"Citizens! Watch out! There are Gypsies in the passenger section" - Roma in the Ukrainian media

07 December 1999

István Fenyvesi1

Since around the time the Ukrainian Parliament declared the independence of Ukraine from the Soviet Union in 1991, Roma have occupied a prominent place in the Ukrainian press. Articles appear with a degree of regularity in the pages of both mainstream national and local newspapers as well as tabloids. They vary in length and objectivity but as a rule their thematic scope is narrow. Roma are usually portrayed by Ukrainian dailies as drug-traffickers; professional hypnotists cheating decent citizens out of their modest savings; pickpockets; and parents who specialise in raising professional beggars. Ukrainian newspapers also frequently emphasise the ethnicity of alleged perpetrators of crimes, if such persons are Roma. Many of the articles that deal with Roma are sensationalist. The amount of space and attention devoted to Roma and the nature and style of these articles raises serious concerns about their opinion-shaping role on an already unsympathetic public. The following analyses of selected articles from various Ukrainian newspapers indicates the Ukrainian media's favourite Roma-related topics.

Outside the law

An article about Roma was published in the Vne zakona (Outside the Law) rubric of the Ukrainian daily Fakty (Facts) on April 24, 1999. It began with an exhortation to Alexandr Pushkin, the great 19th century Russian poet and author of the famous poem, "Gypsies", printed in bold-faced type:

"Oh, Alexandr Sergejevich, [...] if only you could see what the Roma that you extolled so romantically have turned into! How many of them are dirty, cynical, and, to put it mildly, dishonest! Their life is often swindling, thieving, and drugs. The devious cunning of certain Gypsies makes hundreds of people suffer - both the young and naive and the elderly and wise. And all this despite the warnings that our parents repeated from childhood: steer clear of the Gypsies, don't listen to them and don't make contact with them..."

The article consists of five separate stories and is about the Roma of Zhitomir, a Ukrainian city approximately 140 kilometres west of the capital city of Kyjiv. The article tries to give a picture of the Romani situation in the city and warns the naive man on the street about the dangers of Roma. The author of the article does not try to conceal his stereotypical views and liberally adds his subjective comments showing sympathy for the non-Romani victims. The author says that, according to the crime statistics for the city, one of ten crimes committed in Zhitomir is committed by Roma and that these are mostly pickpocketing, various swindles and other petty crimes. "It is women who are the bread-winners in Gypsy families. And if men do something for a living, then it is more serious stuff - robbery and drugs." The author warns the reader that while in earlier times passers-by brushed away Romani women as they would an annoying fly, things have changed and these days people fear them.

Another section of the article describes how Roma have worked out a system of effective pickpocketing on the public transport in Zhitomir; "As far as the public transport is concerned, as a rule, local Roma are at work there." But even if the thief is caught, the author says, it usually turns out that she is a mother of six and is expecting the seventh child. A group of children show up in the police department, sobbing and demanding their mother. According to the author, non-Romani citizens of Zhitomir are able to recognise these pickpockets and avoid them. Nevertheless, Romani women "always manage to find among the passengers a simpleton or a dreamer." This stereotype has, according to the article, led to announcements by trolley-bus drivers to warn innocent passengers, "Citizens! Watch out! There are Gypsies in the passenger section."

Two articles of a particularly anti-Romani nature appeared in two national Ukrainian newspapers in 1998. One was entitled "Roma are Pulled Towards the Political Arena because Lice Ate their Romanticism Long Ago" and was published on February 19, 1998 in Moloda Ukrajina, just before the Ukrainian parliamentary elections (see "Snapshots from around Europe", Roma Rights, Spring 1998). The article describes the Romani community as "a mini-horde" and portrays Romani life as rife with loud quarrels, scenes of jealousy, sexual relationships with children, and cases of incest. The Romani language is referred to by the press as "jargon". Roma, according to the author of the article, do not deserve or are incapable of political participation because, "let a Rom into parliament and he will steal Moroz [the Speaker of Parliament] himself'.

The second article, "The Objective Point of View: They, Gypsies, Are Like This", was published in a legal bulletin, Jurydychnyj Visnyk Ukrajiny, in two instalments, on January 22 and 29, 1998. It also describes Roma using degrading and humiliating stereotypes. The author of the article claims, for example, that there are certain qualities which radically separate Roma from "honest labourers" and also that Roma cause unique problems for the criminal justice system asserting that even young Romani girls are doomed to become criminals. In response to the articles, the Uzhorod-based Romani Yag and the European Roma Rights Center sent letters of protest to the editors of both newspapers urging a public apology. The protest was successful and retractions appeared in the same newspapers later in 1998.

However, anti-Romani articles continue to appear in the Ukrainian press. On September 21, 1999, Romani Yag sent a letter of concern to the Chief of the Department for National and Migration Issues of the Transcarpathian County Administration, Mr Michail Cherepani and editor-in-chief of the county newspaper Sribna Zemla Fest Mr Vasil Ilnytskij in which attention was drawn to the fact that county newspapers - in particular Sribna Zemla repeatedly make reference to the ethnicity of suspects of crimes if they are Roma, whereas such references are not made otherwise.

