Roma people in the media: Going beyond the stereotypes

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romaRoma people are often on focus in negative media stories. Nevertheless the wide journalistic interest in this ethnic group, their voice is rarely featured in the vast number of reports which are commonly based on deeply rooted stereotypes. Such is the tendency not only in Bulgaria but also in Italy where the Roma integration issue is mainly linked to the problems of immigration. Those are the conclusions of a joint survey from November – December 2014 done by Kristina Hristova, Chairman of the Association of European Journalists – Bulgaria, and Martina Chichi from Association Carta di Roma, part of the Mediane initiative of the Council of Europe. The recommendations listed in the current document are formed on the basis of interviews with journalists, human rights activists and experts, representatives of the Roma community and sociologists from Bulgaria and Italy.
The role of the media in the process of Roma integration is quite problematic – instead of going deeper into the lack of effective state policies for Roma integration, most of the media prefer just to reproduce myths about the presumed innate negative characteristics of Roma people. According to Yuliana Metodieva, Marginalia.bg, the stereotypes about Roma are inserted even in the heads of the journalists and that is why it is so difficult to fight against Roma discrimination in the media
Journalists themselves would acknowledge that. According to a survey among 95 journalists working in different types of Italian media (print, radio, TV, online – national or local) and serving different roles (editor in chief, editor, journalist) 85% of the interviewed recognized the existence of stereotypes in the media regarding Roma people (the survey was conducted in the frame of the current research by Carta di Roma in September 2014). All of them agree that the most common stereotype pictures Roma people as thieves or criminals in general. Still only 20% of the interviewed have worked on/with Roma people at least once in their careers. All of them experienced some problems at first due to the suspicion and the embedded stereotypes. However only one of them views Roma people as uncooperative. The rest found Roma people whom they contacted friendly, cooperative and protective. Almost 90% of the interviewed journalists think that a completely different approach when reporting on people of Roma origin should be implemented if we are to help their integration and inclusion. But how should that be done?
According to the authors of this guide the first step is to identify the most common myths related to Roma in the media in Bulgaria and Italy.

The myths, identified during the current research are:

I. Roma are criminals and their crimes are not punished

Bulgaria – A research of the Center for the Study of Democracy (CSD) (2007) shows that indeed many crimes are perpetrated by Roma people. However Romа people with criminal convictions as a ratio out of the whole community are equal to the ratio of criminally convicted people in the Bulgarian community. Two researches, BHC 2002 and Open Society Institute 2004, show the respective percentage of the Roma people in prisons – 24.8% and 19.6%.
According to Krassimir Kanev, chairman of the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHC), Roma people are deprived of legal aid in all phases of the judicial process – most of them neither have the necessary finances nor the network to be able to challenge the prosecution. According to him we should think for the reasons why the heads of the criminal networks in Bulgaria are rarely imprisoned and then try to explain ourselves the huge number of Roma people in Bulgarian prisons.
Furthermore it should be mentioned that the European Court for Human Rights found on several occasions discrimination against Roma people in the way that the Bulgarian authorities investigate hate crimes (Nachova and others v. Bulgaria; Angelova and Iliev v. Bulgaria).
In the CSD research from 2007, series of interviews with policemen working in Roma residential districts were conducted. According to the information gathered approximately 10 days before the monthly social security payments are due the thefts are sharply increasing. Ergo the thefts literally stop in the days after the social security payments are completed.
Rumian Russinov from the Public Advocacy Centre emphasizes on the fact that the police and the journalists rarely dig deeper and try to trace the whole criminal network and the masterminds behind the perpetrated crimes. Instead of that only the low level criminals are punished for what they normally are forced to do by the environment they live in.
Even though that a big part of the small size crimes in Bulgaria are committed by Roma people we should not fail to acknowledge that those acts are irreversibly related with the high level of poverty in this community. The real question from a journalistic point of view is why nobody aims at finding the source of these crimes or reveal the
organizers?
Italy – In 2013 the Italian Court of Cassation confirmed that the state of emergency concerning the Roma minority established by the previous government was illegal. According to the Court they do not represent a “threat to public order and public security”. Judges wrote that the emergency state was not supported by data as there is no data confirming an increase of the number of the crimes commonly related by the society to Roma people. According to a research by the “Geordie” NGO many Roma children experience problems with the law. Still they are far from left unpunished: most of them spend time in prison and usually their detention is longer in comparison to the detention of their non-Roma cellmates as they have no access to proper legal defense.

