Sinaia, Romania June 27-28, 1997
The role of the mass media in shaping perceptions,
attitudes, and understandings has been well documented. The Project
on Ethnic Relations (PER) has been acutely aware of the interrelations
between the media and those portrayed by the media, for the tone and character
of these relationships play an important part in interethnic relations.
Particularly with respect to minorities and those seeking to overcome the
history of misunderstandings born of negative and stereotypical imagery,
this is an area where there is a dire need for open and honest communication.
It is the practice of PER to organize and facilitate dialogues between
parties that normally find it difficult to meet face-to-face without the
presence of an impartial third party. In keeping with this practice, PER
co-sponsored a seminar in Prague in September 1996 that brought together
Romani elites and journalists and a small number of non-Romani journalists
from the mainstream media of several countries in the region (see the PER
report, The Media and the Roma in Contemporary Europe: Facts and Fictions).
Subsequently, representatives of the Romani community in Romania asked
PER to provide an opportunity for considering the questions raised at the
seminar in the circumstances specific to Romania. Romani elites in that
country strongly believe that a large segment of the media presents a false
picture of the Roma, and they have accused the media of in effect fomenting
violence against the Roma.
The workshop that is the subject of this report
was PER's response to that request. It was held in Sinaia, Romania, from
June 27 to June 28, 1997, in cooperation with the Department for the Protection
of National Minorities of the Romanian Government and with the Roma Center
for Social Intervention and Studies (Rromani CRISS), a nongovernmental
organization in Romania. Partial funding was provided by the Confidence-Building
Measures Programme of the Council of Europe. The participants were Romani
elites and journalists, non-Romani journalists in Romania, and journalists
from media in other countries. A list of participants appears at the end
of the report.
Questions such as these were the subject of discussion: Who is responsible
for the often negative image of the Roma in some of the Romanian media?
Is it biased coverage by journalists, or does the Romani community fail
to provide accurate information to the media, forcing journalists to rely
on information received from the police press bureaus? Can journalists
develop a "code of ethics" concerning the communication of information
about ethnic minorities in general and about Roma in particular? What possibilities
are there for cooperation between the mainstream and the Romani media?
The goal of the workshop was to share the experiences of Western and
other media professionals in dealing with the problems of reporting that
involves ethnic content and to stimulate a continuing discussion of those
problems, looking toward the establishment of informal mechanisms of evaluation
and the promotion of professionalism.
The workshop led to several concrete outcomes: the formation of a "Contact
Point" between the Romani community and the media, which will provide the
media with information from and about the community and will organize monthly
dialogues between the two parties, and the initiation of internships for
young Romani journalists at two of the leading Romanian dailies. In addition,
PER's Bucharest office will hold monthly workshops for journalists aimed
at developing standards to help avoid ethnic stereotyping in the media.
This report was prepared for PER by Jennifer Tanaka, consultant to Rromani
CRISS. It was edited by Warren Haffar, PER program officer, and Robert
A. Feldmesser, PER's senior editor. The participants have not had an opportunity
to review the text, which is thus PER's responsibility alone.
Livia B. Plaks, Executive Director
Princeton, New Jersey October 1997
A Note on Terminology
Gypsy is an English term used to denote ethnic groups formed by the
dispersal of commercial, nomadic and other groups from within India from
the tenth century, and their mixing with European and other groups during
their diaspora.* The term Gypsy and the several European variants of Tsigan
are considered by many to be pejorative.
Rom refers to a member of the group.
Roma refers to a plurality of members and to the group as a whole.
Romani refers to the language spoken by the Roma. It is also used as
The role and impact of the mass media are often
emphasized in discussions of violence and discrimination against the Roma
in Central and Eastern Europe. Although these problems are not unique to
that region, they have special importance there now because of the vast
economic, social, and political transformations that are propelled by the
move toward the principles of democracy, freedom of speech, and civil rights.
