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Anti-Romani Speech in Europe's Public Space - The Mechanism of Hate Speech

21 November 2007

Henry Scicluna1 

Introduction

Hate speech can take various forms, ranging from offensive remarks to incitement to violence. In the case of Roma, hate speech covers the whole range of abuse and follows a pattern distinct from ordinary abusive speech against any given group. Whether it is a minor insult or an outright incitement to killing, the purpose of the perpetrator is the same: To exclude and eliminate Roma from society. What is noticeable in most countries is a constant and systematic escalation in the gravity of hate speech rather than sporadic incidents.

Hate speech is particularly dangerous because all anti-Romani activities - evictions, school segregation, physical aggressions - spring from it. Vilifying statements by high officials, including ministers, politicians and various authorities, echoed by the press have provided legitimacy for hatred and hence for exclusion. As a result, the ordinary citizens, fortified in their prejudices, condone and support discriminatory measures against Roma.

Today we are witnessing an unprecedented number of evictions, and an alarming number of physical aggressions against Roma. There is a need for urgent action to stop this dangerous tide of hatred. International organisations and institutions need to be more alert and react more strongly to unacceptable statements made by politicians or in the press. Non-governmental organisations should make fuller use of the European Court of Human Rights and of the right to a collective complaint under the European Social Charter.

Roma have the right to live in safety and dignity like any other citizens.

"Roma as an object of ridicule"

On 19 May 2007, the President of Romania, Mr Traian Basescu, addressing Ms Andreea Pana, a journalist, stated, "You pussy, don't you have anything to do today?", and then said privately while being recorded, "How aggressive that stinky gypsy was."2 These remarks, uttered by no less a person than the President of a European Union Member State, epitomise the spirit of anti-Gypsyism that is today rampant amongst European public authorities.

Anti-Gypsyism is not a form of discrimination based on differences of culture and behaviour, but an attitude of utter contempt. It is not intended to criticise but to humiliate and demean. Anti-Romani speech in the public sphere does not indicate dislike but hate and is intended to hurt. Roma are not disliked for some characteristics which are perceived as negative - they are hated because they are Roma. It is not even aimed at assimilating Roma by force - which would also be unacceptable - it is merely aimed at excluding them.

On 19 March 2006, the crowd at a football stadium in Bucharest did not mince words in expressing their feelings as they chanted, "We hate the Gypsies."3 This contemptuous attitude has a dehumanising effect which categorises Roma as inferior beings and, at best, as an object of derision.

Mr Dimitar Stoyanov, a Bulgarian Observer at the European Parliament, tried to be funny in an e-mail he sent in September 2006 to a number of European Parliamentarians on the occasion of Hungarian Romani MEP Ms Livia Jaroka's nomination for a prize. Nobody laughed. But his e-mail is a good example of the use of ridicule to demean an individual. The following extract illustrates the point:

"I've seen lots of Gypsy women, but all those her age are much skinnier. Doesn't she share the terrible suffering her people are bearing all around Europe, the poverty, the miserable conditions and the unemployment? Well, I guess when you are an MEP you have to put some weight on you. Have to look serious."4

By making Ms Jaroka the object of ridicule, not only did the writer offend her dignity as a woman and a Romani individual; he has also stripped her of all intellectual competence. Through this mechanism, Roma are presented as stupid individuals, incapable of any achievements, whilst the accomplishments of Romani doctors, lawyers, mayors, parliamentarians, university professors and researchers are ignored.

The Mayor of Craiova, in Romania, was more straightforward in presenting Roma as sub-human in January 2005 when he stated on television, "[...] if I put them [Roma] in the zoo and showed them to kids saying look at the monkeys, they wouldn't see any difference."5

"Roma as a public danger"

For many public authorities and politicians, however, Roma are not just the object of contempt and derision - they are dangerous, born criminals. A couple of years ago, a Dutch public prosecutor declared in open court that "amongst Moroccans and football fans, there is a small group that gives trouble; within the Roma community it is exactly the opposite: the ones that do not commit a crime are the exception."6

No less a personality than the Prefect of Rome, Mr Achille Serra, confirmed this point of view after visiting several Romani camps around Rome in May of this year. He was quoted as having stated, "[...] At ten o'clock in the morning I saw children, dirty, playing with a ball [...]. The women were not around because they are at the metro stealing purses and the men were sleeping because perhaps they worked all night robbing apartments."7 This view was further echoed by the Prefect of the Vaucluse, France, who said in an interview that Roma live their lives by swindling and plundering.8

