa auto 2."Website accessed on 4 January 2005.
  7. In Italy, Roma are generally referred to as "nomadi" (nomads).
  8. Corriere della Sera is one of the best known Italian newspapers and one of those with the largest number of readers.
  9. The letter, which is in Italian, was published on 5 November 2004, and is available at:
    http://www.corriere.it/solferino/severgnini/04-11-05/10.spm, website accessed on 4 January 2005.
  10. I have saved all the emails I have received but I prefer not to provide the names and addresses of those who wrote to me.

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