Romani (Gypsy) culture and social issues.
Black and White versus Diversity:
The Image of the Roma in the Balkan Media

By Mariana Lenkova

If we are to speak in terms of “black & white,” then we can say that the Roma are either “‘marginals’ and outcasts who are by definition suspects; they carry the hereditary gene of criminality” (Eleftherotypia, 22/11/96) or they “entertain people with their dances and music, impart joy and elation. This is why people believe that Romanies’ lifestyle is based on merrymaking.” (Cumhyriet, 6/10/96).

However, everything in life, which aims at completion, has its spectrum of nuances, apart from the binary opposites - black and white. It is therefore only natural to look for such nuances as regards the Roma. The task is not easy at all, especially when it comes to the Balkans.

This region presents a number of important factors which predetermine the complicated character of the overall situation. First and foremost, all Balkan countries (apart from Greece and Turkey) are former communist dictatorships, a fact which makes people a priori less sensitive towards democratic values and human rights. With the collapse of the seemingly everlasting communist states, a number of grave economic problems came to the fore. Thus the Roma, who have always been at the bottom of society, now became completely marginalized. Moreover, they are blamed for everything - from the worst economic and social problems to the everyday petit crimes.

Keeping in mind all this, maybe it is not that surprising that the Roma in Bulgaria say that they would give anything to go back in time and live in communism, because back then they were able to attend school, to work and to mix up with the “intelligentsia of the country.” The non-Roma, on the other hand, oftentimes make use of stereotypes. “Don’t play dirty like a Gypsy” is such a “normal” phrase that even open minded people use it. This means that prejudice on an everyday level is deeply embedded in people’s minds. In such a situation, it is not strange that the media (whose aim is to build and re-enforce notions anyway) have a tendency to “recycle” prejudicial concepts related to the Roma again and again.

All this is not limited to the ex-communist countries, though. A proof to this are the numerous examples of “hate speech” against the Roma in the print and electronic media of free and democratic Greece. Obviously, bias and prejudice are widespread in the region. They should be combated with a great deal of patience and determination, so that this negative tendency be gradually uprooted.

If one turns to the specific instances of stereotypical presentation of the Roma in the Balkan media, s/he would find that even though the picture varies from country to country, it is usually deeply embedded in prejudice and social exclusion.

Occasional positive presentation of the Roma can be seen in the ALBANIAN and also in the TURKISH media. Thus Gazetta Shquiptare (17/11/96) dedicates a whole special page to that ethnic group, discussing with concern the integration of its members in the Albanian society and their desire to have higher living standards: “Now the Roms do not lead their special life. Are they going to be assimilated? Though some of them are accommodated and say ‘Here, in Albania, everything is very nice,’ what about the others. Do they feel themselves equal citizens?”

When it comes to the other countries, however, things lose their optimistic promises for an objective, or even, a positive attitude towards this minority. BULGARIAN media are particularly hostile towards the Roma. There are constant references to the ethnic origin of the criminals whenever a crime has been committed by Roma. [“Gypsies Beat Up Handicapped in Social Welfare Queue” (Standart, 21/6/98); “Gypsies Swallow Thousands of Turtles.” (24 Chasa, 10/6/98)]. Apart from that, well known stereotypical and derogatory images are used both when referring directly to this particular group or to relationships with external factors (e.g. calling the negotiations with Macedonia as regards the “language issue” a “Gypsy bargaining,” thus ascribing a pejorative meaning to the whole process.)

The most pronounced tendency in the media in Bulgaria is for them to present the Roma criminals as “blood-thirsty sub-humans,” who commit crimes which no Bulgarian would ever commit. “A Mother was Baked Alive in an Oven; A Roma Businessman Tortures the Woman for Half a Day, Cuts her Ears” (24 Chasa, 2/8/95); “Gypsy Boys Chopped Two Old Men with an Ax for a Lump of Cheese” (168 Chasa, 20/8/95); “A Gypsy Split the Skull of an Old Woman for Revenge” (24 Chasa, 23/8/95); “The Gypsies: Unarmed but hungry and very dangerous; Dark-skinned Bulgarians took the opportunity of the civil disobedience and made massive raids on cellars, shops and ware houses; Probably they have become wild with hunger, and the Gypsies can do things a Bulgarian would never think of doing” (168 Chasa, 7-13/2/97).