The Project on Ethnic Relations (PER) has been engaged in a continuing
effort to identify practical and durable ways of overcoming the negative
portrayal of Roma in the mass media. The workshop whose proceedings are
presented in this report was part of that effort. It was held in Sinaia,
Romania, from June 27 to June 28, 1997, and it concentrated on the situation
in Romania. The hope was that the focus on a single country would allow
the problems to be addressed in greater detail, leading to the building
of confidence between journalists and Romani elites, hitherto adversarial
groups, and thence to the development of approaches to the resolution of
Before the workshop began, a number of documents were distributed to
the invited participants. Some of these were prepared specifically for
the workshop; others were outgrowths of previous activities organized by
PER or by Rromani CRISS. The documents were: (1) a report of a study of
the press coverage of Roma in the 1996 general elections; (2) a thematic
analysis of the texts of articles concerning Roma from six daily newspapers
during the periods May 19-25 and June 2-7, 1997; (3) analysis of the use
of the terms "Rom" and "Tigan" in articles appearing in thirteen newspapers
between March 21 and June 19, 1997; and (4) a proposal for a Romani press
Setting the Framework
Three presentations were made at the outset of
the workshop. The first of these was by William Pfaff, a journalist with
the International Herald Tribune and a member the PER Council for Ethnic
Accord. He dealt with the origins and evolution of ethnic nationalism,
secular nationalism, and the liberal state. Ethnic nationalism, he contended,
endangers the very definition of "citizen" when the nature of citizenship
becomes such that persons are individually marked by birth and their place
in the state is inseparable from the community into which they were born.
When members of different ethnic groups are then present within the borders
of a state, extreme manifestations of ethnic nationalism appear, such as
"ethnic cleansing," leading to the violent expulsion of the members of
some ethnic minorities.
On the other hand, in the context of the secular nationalism of a liberal
state, nationality typically rests on cultural and historical bases and
acknowledges the importance of personal identity, and the concept of citizenship
is constrained by the underlying principle of equality without regard to
ethnic or racial group. In the liberal state, journalists bear the responsibility
of reporting from a detached standpoint, so that they can clarify ideas
and make objective and nondiscriminatory analyses of events. They must
also be conscious of the dangers of propagating ideas that may be detrimental
to any group of citizens, because "ideas may manufacture facts."
The next presentation was by Dan Pavel of the Bucharest
office of PER, who gave an overview of the history of nationalist thought
in Romania in the second half of the twentieth century. Following the Communist
takeover, official propaganda integrated Romanian nationalism with communism.
Since the overthrow of the Ceausescu government in 1989, the idea has been
put forth in academic circles that civil society contains three main strata:
civic, non-civic, and anti-civic. The civic stratum is the one that may
be considered "natural;” it is characterized by pluralism, widespread participation,
and observance of human rights. The non-civic stratum consists chiefly
of Mafia-type organizations, and the anti-civic stratum refers to nationalist
groups and religious fundamentalists. Thus, the question arises, "What
can we do so that the civic component evolves as the dominant one”?
The third presentation was by another member the
PER Council for Ethnic Accord, Nicolae Gheorghe, the coordinator of Rromani
CRISS and a member of the PER Romani Advisory Council as well. He described
the Roma as going through a process of "ethnogenesis"--constructing a new
Romani group identity, as other groups had done in the nineteenth century.
The present goal, especially in Romania, is to upgrade the status of members
of the community from "Tigan" to "Roma," symbolic of the move from "slaves"
to equal status as citizens in a state governed by the rule of law, with
the right to identify themselves as belonging to the Romani minority.
Gheorghe pointed out that there was diversity among the Roma, reflected
in different ideas about how Romani ethnic identity should be combined
with the construction of democratic political institutions. One possibility
is for the Roma to affirm their identity in the context not of a particular
state but of a "European identity," perhaps represented by such bodies
as the European Union and the Council of Europe. This would be consistent
with the situation of the Roma as a stateless nation, dispersed throughout
Europe and other parts of the world. The most recent censuses in Central
and Eastern Europe (1990-1992) show that Romania has the largest population
of Roma. One interesting finding of a study made for Rromani CRISS by Radu
Halus of the Romanian National Commission for Statistics shows that the
proportion of the total estimated Romani population in that country who
declared themselves to be Roma increased between 1977 and 1992.
