Spas Spassov, AEJ-Bulgaria
Predictably, the European elections on May 25th gave yet another illustration of “hate speech” firmly establishing itself as a communication tool. Even citizen initiatives, like the promotion of electoral activity, fell prey to this trend.
On Election Day, the Bulgaria Tomorrow Group published on its websites three banners, with the following text as common denominator: “Stay home! I will vote instead of you”. The “speakers” were men of Roma origin – in one picture they were seen posing with kebab and beer, in the other – brandishing metal rods and axes.
The publishing of these banners did not induce any reaction, neither from the institutions involved in the organisation and carrying out of the elections, nor from the State Commission on Protection against Discrimination. There was also no reaction to the signal that was submitted to the Central Election Committee.
This is how it transpired that hatred has been endorsed as a motivational aid in political marketing. It also became clear that racism and xenophobia are now conceived as a congregating, bonding strategy, even at a moment of extreme division, such as Election Day.
Following the entry of ultranationalist discourse in Parliament, the spirit of hatred and its language have been let out of the bottle for good. Their transformation into a part of electoral campaign communication proves that they have permeated the core of democratic interaction and have already become a danger to its integrity.
As so often before, ethnic tension and the discourse of hate once again became a part of political context in the run up to presidential elections in 2011. At that time, nationalists across the country utilized the clash between citizens and those close to so-called “Tsar Kiro” (king of the Romas) in the village of Katunitsa in their attempt to establish new strongholds. Their effort led to limited success, yet the debate that was conceived then was what enabled for degrading and racist speak to enter media though the main gate. One of the most brilliant debuts of this sort was made by TV journalist Kevork Kevorkian. This is what he wrote concerning events in Katunitsa in an article for Weekend newspaper:
“Once again toothless grimaces have appeared on-screen, again they bemoan their situation – they dare not send their children to school because the Bulgarians “bespatter” them, so growls one of the women inarticulately from the screen. Nowhere else do you find television channels so trusting of lies and so tolerating of insults. And why do they exhibit such eyesore, especially at a moment like this one – do they not understand that in so doing they besmirch our common sense and our common values. And they breathe confidence into these savages a mere month before the election – again and again they spit upon Bulgarians. Make way for the gypsy woman to spit against the Bulgarian… The clashes are but one of the manifestations of the failure of the Bulgarian cause”.
A “selfie” of failure
On October the 20th, 2012, three eleventh graders from the High School of Motor Transport in Dobrich – the Roma children Ali, Vasvi and Recep, posted on Facebook a provocative image, on which they were posing daringly along three portraits – of Levski, of Simeon the Great and of Tsar Boris I.
A day later, on October 21st, the picture published on the Internet was declared by the then-vice chairman of IMRO Kostadin Konstantinov as a “mockery of Bulgarian national shrines”. Immediately after, Ali, Vasvi and Recep were inundated with phone calls, SMS and Internet messages containing vulgar and outright threats to their lives. This could also be openly traced in anonymous forums under Internet articles related to the case.
With only few exceptions the media reacted as if following a template. The word “mockery” was present in almost all headlines on the subject. The explanation to this “multiplication” of the term that started a wave of extreme and intemperate reactions to what happened was professional cynicism – this is how the articles landed easier in the search results. It so turns out that the media readily “gave voice” to the thus far mute hatred and embraced her as a hidden key word to their success. But most importantly in this case, by using hate speech the media, driven by their chase of success at any cost, became accomplices in the construction of a new “enemy image”.
One of the leading roles in this process once again went to Kevork Kevorkian.
“…there is no going back”
On November 22nd, 2012, i.e. in the midst of the xenophobic hysteria prompted by Ali, Vesvi and Recep’s selfie, Standard newspaper and the website www.standartnews.com featured an article by Kevorkian titled “Trash”. Several days later – on October 26th, website Afera as well as, once again, the Weekend newspaper, ran another article by the same author with the title “Levski, Yoto and the gypsies. The Bulgarian serfs will keep quiet and be still”.
The language of both publications as well as the message behind them preached and incited active hatred, discrimination and even violence.
“Do you not understand that there is no going back – these animals have already developed their plan for us. The Bulgarians are now supposedly going to organise squads – but the squads of the gypsies already exist. Their ideas and notions have found shelter on Facebook a long time ago; there the gypsies read up on them; soon they will find their own gyppo Jan Palach – they will kill some filthy human creature and blame it on the sheepish Bulgarians”, wrote Kevorkian in his articles.
The lines above are one of the most painful examples of hate speech. They are all the more an illustration of how hate speech turns into a tool for inciting confrontation, a communication trick which hinders constructive relations between different societal groups and causes them severe damage.
In certain passages of his articles on people of Romani descent, Kevorkian had even used the word “half-humans”. This term bears a remarkable resemblance to the German expression of Untermenschen, known in Nazi rhetoric for designating so-called “inferior people”.
The repercussions of the publishing of such texts on the Internet are instant and clearly distinguishable. The comment sections under the above-cited articles gave a clear and unambiguously indication as to how the readers had adopted the language and messages of Kevorkian as incitement and abetting of an assault on Roma people. This manner of speaking, the same vocabulary and the same suggestions were repeated by their author also on his own TV programme, called “Every Sunday”. This is one of the reasons why this case must be marked and recalled as a precedent in which the first national media became a platform for the outright use of racist and inhuman, degrading vocabulary. Moreover, this happened without any sanction by the editorial boards and their programming teams or by the Council for Electronic Media (CEM).