II. Roma people are undermining the current political system when selling their votes (Bulgaria)

It is true that the Roma population votes more actively than the ethnic Bulgarians. But if we look at the statistics the situation is a bit more complex: we have approximately 800 000 Roma people in Bulgaria and their electoral activity is around 50%, compared to the electoral activity within the Bulgarian community – 45%, and around 60% for the Turkish community (the data is from the latest parliamentary elections according to sociological agency AFIS). The paid vote is not only a Roma phenomenon, Juri Aslanov from AFIS says, we have also paid corporate vote within the Bulgarian ethnic group and the Turkish community. Juri Aslanov claims that the paid vote is typical for the poor communities, without any regard to their ethnic origin, where people do not expect the politicians to improve their current state and rely solely on themselves.
Obviously the political parties in the country are behind such practices. It would be reasonable to suggest that those can be only the biggest ones which have sufficient resources to engage in such costly practices. On the other hand very often those who are selling their votes are forced to do it under pressure from organized crime networks based on feudal relationships in the communities, according to Zornitsa Stoilova from Capital weekly who is working on Roma issues.
Mainstream Bulgarian parties have relied for years on Roma community leaders to manage those processes and it is sad that the journalists and the police never went deeper than just exposing those leaders – to the ones who actually paid them.

III. The “invasion” of Roma people (Italy)

The perception of Italians about the size of the Roma community in Italy is totally wrong. According to a survey by ISPO most of the Italians overestimate the Roma presence in Italy. Approximately one out of every 3 people interviewed (35%) believe that the Roma population is between 500.000 and 1.000.000. Still the truth is that in Italy there are about 140.000-150.000 people of Roma origin – they represent 0,25% of the whole population. Only 6% of the interviewed had any idea about this fact.
Nevertheless media would often use terms like “invasion”, especially regarding the presence of Roma people in Milan, Naples and Rome. Actually this is totally wrong: in those places the Roma population varies from 1000 to 6000 people – such a tiny number compared to the total population of those huge cities.

IV. Bulgarians are threatened by assimilation because of the high birth rate of Roma people

According to the Bulgarian National Statistical Institute (NSI) (as of 1 February 2011) the total number of the families with more than three children is 56 017 or only 4.3% of all the families with children in the country. The NSI data was gathered regardless of the ethnical origin of the families and it will be difficult to say that Roma people are the only ones who have more than 3 children. However, the result of this research is obvious – only 4.3% of the population has more than 3 children and even if this percentage consists only of Roma families, we are far from being assimilated.
In his analysis of the NSI data Boyan Yourukov, a database specialist and blogger, emphasizes also on аn aspect rarely debated – the high mortality rate among children within the Roma population of the country.

V. Roma people are nomads (Italy)

The same ISPO report reveals that 84% of the interviewees think that Roma people have a nomadic lifestyle. That is actually quite false. Only 3% of all the Roma people in Italy are still living a nomadic live. The rest of them had already settled down.
Still Italians think that they live only in “nomadic camps”. This perception is constantly strengthened by publications which are referring to Roma people through age-rusty stereotypes.

