Bulgaria: Extremist VMRO-BND party fined for ‘Gypsy issue’ online hate
10 July 2023
In a welcome move, Bulgaria’s Commission for Protection against Discrimination (CPC) took action against racist hate speech, fined the far-right political party, VMRO-Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO-BND) and prohibited them from publishing content on their website that incites hatred against certain ethnic minorities.
The complaint was submitted by Romani activist Liliana Kovacheva and supported by Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC) lawyer, Diana Dragieva. In her complaint Liliana asserted that, as a Bulgarian citizen of Romani origin, she felt discriminated against because of the hateful content on the official website of VMRO-BND. As the BHC reported, in the ‘Gypsy issue’ section, scores of articles openly assert that Roma are inherently criminal; seek to provoke a sense of hostility and conflict between ‘ethnic’ Bulgarians and Roma; and regularly include direct calls for violence against Roma.
Typical headlines and quotes cited in the BHC article included "Gypsy domestic crime can and will be broken only with an iron hand" and "These animals must be butchered to the bone!". The texts regularly claim that there is "unpunished Gypsy crime" and "Gypsy terror", that Roma kill their victims like dogs, "then they are detained, interrogated and quietly released". Over the years, such articles have been written by leading party figures, including the notorious MEP Angel Dzhambazki, who in April 2022 was fined €2,000 for giving a Nazi salute in the European Parliament.
In its reasoning, the CCP held that such generalisations based on ethnicity constitute discrimination which is prohibited by law. Freedom of expression and free speech claims by VMRO-BND were rejected on the grounds that the offending articles constituted hate speech of a kind that violated human rights and democratic principles. This ruling is welcome, but much more is needed, and those who wield power must acknowledge and exercise their responsibility to counter hate speech against Roma and other visible minorities.
‘Rampant intolerance and a climate of hostility against Roma’
While the European Commission has remained largely silent on the issue of anti-Roma hate speech in Bulgaria – and pointedly declined to comment on specific and outrageous incidents by leading government politicians in the recent past – the Council of Europe and the United Nations have not equivocated in the face of racial hatred.
In 2018, the UN Human Rights Committee expressed its concerns about reports of increased acts of hate speech and hate crimes, particularly against the Romani community, including racist, xenophobic, and intolerant speech on television, the media, and on the Internet, from persons at the highest levels of government and in election campaigns.
In her 2020 report on her visit to Bulgaria, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatović noted with alarm “the rampant intolerance manifested towards minority groups in Bulgaria”, and “deplored the climate of hostility against Roma, in particular against those who had to leave their homes following rallies targeting their communities in several localities.”
Commissioner Mijatović observed the mainly hostile media coverage of minorities, who are often depicted as criminals or presented as posing a danger to moral values and national interests. Noting with regret that some “high-level officials have used their position as a platform to further fuel antagonism and intolerance in Bulgarian society”, Commissioner Mijatović called for the authorities to react vigorously to incidents of hate speech, including those by high-level politicians, and for a “political and cultural shift in the way minority groups are treated and portrayed in Bulgaria.”