It is true that the freedom of speech is a universal right, at that guaranteed by the Bulgarian Constitution. But this particular case concerns the distribution of malevolent and antidemocratic ideas, which degrade human dignity. It is all the more concerning that this does not induce any reaction from the Prosecutor’s Office, the Commission for the Protection Against Discrimination or from most part of the media.
The new target
In the case of Ali, Vasvi and Recep the silence of institutions was tantamount to complicity in the verbal and psychological repression that they were exposed to. This silence was seen as a form of approval by hate speakers and they “returned the favour” only a year later.
The impotence of the state in the face of the refugee wave from Syria in the autumn of 2013 gave rise to another wave of hate speech in the media. Yet this time the language of xenophobia and hatred rose to a new and higher level. The target was set not only on Syrian refugees but also on all foreigners who have chosen to live and work in Bulgaria.
It was becoming apparent though the words of hate speech that emigrants are unwanted for no other reason than being “not one of ours”. For this reason we should also think about them as posing a threat; the arsenal in this conflict included the mockery of both purely physical as well as religious differences. Internet forums flooded over with words, such as “gyppos”, “zingaros“, „circumcised scum” etc. The common denominator between all of this was “trash” – i.e. something, which you must get rid of, must be free of, must destroy… Quite a few media outlets quoted this vocabulary, putting it between the brackets of duplicity. They were practically intensifying the voice of hatred; they were spreading it.
In this case the CEM broke their silence. However, due to the delay in their reaction, its effect was rather ambiguous.
“What is bad is that hate speech often comes from live broadcasts with the participation of politicians”, said the chairman of the media regulator, Georgi Lozanov in front of Deutsche Welle. “Pursuant to the Law on Radio and Television, the only party responsible is electronic media. This is why Bulgaria needs a law to govern political discourse. Politics cannot be done at any cost!” Lozanov stated. The case of Rozovo proved that everything is possible.
Monopoly of the “media yellow”
The dramatics surrounding the expulsion of 17 Syrian refugees from the village of Rozovo end of April came to show that the words of haters are only a step away from their actions.
After they hung the Bulgarian flag on the trellis vine in the house, in which several Syrian refugee families had been accommodated, and after they declared Rozovo “the most ethnically clean” village, its villages explained that their fears and their hatred are based on the fact they “see what is going on on television”. Consequently, in this case, like in all previous cases described thus far, it turns out that the monopoly of the “media yellow” has led media outlets as well as society into a matrix. The attempt at a discussion of the matter was quickly stifled with the hypocrisy of monologues ending most often in a rhetorical question. Below, a few examples:
Nedyalko Nedyalkov in a commentary on the PIK website (April 29, 2014):
“bTV and Nova Television are cursing at Bulgarians because of Syrians. Yet who is going to defend the people of Rozovo? How long will they be insulting them from the TV screen as “thugs” and “fascists”?”
“The historic guilt of the people of Rozovo is that they have stated freely, on the street, their will as a society – “we do not want refugees among us. We are afraid of them. We are afraid for our children and our homes”.
“The majority of our population doesn’t like gays, Turkish people, gypsies, Muslims, Arabs…”
Boyan Rassate, leader of the so-called Gvardia (Guards) movement: We must protect our own kind with universal resistance. Nature has created a mechanism – first take care of your family and your kind”.
Neither Nedyalkov, nor Rassate are the first to discover that xenophobia earns new readers, more clicks and viewers. Hatred of foreigners and of differences can even win elections. However, such language, and the behaviour motivated by the free use of it, is imprudent. These factors lead Bulgaria right into the trap of neo-racism and the new xenophobia.
In recent years, the Council of Europe and the European Commission published several worrying reports regarding the rising wave of “mutant” forms of racism and xenophobia in Europe. This time around they are adapted to modernity. The clearest sign of their existence was shown to be hate speech. It successfully makes use of basic democratic principles like the freedom of opinion, of expression, of speech and of the press.
Thus the discourse of racism and xenophobia has turned into a virus which finds a nourishing habitat in democracy, not only for its existence but also for reproduction and further spreading out. It mutates into the political and media speak, turns into a fully-fledged component of the language in democratic public debate. It models the latter from within and compromises it.
But racist and xenophobic discourse imposes black and white expressiveness as a universal and easily understandable language in which complex social problems get a simple and quick explanation. Thus, most media in society become a victim of pre-prepared “monochromatic schemes” for winning power.
Thus, the so-called “soft dictatorships: in Eastern Europe have demonstrated already once that they are not only fluent in hate speech but are also able to create a jargon out of it. Depending on current needs, a particular case can become enveloped in a fog of duplicity and be made to sing the falsetto of hysteria. This is the reckless language of populism.
In this language, the sense of “public disorder” in the country in the last 20 years, the poverty, and mediocrity, are easily translated into a feeling of fear of the foreigner, of the one who doesn’t look, doesn’t think and doesn’t behave like us.
But most importantly, hatred is a platform on which sudden and swift rifts in society can be staged. They drain the energy out of development, point it in the wrong direction, wasting it, and slowing it down, so much so that they can even stop societies from moving forward altogether.
This analysis was prepared in the framework of the Mediator project, implemented by The Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria, with the financial support of the America for Bulgaria Foundation. All contents of this project are the sole responsibility of The Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria.
Spas Spassov, AEJ-Bulgaria