VI. They are lazy and they do not want to work but rather live on social security payments

According to a survey, cited in a 2012 Civil report on the implementation of the National Strategy on Roma Integration and the Plan for the implementation of the Decade of Roma Inclusion there is an important connection between the level of education and the employment status of Roma people. The data presented in the survey suggest that almost 70% of the Roma people with university degree are employed. Still only 0.6% of all Roma people are having an university degree. 50% of those with higher education are employed. However the vast number of Roma people have only secondary education (37.8%) and just 35% of them are employed. At the bottom are the ones with no education – only 5% of them are employed by the time the survey was conducted.
It is obvious that the low level of employment within this group is related with the low level of education. According to human rights defenders and journalists – the main reason for the lack of education within this community is the poverty. Some families do lack the resources needed for basic items like clothes. Around 46% of all the Roma people are living in poverty in comparison to only 5% of the ethnic Bulgarians (the data is again from the monitoring carried out by OSI in 2012).
Italy – In 2012 a research by Casa della Carità and Aaster showed that the employment rate among Roma people above 15 years of age was 34.7% compared to 44.3% for the native Italians. The numbers vary dramatically, depending on whether the interviewees were housed properly or were in caravans or illegal settlements. Of course the employment rate among those living in “normal” housing conditions was much higher – 46% compared to only 24% among those living in the “illegal” settlements.

VII. Roma people are not paying their taxes (Bulgaria)

According to the data of the electricity supplier EVN Bulgaria (presented on the conference “Facts against myths – social distances in the Bulgarian society”, 28.01.2013) almost 95% of the electricity bills in Stolipinovo neighborhood in the city of Plovdiv (one of the biggest Roma residential districts in Europe) are paid in time.
This high percentage was achieved thanks to a joint project of EVN Bulgaria and Open Society Institute Bulgaria in 2009. According to Dimiter Dimitrov from the OSI Roma program, the media showed little to no interest in the results of the project, even though they would normally report on unpaid bills in Roma districts.

VIII. Roma people kidnap children (Italy).

In a small town in Northern Italy a man lost his little son during local celebrations. He told the police he saw a “gipsy” running away with the little boy. Local and national newspapers and televisions immediately started speaking about a mysterious and dangerous “Roma kidnapper”. Two days later the Police informed that this was false: a camera recording proved his testimony wrong. Still the threats against Roma people in the area were true. The University of Verona made a research for the Migrants Foundation which found out that in 40 cases of kidnappings labelled as “Roma” for the period 1986-2007 not a single one was committed by a person of Roma origin.

IX. Problems are innate in their cultural identity, that is why the integration programs do not work

Bulgaria – Most of the integration programs exist only on paper, according to Maya Grekova, a professor in Sociology in Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”. Most of the interviewed participants in the making of this guide would agree that there is neither political will, nor the budget needed for their implementation of a strategy for integration.
The European Commission against Racism and Intolerance expressed its regret in its report on Bulgaria (part of the Fifth monitoring cycle) that “there continues to be inadequate financial provision for Roma integration and lack of political will to assist the Roma population. This serves to perpetuate the deeply rooted structural and societal discrimination and popular prejudice against Roma.”
Instead of trying to investigate into the concrete activities of the state concerning the integration of Roma people and their efficiency, most of the media prefer to report on the social myth that the Roma culture is to be blamed and no integration is possible because of its innate characteristics – although no facts are there to support such statement.
Principles to be followed

1. Try to go above the stereotypes about Roma people

When organizing a debate on Roma issues, do not invite only nationalists on one hand and human rights defenders on the other. Try to break this stereotype of criminals against victims by inviting impartial participants in the debate. Another good thing would be to try to involve Roma representatives in the discussions so to have their voice included.

2. Put the data gathered in the context

When working with data related to Roma, put it in the context, show the origins and the consequences. On the other hand, if you are a journalist, who is trying to put a balance and fight against Roma stereotypes, you will not help, if you try to hide some facts. Always aim at the truth but analyze the information you gathered and the way it relates to other parallel processes that might have influenced it.

3. Find the issues that are uniting the ethnic Bulgarians and the ethnic Roma people, not only the ones that are dividing them

Try to show the problems that are common for both of them. For example poverty is a social phenomenon, mainly related with Roma, but also a lot of ethnic Bulgarians are suffering from it.