The Romanian magazine "Cultura" published by the Romanian Cultural Foundation carried an article in its issue of 30 August 2007, stating, inter alia, that:

"The social problem created by Roma is not from yesterday or today, it has been present since the Europeans had their first contacts with this ethnic group...[E]verywhere, the gypsies managed to inculcate an almost complete lack of trust in themselves and to build an image of professional criminals. Nobody loves the gypsies (with the extraordinary exception of those who have never had contact with them)...[T]he gypsies have only their own law and their respect for the other is either equal to zero, or depends on immediate interest or individual friendships..."9

At best, Roma are presented as a menace.On 30 March 2007, the Czech Deputy Prime Minister, Jiří Čunek, said that for people to receive state subsidies, "[...] you would have to get sunburned [alluding to the darker skin colour of many Roma], make a mess with your family, put up fires on town squares, and only then some politicians would say, "He is a really miserable man."10

Political parties have joined in the fun, probably encouraged by the examples set by their political leaders. If presidents, ministers and prefects revel in insulting the Romani population, why should political parties restrain themselves from doing likewise?

For example, in February 2006, the Italian political party Forza Nuova distributed a leaflet on what it called "the problem of nomads" in the town of Montebelluna, in the province of Treviso. According to this political party, "Gypsies, whether Romani or belonging to another community, are known for their skills as thieves and pickpockets, through the exploitation of children, as well as for their usual drunkenness and fighting in public [...]. It is also rumoured that they carry out burglaries in private houses where there are elderly or defenceless people [...]."11 This last statement is particularly interesting: It matters little whether Roma actually carry out burglaries; it suffices that Roma are rumoured to have committed such acts to spread the rumour even further.

Public statements by political personalities and parties are echoed by the media, which rarely fails to underline the Roma ethnicity of an alleged criminal. For example, on 30 June 2007, the French regional newspaper Les Dernières Nouvelles d'Alsace, reporting on a judgment in a murder case, entitled the article, "Four Gypsies Condemned". Would the newspaper have pointed out the ethnicity of the perpetrators had they not been Romani? I strongly doubt it, and if they had, there would have been a public outcry. On this occasion there was only a deafening silence.

In a report published by the Creating Effective Grassroots Alternative Foundation (CEGA) on the image of Roma in contemporary Bulgarian Press, the author, Ms Galia Lazarova, summarised the situation in these words:

"When the Bulgarian press reports crimes which are not committed by Roma the criminal is called thief, robber, brigand [...]. However, when the crime is committed by a Romani person [...] the crime is reported as an act of specific ethnic nature. [...] The following are usual journalistic expressions: Gypsy thieves, the thievish Gypsy, thievish Roma, the endless thefts of the Gypsies, the daily crime rate of the Gypsy."12

Politicians and the media concur in convincing the public that Roma can do no good - all ten million of them are criminals according to many media sources. For example, in 2006 and 2007, report titles on the Internet media portal "regions.ru" in Russia referred to Roma exclusively as dangerous criminals.13 Throughout 2005, the Russian newspaper Budni contained articles identifying the Romani ethnicity of individuals suspected of committing a crime,14 and in 2006 the Russian newspaper Moskovsky Komsomoletc published articles linking Roma to theft and child kidnapping.15

"Roma as a useless burden"

But Roma are not only perceived as dangerous - they are, according to several public officials, including ministers and high officials, irrecuperable and impossible to integrate. When the current President of Romania, Mr Traian Basescu, was Mayor of Bucharest, he was reported to have stated, "Gypsies are nomads and nobody can do anything about them - they will bring their horses into the flats and there any attempt to civilise them ends [...] we should build special camps and keep them outside our cities."16 According to Mr Viazoslav Moric, a member of the Slovak National Party, Roma are "idiots" and "mental retards".17

Unfortunately, and hopefully unwittingly, the Prime Minister of the Czech Republic, Mr Mirek Topolanek, has gone some way in supporting these views. In a speech earlier this year at the launch of the European Year of Equal Opportunities, Prime Minister Topolanek claimed that "no well-meant effort to make equal that cannot be equal, no positive discrimination will guarantee the equality of opportunities."18 Though referring to disadvantaged groups in general, this limited vision put forth by Prime Minister Topolanek renders the effectiveness of any equal opportunity measures for Roma in the Czech Republic highly questionable given the lack of conviction of the highest Czech officials in adopting such measures.