However, the geographical dispersion of the Roma is only one element
in their pluralism. Actually, the Roma are a multicultural people, with
different religions, geographical zones of mobility, and cultures, including
different languages, in the form of both Romani dialects and the official
languages of the states in which they reside. The construction of an identity
that would take into account all of these differences presents formidable
But there is one commonality among the Roma: They are all looked upon
as "foreigners." Similar to the historical experience of the Jews, the
Roma in Central and Eastern Europe have been perceived as outsiders in
their own countries, a perception that has been based largely on beliefs
about "race." In the mass media, Roma are often referred to as "colored"
or "dark-skinned," and they are frequently described as possessing "inherent"
deviant behavioral patterns. Violence against Roma has sometimes taken
the form of "ethnic cleansing," in which Romani families have been evicted
from the villages in which they were living and their homes have been burned
Andrzej Mirga, Chairman of the PER Romani Advisory Council, commented
that the Roma are currently confronted with several basic issues concerning
their historical legacy and their future prospects, both of which are involved
in their high rates of unemployment and low levels of education. Moreover,
since 1989, Roma have become the main scapegoat in many countries of Central
and Eastern Europe, creating new barriers which must be overcome, both
by the Roma themselves and by the societies with which they coexist. (See
the PER publication, The
Roma in the Twenty-First Century: A Policy Paper.)
Studies of the Romanian Mass Media
The press coverage of conflicts between Roma and
members of the majority in four Romanian communities was analyzed in a
study coordinated by Ion-Andrei Popescu of the Institute of Studies and
Polls ESOP OMEGA. Some of the findings are presented here, and a fuller
summary appears as an appendix to this report. The incidents studied took
place in the Bolintin area, 1991; Hadareni, 1993; Bacu, 1995; and Tanganu,
1997. Two of them were rather large-scale conflicts that resulted in the
destruction of the majority of the Romani homes in an attempt to evict
them from the villages. In Bacu, two Romani bystanders were wounded by
gunshots following an altercation between some Roma and non-Roma and the
burning of three Romani homes. The police intervened by guarding the Romani
homes that had been involved in the altercation, but non-Romani villagers
attacked other Romani homes that were not being guarded. In the other incidents,
members of the majority population gathered and threatened to attack the
Romani men from the village and burn their houses, but the flight of the
Roma and the intervention of police forces prevented further escalation
of the conflict.
One finding of the study was that, over the six years between the first
and last of the incidents, the Roma were increasingly characterized by
negative attributes, while the non-Roma and their actions were increasingly
presented in positive terms. Another change was that, during the first
two incidents, emphasis was on the malfunctioning of the justice system,
the perceived failure to punish the allegedly criminal behavior of the
Roma, whereas in the last two, emphasis was on the "unlawful" behavior
of the Roma themselves. Still another change was that fear among the groups
involved was reported on during the first two incidents but went unmentioned
in the coverage of the last two.
The study also found a change in attitudes toward the social integration
of the Roma. In the first two events, blame was largely placed on the inability
of society to absorb the members of the Romani minority. In the last two,
society was no longer held to be at fault; rather, it was the Roma themselves
who were considered responsible for the lack of integration, intimating
that it was because of their "complacency."
A change was observed in the sources of information for the stories
as well. The 1991 incident brought forth a wide variety of articles, many
of which were largely speculative. Later, there was greater use of official
sources and local documentation. Especially noteworthy is the increase
in the journalists' use of police jargon, sometimes repeating verbatim
terms found in the police inspectorate's press releases--"Gypsy, without
occupation," "with (or without) penal antecedents," "with (or without)
legal domicile in locality," "known criminal," etc.
