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Speech presented at the European Parliament in the context of the Public Hearing ‘Image and Imagination: Anti-Gypsyism in European media’, Brussels, 6 June 2006
Kindly authorized for publishing to the Dosta! campaign
Two months ago, a newspaper, to which I used to contribute to, published an article on the practice of child marriages in a remote Roma community in Romania. The tenor of the article was that Roma continue to uphold ancient traditions which disrespect basic Human Rights and are thus co-responsible for their alienation.
The issue as such would probably not have struck me if I had not had, two and a half years ago, on a similar occasion a discussion with the author of the article, where I tried to persuade him that our task as journalists should be to contribute to the understanding between people instead of fostering prejudice and distance.
So why had I failed to convince him? What is his interest and motivation to write about Roma the way he does, and why is his approach so shocking to me? This has led me to reflect more generally on the status of Roma in the media, reflections which I would like to share with you today.
If we think about Roma in the media we will probably all recall at least one incidence where Roma were portrayed by media in a particularly loathsome way. Only a few weeks ago, on the occasion of the murder of a Belgian teenager by a person who was described as a dark-skinned foreigner, we assisted here in Belgium to an unprecedented media campaign, first, against people from Northern Africa, then against “Gypsies”.
All of us are familiar with headlines such as “Gypsies under arrest” so that we easily tend to believe that media are abounding with reports about Roma: In reality, however, media reporting on Roma is rather scant.
One year ago, I surveyed the websites of several media including the news websites of Google and of the BBC and was much surprised to notice that only very few articles related to Roma. This has led me to the conclusion that Roma are a non-subject for the media.
To give you an idea: In the BBC archives, which covered at that time a period of six years, the word “Roma” gave me 98 hits and the word “Gypsies”, which encompasses UK Travellers, 174. Withdrawing the non-fitting items from the first list I had 87 news items dealing with the situation of Romani people.
Using the same method on the German Google news site which covers a period of one month I found 341 articles comprising the word “Roma”, many of which actually referring to an Italian football team as well as a likewise Italian racing driver. The word “Zigeuner” gave me 85 hits.
Under-reporting is compound with very selective reporting limited to just a few issues. These issues are generally related to social problems or problems of social coexistence: Out of the 87 BBC articles I screened, 40 articles dealt with instances where Roma had become victims of discrimination, 14 with Roma initiatives in defence of their rights, five with anti-discrimination measures and three with culture. Four articles had the Holocaust as an issue. Five were essentially background articles.
Since BBC cannot be considered as representative for media in general I made random tests with other media and got roughly the same results. A comprehensive survey of national and regional media by the Roma Press Centre in Hungary found that Roma are mostly, meaning in 63.4 percent of the cases, represented in relation with so-called “Romani issues” defined on the basis of racist stereotypes, such as for instance, poverty, housing problems and crime. A German study covering 944 articles published in 12 local newspapers in the period between 1979 and 1991 found that in 60 percent of the articles Roma were mentioned in relation with crime and in 37 percent of the articles in relation with social conflicts. Another interesting finding of this survey is that Roma were mostly mentioned in relation with institutions of public control such as police (51 percent of the cases) and justice (23 percent).
Another important characteristic is that articles on Roma are much more frequently to be found in the local than in the international pages and in local rather than in international media. Indeed, much of the coverage fits into the category “news in brief” with hardly any background reporting or analysis.
Non-surprisingly, much of the media coverage on Roma is negative: A survey on minorities in European media found that half on the articles on Roma were neutral and a third negative. While pointing out at the generally negative portrayal of ethnic minorities in the media, the author of the survey, Jessica ter Wal, noticed that “Sinti and Roma/Travellers are the group most often portrayed negatively”.
But my purpose here is not just to describe a situation we are all more or less familiar with, but to try to find explanations. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any research covering the motivations and interests of journalists and editors. So I will have to mainly rely on my experience and intuition:
First, I would like to underline that the situation of Roma is not particular in a sense that “minorities” in general are given little attention by mainstream media and if they are so, “minority issues” are generally dealt with from the perspective of the majority.
Minorities do not appear as an actor of society with specific interests and concerns which have the same validity as the interests and concerns of the majority.
In describing minorities and minority concerns from the perspective of the majority, media tend to reproduce racists stereotypes and bias which go with it.
We can find very similar kinds of reporting about immigrant people, refugees or Muslims, and indeed in the Belgian case, to which I referred to earlier, Muslim youth and people from Northern Africa were the first to be ostracised before ostracism targeted Roma.
I nevertheless believe that there are some peculiarities as regards to media reporting about Roma which are rooted in the particular type of racism affecting Romani people with its strongly dehumanising bias.