"Hiding away Roma"

Dangerous, inadaptable, impossible to integrate - ministers, parliamentarians and the media ceaselessly underline it - so what other logical conclusion is there but to exclude them from society? This is what society throughout Europe has been doing for several centuries; in the form of isolated settlements, segregated schooling and refusals of employment. One would have thought that in this enlightened century things would have changed - not at all.

Society is aware of the miserable existence of Roma and the problems they face daily. Even hate speech recognises this miserable existence. Back in 1993, Mr Vladimí­r Meciar, a member of the People's Party Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, addressing a crowd at Spiska Nova Ves reportedly said, "Another thing we ought to take into consideration is an extended reproduction of the socially inadaptable population....poorly adaptable mentally, badly adaptable socially, with serious health problems, [emphasis added by author] who are simply a great burden on this society."19 This view is shared by Mr Paul Marin, who, in an article posted on the website of the Noua Dreapta organisation in Romania maintains that, "The Gypsy community represents an explosive criminal potential. Burdened with their condition, [emphasis added by author] impulsive, united in evil, the Gypsies represent a foreign community impossible to integrate."20

One way of "solving" a problem is apparently to hide it, and this is the option most often chosen by European society when it comes to Roma. It is easier to denigrate than to understand, easier to evict than to settle, easier to alienate than to integrate. Major events provide an excellent opportunity for hiding problems. In Greece, for example, whole areas were "cleansed" of Roma in Athens on the occasion of the 2004 Olympic Games.21 The same "cleansing" is about to happen in London, England, in preparation of the next Olympic Games.22

Italy provides an excellent recent example of this logic. 'Pacts for Security' - the terminology is significant - have been signed in Rome and Milan, foreseeing the forced eviction of more than 10,000 Roma from their homes in Rome alone. The Rome Pact was signed, inter alia, by the Prefect of Rome and the Minister of the Interior. The Milan Pact was signed by the Prefect of Milan and the Vice Minister of the Interior. Less than half of the Roma concerned will be moved to the periphery of the cities, in settlements which are cynically referred to as 'solidarity villages', and strategies are being drawn up to intensify police controls to "guarantee the security of the residents."23 The idea is not new: In 1999, the Mayor of Usti Nad Labem in the Czech Republic built a wall to separate the Romani community from the rest of the population.

"Limiting the number of Roma"

These are, however, soft measures compared to some other solutions. Politicians have repeatedly sounded the alarm over the loss of national identity due to an increase in the Romani population. So, how about adopting measures to reduce the number of Roma?

Forced or uninformed sterilisation of Romani women was practised in Sweden and Norway from 1934 to 1974. It has been practised in the former Czechoslovakia well into the 1990s and in the Czech Republic up to 2004. Sweden and Norway have publicly recognised this practice and paid compensation to the victims, but in the Czech and Slovak Republics there has been no official political condemnation of those acts and no compensation proposed.

Nobody seemed to be shocked by these practices, so much so that in 2002 Mr Robert Fico, head of the Social Democracy Party and Slovak Prime Minister, included in his parliamentary campaign a promise to "actively effect the irresponsible growth of the Roman[i] population."24 In 2003, Mr Jan Slota, chairman of the Slovak National Party, announced he would present to Parliament a draft law which would offer Romani men 480 EUR to undergo a sterilisation procedure.25

The Bulgarian Health Minister, Mr Radoslav Gaydarski, has now gone a step further. In an interview with journalists in October 2006, the Minister expressed concern that if the birth rate amongst Roma is not limited, the mortality rate in Bulgaria would remain amongst the highest in Europe as many of these children do not survive until adulthood.26 Of course, the Minister could and should examine the root causes of the high mortality rate amongst Roma and take the necessary measures to eliminate those causes - but why bother if you can solve the problem by preventing them from being born? Minister Gaydarski also suggested to develop further his bright ideas with the health ministers of Hungary, Romania and Slovakia.

"Eliminating Roma"

Let us not forget that some want to go even further. In a Romanian football stadium in March 2006, thousands of football fans chanted "Die Gypsy."27 At roughly the same time, Mr Volen Siderov, a member of the Ataka political party in Bulgaria proposed making soap out of Roma.28

Responsibility and indifference

What is particularly disturbing is that some instances of hate speech come from high level politicians with ministerial responsibilities. Similar remarks about other ethnic groups would have led to their downfall. Vilifying Roma, however, is a different matter.