Begging on the streets and fortune-telling

Begging in public places is a widespread phenomenon in Ukraine today. Beggars can be seen in railway stations, near markets and churches, on trains, in crowded places, and on streets. There is no statistical data as to the proportion of Roma in the army of beggars, but it is evident that the widespread and striking poverty does not discriminate - it strikes both Roma and non-Roma. Ms Svetlana Davida, vice-president of the Kyjiv-based Roma Youth Association, said in an interview published in the Ukrainian daily Denj on May 14, 1999, that many Roma indeed earn their living by begging on the streets and by fortune-telling and that their number, due to the disastrous economic situation in the country, is obviously increasing. Many Ukrainians, however, are also forced to beg but the media tends not to notice them. Kijevskije Vedomosti, a regional newspaper in Kyjiv county, for example, in an article called 'Cripples by profession", published on February 5, 1997, writes that Romani children are prepared by parents to become the breadwinners of the family by making them cripples and teaching them the psychology of how to evoke compassion from passers-by. In one case the author tells an appalling story of a ten-year-old Romani boy Gosha. He was reportedly forced by his parents to drink two glasses of vodka and then they pushed his leg into boiling water. The parents, according to the article, held their son down making sure that his leg was in the boiling water until the skin was totally scalded. Now Gosha - the ten-year-old boy - is the breadwinner in the family.

Another story from somewhat earlier times is about Gosha's father. According to the article, when Gosha's father was orphaned, his guardian, driven by the widespread starvation in the community, decided to make the boy a beggar at railway stations. One night, according to the article, he poured sulphuric acid on the boy's face. By some miracle he did not lose his eyesight, but his new appearance evoked deep compassion from passers-by.

Roma as drug-traffickers

Rampant drug-trafficking and corruption at all levels of Ukrainian society are problems that cause serious financial and moral damage in Ukraine. Corruption is generally associated with people who hold public offices, while drug-trafficking is perceived to be conducted by the Mafia and Roma. Roma are frequently mentioned in the Ukrainian press in connection with drug-trafficking. Articles telling the reader about Roma who were caught by police appear more or less regularly, adding another feature to the stereotypes of Roma propagated by the Ukrainian media.

An article entitled "Gypsies Offered 10 Cs as a Bribe for a Large Portion of Drugs" appeared in Segodnja, a Ukrainian daily, on January 15, 1999. The article is about a Romani woman who was allegedly caught by police after she had gathered a large number of poppy heads - raw material for the production of opiates. According to the article, the family of the woman made several attempts to bribe the police officers to free their family member. The amount they offered allegedly grew to 10,000 US dollars, but the police officers did not accept it. The author writes in a tone of utter contempt towards the woman. On the other hand, the police officers are portrayed solely as the guardians of the law and protectors of decent and innocent people. Although the Ukrainian press rarely reports on corruption within the police force, there is a popular understanding that it does take place.

In the articles, the choice of words and purposeful repetition of certain words, often used sarcastically, create an intensely negative portrayal. Certain words are simply derogatory: "mini-horde", "fellow-tribesmen", etc. Others are sarcastic uses of neutral terminology, for example: "trade" used for "theft/swindle/fortune telling"; "client" meaning "the potential victim" of the Roma who are "at work", meaning "engaged in some sort of swindle"; "storyteller", meaning a "liar", and others. These words are used with respect to Romani activities to play on a common body of folk wisdom; there is a nudge and a wink implied in the tone of the article which tells the reader, "We all know what Romani 'trade' is ...".

It would be unfair, however, not to mention articles which approach the Roma issue with sympathy. An article published in the Ukrainian daily Denj on May 14, 1999, includes, for example, the following: "This free tribe, accepting the religion of the country it lives in, remains a minority practically everywhere. Often without basic rights and held in contempt by mainstream society. Because the Gypsies are trying to preserve their image as a people that live according to their own specific laws, they provoke hostility - willingly or not." However, there are few articles in the Ukrainian press attempting to muster sympathy or achieve neutrality in their representation of Roma.

Romani media

One way to fight stereotypes in the media about Roma is to promote Romani media. These exist in many countries in central and eastern Europe and publications have recently emerged in Ukraine as well. The Uzhorod-based Romani organisation Romani Yag has been publishing an eponymous newspaper since March 1999. Its circulation varies between 2500 and 3000 copies, depending on funding. According to Evgenija Navrotskaja, editor of Romani Yag, when the newspaper was launched at the beginning of 1999, the main objective was to fight existing stereotypes. The newspaper is sent to all county-level officials in Transcarpathia who may have an influence on the lives of Roma. The newspaper raises issues affecting local Roma, from social problems and unemployment to discrimination and police abuse. The newspaper is written in Ukrainian but it also includes a page in Hungarian since there are many Hungarian Roma in the Transcarpathian region of western Ukraine. Although this is a positive development, a Romani newspaper such as this one can have only a limited effect in changing stereotypes among the wider public; Ukraine is a country of 50 million people and the few Romani newspapers can only reach a small fraction of these.


  1. István Fenyvesi is publications co-ordinator of the ERRC.



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