Apart from that the Roma are mocked at for their “ingenious” methods for making money: “Some years ago the Gypsies in Plovdiv used to make a lot of money out of road accidents, because it is impossible to prove that the accident has been staged. Nowadays the blood theater is once again in fashion. The drivers, who pass by the Gypsy neighborhoods, have to be particularly attentive.” (24 Chasa, 30/11/96). Their cultural specificity is also made fun of. “Bulgarians would give anything, their whole fortune, to pay for their son’s higher education; Mango and Aishe [popular Roma names] would only just make it through Grade 8 [secondary school], claim that they have finished high school, jump into a Lincoln, have five kids and queue up for welfare […] In Faculteta [a Roma neighborhood] you’ll get a helicopter if you have higher education. If only we could have made it like them too.” (Noshten Trud, 16-17/6/98).

On the basis of all this, the following conclusion comes almost naturally: “Every third offense in Bulgaria is committed by Gypsies; an act of revenge against the Gypsies on part of Bulgarians , victimized by their attacks.” (Trud, 7/10/95). Still, it is worthwhile to mention that there have been some positive developments in the last few months. Thus Demokratsia (26/6/98) had an in-depth study on the stable negative image of the Roma in the media: “The implication [in the press] is that we are helpless victims of all possible evils, and the most dignified line of action in this situation would be to sit back and suffer pitifully, merely watching what the Gypsies are doing. Because, to judge from our press, it is only the Gypsies who take any action, and this action is abominable.” And last, but not least, it should be mentioned that all Bulgarian media criticized the ethnic-based murder of a Roma lady last July. “The woman paid her ‘fault’ of having been born a Gypsy with her life. A furious teenager punished her because he had been victimized by Gypsies himself.” (Trud, 27/7/98); “Bulgarian children killed a woman because she was different. The day before one could have afforded to say there was no serious problem. Today it is impossible to deny this problem.” (Kontinent, 24/7/98).

GREEK media also have a tendency to present the Roma with much prejudice and negativism. Two particular criminal activities are usually treated as copyrighted by the Roma. These are drug dealing and trafficking in babies. The former is represented by the following quotes: [The Roma] use even minors as carriers of drugs”; “Roma merchants of death were caught while delivering big quantities of drugs even to young 15-year-old people and high school students.” “More than 2.5 kilos of marihuana, 4 grams of heroin, 17 pills of methadone and 814,000 drs. were found and confiscated in the Roma camping in Halandri.” “In the past, many clients had been arrested, while the dealers had escaped, because they used the coverage of their relatives in order to avoid arrest.” (Adesmeftos Typos 19/4/96).

The selling of babies is condemned by many papers: “Organized Roma networks used to sell babies in Thessaloniki, with the cooperation of lawyers and authorities.” (Ethnos 6/6/97); “The city of Thessaloniki has been turned into a center for the selling of babies. Roma and citizens from countries of the former Eastern Bloc are involved in this case of illegal adoptions. The Roma woman Paraskevi Liatifi said, in her apology, that poverty and necessity for the raising of her other three children led her to this act.” (Apogevmatini 7/6/97). Rarely the deep reasons for such a criminal behavior are discussed and analyzed. “The fact that the Roma are involved in illegal adoptions should not surprise the public opinion, since it is known that this social group is totally excluded and doomed to misery.”; “It is also worthwhile to mention that if a baby is Roma, his/her ‘price’ is usually lower and it amounts to 3 mill drs.” (Eleftherotypia of Sunday 8/6/97); “The Roma woman, who had been arrested for participation in the selling of her babies, declared: ‘I have three more children that I cannot raise.’ The 23rd investigator decided to detain her in custody. The lawyer who is alleged to be the ‘mastermind’ of the whole network was released after paying a guarantee of 1 mill drs.” (Adesmeftos Typos, 7/6/97)

It should be kept in mind that regardless of some stereotypical images which are “recycled” by the press every once in a while, there are also many neutral references to the Roma. This is true especially when it comes to describing their cultural traditions and talents. Thus Eleftheros Typos (5/06/97) announced that “A Roma cultural festival will start in the area of Agia Varvara under the slogan ‘Athens is a multicultural city. Meet the Roma!’ The festival promotes the awareness campaign of the Greek society. According to the president of the older Romani association, the number of the Greek Roma amounts to 5% of the whole population. The president claims that it is not true that the Roma do not want to be educated. The festival includes discussions on racism, a football match, exhibitions of photographs and books, movies and a concert with the participation of Roma artists.”

