The Media’s Role in Anti-Gypsyism in Europe

The media need to see anti-gypsyism with the lens of associations and activists working in the field as well as the people directly involved. Giving them more space, learning through their experiences, should be a priority for any newsroom. 

By Matteo Pascoletti

“[I]f I lived there, I would after all ask, how is it possible that members of an ethnic group who live with me in the same community, same village for some reason will receive a significant amount [of money] without doing any work.” 

This is what Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said in January 2020, during his annual meeting with the international press. The ‘ethnic group’ were Roma, the ‘large sum’ was a compensation decided by a court for several Roma families, whose children were subjected to school segregation for years and who had won a lawsuit. 

The use of the “lazy gypsy” stereotype who dislikes work is not a surprise, even when, as in this case, it involves underage people. In countries with growing authoritarianism such as Hungary, Roma people are constantly racialised and school segregationist policies are a widespread practice. Therefore, politicians like Orbán accuse Roma people of being lazy and use them as a target, knowing that they will not be held accountable for hate speech. In fact, they know they can rely on a strong ally: anti-gypsyism. 

The roots of anti-gypsyism in the European public eye 

Anti-Gypsyism is a historically rooted phenomenon in Europe. Yet, the very word is rather recent. The Alliance Against Antigypsysm defines it as a “specific racism towards Roma, Sinti, Travellers and others who are stigmatised as ‘gypsies’ in the public imagination.” In acknowledging the definition, the EU Roma strategic framework for 2020-30 emphasises that “a strengthened commitment is necessary to tackle persistent discrimination, including anti-gypsyism, and to improve inclusion of Roma people in education, employment, health  and  housing. Roma people should be involved from the  design to the implementation of measures”. 

If it is still difficult to address the “elephant in the continent’ at the same time it is dramatically easy to document the traces of its passage so far. In 2019, the European Roma Rights Centre published a fact-sheet called “Mob Justice: Collective Punishment against Roma in Europe”. Through some striking cases of the last few years, the paper shows how anti-gypsyism is a structural phenomenon, even when it comes to the most violent episodes. In fact, punitive raids by extreme right-wing groups are matched by law-and-order policies, meaning evictions and expulsions promoted by institutional policy. 

Criminalisation is the presentable façade of racialisation. In the UK, this is evident in the Policing Bill, currently on its third reading in the British Parliament. Among several striking points, the Bill makes residing in a vehicle or on land without permission as a crime. This is just the latest stage in a series of interventions that, over the years, have reduced the spaces usually inhabited by Roma and Traveller communities. 

The criminalisation of Roma and Travellers in the UK is very evident in the news. In an article published on Media Diversity Institute earlier in 2021, Sam Baker analysed the headlines that referred to the Traveller Community of almost 100 headlines in the English press and found that almost two thirds of those headlines depicted travellers in a negative way and “nearly half of all articles contained negative words such as “illegal”, “violence” and “terrorise” in the headline”. 

Negative depictions of the Roma community in Europe dates back centuries 

Like any form of racism, there are historical aspects that  anti-gypsyism could date back to the first contacts between Roma and European populations. Federico Faloppa is a language historian at the University of Reading who works on the representation of otherness, especially towards ethnic minorities and migrants in the media. 

“They have been seen as a strange population since as early as the 14th-15th centuries,” he tells Media Diversity Institute. “Even just in a caricatured way. Even then they were perceived not only as vagabonds but also as scoundrels.” 

These stereotypes were followed in later centuries by (pseudo)scientific racialisation. For example, during the 19th century monographs and essays spread the belief that it was ‘gypsies’ who brought cholera. 

“In some parts of Italy, the word ‘zingaro’ can be found in local dialects as a synonym for ‘cholera’,” says Faloppa. 

Nowadays, Italy has a negative record of anti-gypsyism. According to the Pew Research Centre, in Italy 83% of the population has negative feelings towards Roma people. Yet the Roma community represents only 0.23% of the Italian population. Contrary to popular belief in the country most live as permanent residents. 

Such alarming and paradoxical data stem from a mixture of stereotypes, prejudices, that influence public discourse and consequently influence politics and the media. 

“There are parties that feed anti-gypsyism and others that, even if they do not actively feed it, do not condemn episodes of anti-gypsyism” says Faloppa. 

“It is as if they did not concern Italian citizens. In the public discourse, the dominant perception is that there is no one on their side,” he continues. 

The situation in the Western Balkans is particularly delicate. Here, Stephen Muller notes in Balkan Insights the mobilisation of Roma activism is not yet matched by full governmental awareness. 

“Hate speech and hate crimes are the same everywhere,” Orhan Usein, Head of Office of the Roma Integration Action Team for the Regional Cooperation Council tells Media Diversity Institute. 

“The only difference is that in some parts of Europe they are better addressed, and in others they are not. Particularly worrying is the lack of interest on the part of the institutions to do their job and address these issues properly,” he continues. 

An encouraging first step, according to Usein, is the Poznań Declaration which was signed by six countries in the Western Balkans.

“The declaration was the first time they jointly committed to work on different Roma issues,” Usein tells Media Diversity Institute. 

Although results are yet to come, the document has the merit of framing the fight against anti-gypsyism in the broader scenario of European cooperation. 

Meanwhile, collaboration with the media is vital. 

“Reporting with prejudice is more a problem of a lack of knowledge on the part of journalists and of in general poor knowledge about reporting on human rights,” says Usein. 

One of the initiatives taken in this regard is the Webinar “Responsible reporting on Roma inclusion” which involved about 50 media representatives. 

“We see the media as our allies, and we strive to have a role as their partners, being always there to answer their inquiries or provide any kind of support they need,” Usein adds. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has aggravated the continental scenario we have seen so far. If anti-gypsysm once stigmatised Roma as cholera carriers, now, unfortunately, we see something similar with Covid-19. In Bulgaria and Slovakia, for example, the authorities have subjected Roma neighbourhoods to harsh quarantines. Parts of major cities have been cordoned off, preventing people from entering or leaving without urgent reasons. In some parts of Bulgaria, Roma neighbourhoods continued to be quarantined even after the end of quarantine in the rest of the country. 

While aid should be stepped up in areas lacking services such as water, electricity or internet, or access to treatment, the general trend in Europe has been to tighten controls, raids and repression during the pandemic. The emergency scenario has thus exacerbated systemic injustices. As reported by The World, a video has gone viral in Romania showing five Roma men tied up; the screams of a sixth can be heard while being beaten by the police. In the video, shot by the female partner of one of the six, an officer can be heard at one point saying ‘Why are you filming? You think anyone cares?’. 

But it is in the most dramatic cases that the role of the media becomes more crucial. In recent years we have seen issues of structural racism taking more space in news coverage. The way newsrooms cover such issues has changed which means there is room for change in the way anti-gypsyism is covered. The media need to see anti-gypsyism with the lens of associations and activists working in the field as well as the people directly involved. Giving them more space, learning through their experiences, should be a priority for any newsroom. 

Photo Credit: Gonzalo Bell / Shutterstock