4. Relate to Roma people as individuals, not as a group – do not generalize

First of all Roma people are human beings and have the right to be treated as human beings; when a crime is committed by a Roma person, do not stigmatize, depicting all of them as criminals by putting in the text the ethnical origin of the perpetrator.

5. Look at them from a different angle

Do not seek the opinion of Roma people only on problems, involving them directly, look for the Roma opinion on topics of general interest for the whole society.

6. Do not be a spokesperson of the politicians and the institutions

Do not just transmit the message of the institutions as they tend to discriminate against Roma population. When it comes to a case of hate speech, be sure to point it out to your audience.

7. Show the positive side of the successful integration

When speaking about the failed integration and the state efforts needed to end the segregation of the Roma population, show the benefits of a successful integration strategy for the entire population; do not separate the problems, because of the ethnos, try to show the positive consequences of involving the Roma people in the active economical live.

8. Success stories of Roma people

Show the positive examples of Roma integration in the Bulgarian society. Because of the massive tendency in the media to present the Roma only in relation with negative stories, efforts should be done to recover the balance of the Roma image in the media with success stories of Roma people.

9. Check the information twice

When you are reporting about an episode which reflects one or more myths, be careful: base your story only on the facts and do not generalize.
 

Action/ Initiative Development

The guide would be distributed among the AEJ-Bulgaria members and the Italian journalists attending Carta di Roma seminars. It would be also used for the role playing workshops, starting in 2015 in Bulgaria as part of the “Network against hate speech” initiative. Hopefully this guide would also serve for the improvement of the media ethical code in Bulgaria.

Sources of information

List of interviewed persons
During the preparation of this document we met or had telephone interviews with:
1. Dimitar Dimitrov, Open Society Institute, Director, Roma Program;
2. Yuliana Metodieva, human rights activist and founder of
Marginalia.bg;
3. Irina Nedeva, editor in the Bulgarian National Radio and journalist
covering human rights problems;
4. Maria Cheresheva, activist, Friends of the Refugees in
Bulgaria and journalist covering human rights issues;
5. Zornitsa Stoilova, journalist covering human rights and social
issues, Capital weekly;
6. Yuri Aslanov, sociologist, AFIS Sociological Agency;
7. Maya Grekova, Doctor of Sociological Sciences, Ph.D. in Philosophy, Professor in Sociology at the Department of Sociology, Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”;
8. Rumian Russinov, Public Advocacy Centre.
Other source of information:
1. Krassimir Kanev, Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, publications in “Obektiv” magazine;
2. Boyan Yurukov, publications at http://yurukov.net/blog/;
3. Dr. Svetlozar Kirilov, Professor in Sociology at the Department of
Sociology, Sofia University “St. Kliment Ohridski”, publications about Roma
discrmination available at www.media-jouranl.info;
4. Tihomir Bezlov, Centre for the Study of Democracy, “The Roma people in the Bulgarian criminal justice system: from ethnic profiling to imprisonment, critical criminology”;
5. National statistical institute, http://www.nsi.bg/en;
6. Open Society Institute – Sofia, report on the public policies for Roma integration in Bulgaria, available at http://www.osf.bg/downloads/File/2012/Summary_BG_report_EU-Inclusive_June_2012pdf.pdf.
Useful contacts:
1. Center for the Study of Democracy, http://csd.bg;
2. Amalipe Center for Interethnic Dialogue and Tolerance, http://amalipe.com;
3. Roma Destiny Association, http://www.romadestiny.org;
4. The International Center for Minority Studies and Intercultural Relations (IMIR), http://imir-bg.org;
5. Roma Program, Open Society Institute – Sofia, http://www.osf.bg/?cy=28&lang=1&a0i=222697&a0m=read&a0p_id=69;
6. Center for European Refugees, Migrants and Ethnic researches, http://www.cermes.info/.