From time to time there are even some openly positive articles. For example, the shooting of Mr. Manoussakis’ movie “Whispers of the Heart” about the love story of a Roma woman and a Greek businessman prompted the media to show concern and sympathy for the “the Roma [because] the official Greek state has been refusing citizenship to these 300,000 people for more than 120 years. And in our eyes, the Roma are only colorful skirts, ‘clarinets’ and ‘reading of our fate,’ caricatures and not normal people with flesh and blood and needs. Still, they live together with us, everywhere and nowhere. (…) The Roma have always been the most ignored and neglected of all minorities, only because there were hardly any educated people among them, people with some access to the system and a voice that could be used to our powerful codes, in order to be heard. This is why it was easy for the police, for instance, to intrude without any second thought (and most important without any warrant) to their homes, looking for suspects. But now things are becoming different. The Roma are trying to ignore the majority’s racism and send their kids at school. A brand new Roma generation is activated with success throughout Europe, with a view to inform the international community for the culture, the language and the big difficulties of the Roma brothers” (Ta Nea, 11/2/98).

The situation in ROMANIA is characterized by profound “hate speech” towards the Roma. The latter are presented as criminals who tend to asocial behavior. Thus the public is led to believe that all Roma are criminals and dishonest people who cannot be trusted: “A group of dangerous Gypsies kidnapped a citizen of Bucharest whom they kept in terror for 5 hours” (Jurnal National, 23/11/96); “Under the terrified eyes of his nine children, the Gypsy Pavel Varga killed his wife and hung the body to simulate suicide.” (Evenimentul Zilei, 27/1/97); “Seven police officers were attacked with knives and axes by a group of Gypsies, because they didn’t want to set free the Gypsies’ friends who had stolen wood” (Evenimentul Zilei, 22/1/97).

It is interesting that the Romanian media use a rather self-explanatory double-standard when discussing Roma problems. When reporting on crimes committed by members of the minority, the papers call them with the pejorative name ‘Gypsy.’ When presenting ‘neutral’ information, however, the terms ‘Roma’ or ‘Rroma’ are used. The following examples prove the above observation: “The Gypsy Catana chopped his own brother-in-law with an axe.” (Adevarul, 19/4/98), “After he raped her, the Gypsy Loi hanged his benefactress.” (Evenimentul Zilei, 28/7/98) versus “Scholarships for Roma Law Students” (Romania Libera, 12/5/98).

When it comes to YUGOSLAVIA, it is usually Nasa Borba which dedicates pages to the Roma and to the attitudes towards them (not hiding racism found in opinion polls). The other papers often use the pejorative term “Shaban” for Roma. This minority has started attracting the media’s attention since last year. All papers follow the trend of publishing pro-Roma articles, but only the independent press goes deep into the reasons underlying the bad status of that minority: “Authorities Treat Us As ‘Underground People’” (Nasa Borba, 9/4/98). It is also important to stress the fact that Dnevni Telegraf (29/4/98) criticized the assaults of a skinhead gang on Belgrade street cleaners [mostly Albanians and Roma]. This newspaper said that “skinheads are, in a way, the street image of the regime and the prevalent status of the spirit: they are captives of Europe a la carte too, and they borrow only negative epiphenomena from developed countries.” Vreme qualified the skinheads’ actions as “masturbation of Hitlerism on the gate of the Balkans.”

This short presentation of the situation in the Balkans shows clearly that there is a wide-spread and deep prejudice in society against the Roma. Since the latter do not follow the way of life and the value systems of the majorities in the respective countries, they are treated with suspicion and fear, but never with understanding. The most worrying thing, however, is the fact that the media make use of this prevalent attitude and even strengthen it. This tendency may lead to open conflicts among the Roma and the non-Roma, because in the latter’s minds the former are among the main symbols of evil. It is very important to point out that this tendency is not just hypothetical. For example, in Bulgaria last year there were the first instances of Roma lynchings, something which was widely covered (and applauded) by the media.

Of course, one should not blame only the media for presenting such a black and white picture of the situation of the Roma. The politicians remember that the Roma are normal people only during their election campaigns. Society at large is rather unreceptive and unwilling to change its prejudicial concepts. However, both the politicians and society use the media for sharing or receiving their information. This just supports the idea that the media are powerful “weapons” for stereotyping, so one has to know how to use them. That is why it is within the power and the responsibility of the media to start drawing a more realistic picture of the Roma. This should be a picture which incorporates all diverse aspects of Roma life and forgets about the black and white half-truths which are both dangerous and uninteresting.

This presentation is based on quotes from the Balkan print media which have been gathered by the participants in two projects since 1994: the Hate Speech in the Balkan Media Project of the International Helsinki Federation (see Mariana Lenkova, ed. “Hate Speech” in the Balkans , Athens, ETEPE: 1998) and in the Balkan Neighbours Project coordinated by ACCESS, Bulgaria.

Mariana Lenkova is a Balkan media researcher with the Greek Helsinki Monitor.

This article first appeared on the Greek Helsinki Monitor web site at <> 03 September 1999.

Posted 22 October 1999.

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