In a joint declaration published on 19 June 2007, Romani CRISS, the Media Monitoring Agency and the European Roma Grassroots Organisation expressed their shock at "[...] the lack of reaction from society, intellectuals, political parties, government, from people in general" to the remarks made by the President of Romania to a Romani journalist.29

Some governments have reacted where major political figures were involved in hate speech matters concerning Roma; but there is an enormous gap between the mass of hate speech by politicians, the public and the media and the few cases of immediate condemnation of such acts. Most of the time, it is thanks to the efforts of non-governmental organisations that the judicial machine is put in motion and that governments decide to take action.

Sometimes the reaction is, ironically, the opposite to what should be expected. When the Greek Helsinki Monitor complained that Mr Anastassios Kanellopoulos, former Chief Appeals Prosecutor of Patras and currently Deputy Prosecutor of the Greek Supreme Court, made racist remarks by stating in an interview that Patras should not be allowed to become a "Gyp-town",30 rather than being sanctioned, the Chief Prosecutor of the Supreme Court assigned Mr Kanellopoulos responsibility for investigating corruption amongst judges.31

Popular feelings vis-à-vis Roma are fed by centuries of prejudices and stereotypes. It is therefore not surprising that the general population in most countries has difficulties in coming to terms with this ethnic group. Politicians, on the other hand, tend to go out of their way to please the public. Much of the hate speech recorded in this article might make politicians popular. It helps greatly in increasing the animosity of the majority population towards Roma. In the long run, the rift created within the country is to the detriment of all.

Particular attention has to be paid not to overplay the issue of national identity. Roma are nationals of the country in which they live. Most Roma have probably been living in their respective countries longer than many who deny them that identity. Both politicians and the media have an educational role to play rather than fomenting nationalistic sentiments of another age.

It might be argued that most of hate speech comes from extremist political parties. Facts show, however, that some of the most alarming statements have been made by politicians with governmental responsibilities representing moderate parties. Such behaviour can only encourage extremists in their hate campaigns - and history teaches us that the marginal parties of today could be the dictators of tomorrow.

The role of European organisations and institutions

In an increasingly integrated Europe, one would expect European organisations and institutions to take a firmer stand against politicians and the media that use hate speech against Roma in Member States. Recommendations are not enough; nor are Community Directives. In certain cases, a direct intervention by the European Commission, the Council of Europe or the Agency for Fundamental Rights is the best way to underline the seriousness of certain statements. The Council of Europe's Commissioner for Human Rights has been successful in a number of interventions but much more is needed.

Nor should international organisations and institutions forget that combating hate speech is only a part of a wider issue - that of ensuring Roma the dignity that comes with decent housing, education and employment. Nongovernmental organisations should in particular actively promote recourse to the European Court of Human Rights and to the oversight committee of the European Social Charter. Both these bodies have already an excellent record in standing up for the fundamental human rights of Roma and have been instrumental in forcing governments to change certain practices.

At the end of the day, however, recognition of this dignity can only come through the education of the general public. The Dosta! Campaign launched by the Council of Europe, under a joint European Commission/Council of Europe programme (see www.dosta.org), addresses the general public and politicians about their prejudices towards Roma. The results in the participating countries - Albania, Bosnia Herzegovina, Montenegro, Serbia and the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia - have been very encouraging and it is now envisaged to extend the campaign to other Council of Europe Member States.

Endnotes:

  1. Henry Scicluna was born in Malta and studied law at the University in his home country. He joined the staff of the Council of Europe in 1969 and has worked in the European Court of Human Rights and in various sectors dealing with health and social affairs. He retired in 2003, and since then he has worked on a voluntary basis as Coordinator of Activities Concerning Roma and Travellers within the Council of Europe and with other international organisations. Mr Scicluna played an important role in the setting up of the European Roma and Travellers Forum.
  2. For further information, see: http://www.petitionspot.com/petitions/romawomen. Posted on 22 May, 2007.
  3. “Some of us stood up. But is anybody ready to listen at the European level?” Available online at: http://www.ergonetwork.org/standup.doc Disseminated by Roma Liloro and Roma Virtual Network on 13 November 2006.
  4. E-mail communication from Mr Dimitar Styanov on 27 September 2006 to Thomas Wise, Mogens Camre, Jelko Kacin, Marios Matsakis, Josef Szajer, and Roger Helmer MEP assistants and observers.
  5. E-mail communication from Mr Valeriu Nicolae dated 20 April 2005. Subject: Mayor anti-gypsism-Romania.
  6. Complaint lodged by the Ladelijke Roma Stichtung “Roma emancipatie” on 23 December 2005 against Mr W. J van Elsdingen, Advocate General. The original text is the following: “Waar over Marokkanen en voetbalsupporters wordt gesproken is het een kleine groep die het verpest voor het geheel. En binnen de Roma gemeenschap is dat precies andersom; het zijn de uitzonderingen die geen misdrijven plegen.”
  7. European Roma Rights Centre/osservAzione. Letter of concern to the President of the Republic of Italy, the President of the Italian Council of Ministers, the Italian Minister of the Interior and the General Director of the National Office Against Racial Discrimination, dated 23 May 2007. Available online at: http:/www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2796&archiv=1.
  8. Quoted by Ms Kay Beard in a presentation made at a meeting of the Council of Europe’s Committee of experts on Roma and Travellers on 20-21 May 2007.
  9. Duca, Alexandru Bogdan. 30 August 2007. “Eterna tiganiada?”, in Cultura.  Available online at: http://www.revistacultura.ro/articol.php?rezultat=1736.
  10. Čunek’s statement was published by the popular Czech tabloid Blesk on 30 March 2007. Quoted in The Prague Post on 4 April 2007. Available online at: http://www.praguepost.com/articles/2007/04/04/cuneks-roma-comment-raises-ire.php.
  11. Unofficial translation by the author of the leaflet of the Forza Nuova, Segreteria provinciale di Treviso (forzanuovamail@libero.it).
  12. Lazarova, Galia. 2002. The Image of the Roma – A Research into Contemporary Bulgarian Press. Creating Effective Grassroots Alternative Foundation: Sofia.
  13. European Roma Rights Centre. 7 March 2007. Letter of concern to Mr Pavel Gorshkov, Executive Director of the Publishing House “Regions”. Available online at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2729&archiv=1.
  14. European Roma Rights Centre. 23 May 2006. Letter of concern to Mr Alexey Dmitrenko, Editor of Budni. Available online at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2599&archiv=1.
  15. European Roma Rights Centre. 1 February 2007. Letter of concern to Mr Pavel Gusev, Editor of Moskovskij Komsomoletc. Available online at: http:/www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2720&archiv=1.
  16. Romanian_Roma@googlegroups.com of 21 May 2007, on behalf of Roma Virtual Network. Sent to Romanian-Roma@yahoo groups.com. Subject: Presidential Anti-gypsyism
  17. European Roma Right Centre. July 2006. Non-exhaustive list of anti-Romani and other harmful statements by members of the Parties of the Slovak governing coalition. Available online at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2609&archiv=1.
  18. European Roma Rights Centre. April 2007. ERRC Deeply Concerned about Czech Prime Minister’s Statements on Equal Opportunity. Available online at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2739&archiv=1.
  19. European Roma Right Centre. July 2006. Non-exhaustive list of anti-Romani and other harmful statements by members of the Parties of the Slovak governing coalition. Available online at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2609&archiv=1.
  20. Romani CRISS. Newsletter. September – December 2006. Available online at: http://www.romanicriss.org/documente//Noutati/RCRISS%20newsletter%20sept_dec06_ro.pdf.
  21. Le Courier. 13 August 2004, “Expulsion des Roms, la face sombre des Jeux Olympiques.”
  22. The Guardian. 12 March 2007, “Travellers go to Court over eviction to make way for Olympic village.”
  23. European Roma Rights Centre/osservAzione. Letter of concern to the President of the Republic of Italy, the President of the Italian Council of Ministers, the Italian Minister of Interior and the General Director of the National Office Against Racial Discrimination, dated 23 May 2007. Available online at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2796&archiv=1.
  24. European Roma Right Centre. July 2006. Non-exhaustive list of anti-Romani and other harmful statements by members of the Parties of the Slovak governing coalition. Available online at: http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=2609&archiv=1.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Press release of the European Roma Information Office. 11 October, 2006. Signed by Mr Ivan Ivanov, Executive Director.
  27. “Some of us stood up. But is anybody ready to listen at the European level?” Available online at: http.www.ergonertwork.org/standup.doc. Transmitted by Roma Liloro and Roma Virtual Network on 13 November 2006.
  28. Le Monde. 24 October 2006. “L’extremiste Siderov provoque un ’21 avril’ bulgare.”
  29. Press release of The European Roma Grassroots Organisation, Romani CRISS and the Media Monitoring Agency. 19 June 2007. “Another one bites the dust or Politicians’ racist declarations continue.”
  30. Greek Helsinki Monitor/World Organisation Against Torture. 15 March 2007. “Greece: OMCT and GHM denounce the continuing discrimination against Roma (in Patras and elsewhere in Greece).”
  31. Email communication from the Greek Helsinki Monitor dated 26 March 2007.

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