If we keep in mind that journalists reporting on Roma bear with them a whole series of prejudices such as that Roma are dishonest people, who are not to be trusted, that they are secretive and follow some strange kind of outdated lifestyle, we should not be surprised about the results:
In relation with crime, articles frequently mention the Romani background of its perpetrator or suspect, in particular, if this person is accused of an act involving swindle or deceit. This was for instance the case a few weeks ago here in Belgium when three Roma were arrested in relation with con-theft. Here the newspapers titled: “Con-theft: Three Gypsies under investigation” and “Police operation in Gypsy camp”. A Swiss newspaper wrote last Summer: “Gypsy gang arrested – Theft series resolved”.
The fact that Roma are considered as dishonest people who keep isolated from the rest of society has as a consequence that journalists will rather turn to other sources such as public authorities, social workers or neighbours rather than interview the Roma themselves. (The German study which I quoted earlier found that even in case the interests and concerns of Roma are represented media tend to rely on non-Roma sources such as charities rather than on Romani organisations. )
Generally speaking, it is much easier to sell, including to editors, articles which confirm existing stereotypes rather than articles which counteract them.
Roma continue to be considered as social outcasts who do not deserve the same treatment and respect as other members of society which becomes apparent from the following quotes:
the first one, taken from the article on child marriages to which I referred to before, says: “Inward-looking, the Gypsy community is at risk to perpetrate a life style which will only contribute to its further isolation.”
The Belgian newspaper La dernière heure commented the arrest of a Romani teenager in relation with the murder at the Brussels Central Station as follows: “Adam’s arrest will certainly not contribute to change the hardly affable image they [the Gypsies] are carrying with them for many years.”
In the same context, Le Soir, went even further in legitimating prejudice against Roma: Following a description of Adam’s uncle, described as “in his fifties, a lean body in a black suit, his collar open, long square tipped shoes”, the newspaper commented: “What is the purpose of rejecting stereotypes in front of a Gypsy who wants to be approached as such?”
I understood that my colleague who keeps reproducing stereotypes about Roma is doing so primarily for the purpose of providing entertainment: Stories which are based on sensationalism and depict Roma as a kind of subhuman beings sell. The reality is much more harder to place.
A union representative of the Daily Express which, two years ago, brought a series of scare stories about east European Roma invading the UK following EU enlargement, commented:
“In the case of the stories on the Roma people we felt it was a cynical campaign to boost circulation. They [the editors] saw the effect the headlines had, and exploited it by having as many scare stories about Gypsies “overrunning” the country as possible.”
As a result, media tend to foster negative views on Roma rather than to counteract them. According to an English survey on prejudice from 2003, 35 percent (or 14 million people) of the English population express open prejudice against Roma and Travellers. Their views are mainly influenced by media with TV and newspapers playing the most important role. The survey also found that readers of the tabloid press are more likely to express negative attitudes against ethnic minorities and refugees which can of course be interpreted in two ways.
Press Complaints Commissions are pretty inefficient in dealing with and remedying to racism and anti-Gypsyism. According to the former journalist and publisher Bob Borzello “not one of the 600 or so complaints made to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) since 1991 about alleged racism in the Press has been upheld.” Out of the 54 complaints the German Zentralrat Deutscher Sinti und Roma filed with the German Press Council in 2004, only 44 were forwarded to the Press Complaints Commission which considered almost half of them as unfounded. Only ten complaints ended with the conclusion that the articles or reports were indeed discriminatory and only in two cases was a reprimand issued to the media.
The problem is that these commissions are composed by the same people who produce stereotyped reports and tend to be complacent with the journalists and editors. In many cases, press complaints commissions have even confirmed racist bias, when justifying for instance the journalists’ mentioning of the Romani background of a culprit or suspect by arguing that this was an essential element to the understanding of the crime.
Coming to the end of my presentation, I would like to draw a few recommendations:
To Roma rights activists and other people involved in the fight against discrimination:
Do address to the media; try to understand their mechanisms and learn to react in an appropriate way.
Negative reporting may simply be the result of ignorance and fear to ask the right questions to the right people.
If you feel that reports misrepresent reality, do not hesitate to write to the journalist or editor.
As we saw before journalists or editors tend to reproduce views they consider as representative for their readers. They should learn that their readers do not support racism.
Support diversity in the media.
Media should reflect diversity in society and not just the view of the dominant group.
Diversity should be reflected both in the content of media as well as in the people who produce it.
This could be one of the tasks of the European media policy which is so far limited to the promotion of European TV productions with little consideration to their content.
It is hard to understand why in a society with more and more “black” people and people of mixed origins, TV presenters continue to be predominantly blond and blue-eyed.
In 2000, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination adopted a series of recommendations related to Roma in the media including the recommendation to develop media and educational campaigns to educate the public about Roma and to facilitate the Roma’s access to the media. They have obviously remained dead letter.
As someone who has worked in the field of media for a number of years and who continues to believe in the democratic value of media, I would like to conclude by warning against the tremendously negative impact of the current wave of liberalisation and concentration in the media sector: By transforming news into a mere product which needs to be sold and journalists into mere sails persons they foster a kind of journalism which gives precedence to sensation over hard facts and information.