Finally, except for some of the stories in 1991,
the journalistic discourse harped on the differences between the majority
and the Roma--"we" and "they." This approach could be described as a kind
of "interpretive scheme," in which the behavior of the majority was treated
with understanding and compassion, in contrast to the shameless and incorrigible
conduct of the Roma.
The Portrayal of the Roma and Crime in the Mass Media
In a number of cases of anti-Romani violence, members
of the majority community justified their behavior, in part, by the alleged
failure of law-enforcement officials to take appropriate steps when members
of the Romani community committed illegal acts. This led them to engage
in what they called "popular justice"--evicting Roma from their villages,
including some who were not accused of any crimes. However, it was pointed
out that police forces now intervene more promptly to prevent violence
and that the frequency of this kind of violence has decreased since 1993.
One Romani participant suggested that there might be a relationship
between the reduced number of outbreaks of violence and an increase in
information about "Gypsy crime," especially about the apprehension of "Gypsy
criminals." That is, the police may be letting the majority population
know that "Gypsy criminals" are being caught and punished.
Other Romani participants pointed out the other side of this coin: that
the image of the Roma in the Romanian mass media is one of criminals. Studies
of the media have borne out this contention. In 1997, six national newspapers
were monitored for articles about the Roma between May 19 and 25 and June
2 and 7. During the first of these periods, 11 such articles were published,
and every one of them made some reference to criminality. During the second
period, there were 21 articles, of which 11 were about criminality. Similarly,
in an analysis of articles in four daily newspapers between May 1 and June
20, 1997, there were 69 articles, and 36 of them (52 percent) had the theme
of criminality. (It was later pointed out that these articles had failed
to note that the source of their information was police press releases--a
serious violation of journalistic ethics.)
In another study, conducted by the Intercultural
Institute in Timisoara as part of a project on "the role of the press in
harmonizing interethnic relations" (funded by the Council of Europe and
the Soros Foundation for an Open Society), the frequency of various categories
of key words in articles about the Roma in newspapers in three Romanian
cities was noted for the period from May 1995 to April 1996. For two newspapers
from Timisoara, the most frequently occurring category had to do with "color
of skin;” the second most frequently occurring category was "infraction."
In one Bucharest newspaper and two from Constanta, the two most frequent
categories were "Romani ethnicity" and "infraction." In another Bucharest
newspaper, the most frequent categories were "Romani ethnicity" and "group."
Participants pointed out that this image of the Roma as criminals--made
vivid with such terms as "Gypsy Mafia" and "gang of dangerous Gypsies"--breeds
fear in the majority population. Furthermore, reporting the ethnicity of
Romani criminals and suspects when it has no relevance to the story implies
that there is a definite relationship between being Roma and being a criminal
or a "Mafioso." One Romani participant said that the media coverage presents
criminality as "a Romani problem," neglecting to mention the economic difficulties
(such as lack of income, of social assistance, and of land) that may be
the real source of crime.
The moderator remarked that newspapers must take into account what sells,
and unfortunately, bad or negative news often sells better than good or
positive news. But an example was given to show that mistakes can be avoided.
German newspapers reported that a "Polish Mafia" was responsible for car
thefts in Germany. There were protests from Poland, and the result was
that the newspapers began to say, only when it was relevant, that "some
of the leaders were persons of Polish origin."
Romanian television recently aired a special report
on the question of whether there really was a "Gypsy Mafia," in the sense
of an organized criminal group. The head of the department that produced
the report said that it was made with the collaboration of a young Romanian
Rom and included members of the Romani community. Nevertheless, it was
criticized by some Roma because it showed footage taken at an annual celebration
of the Kalderash tribe showing well-known Roma without their consent. One
of them claimed that the film implied incorrectly that his family and the
Kalderash community were engaged in criminal activity, and he demanded
a retraction. The issue has not yet been resolved.* (It was pointed out
that, in Poland, the family could sue the producers of the report.)
The use of the term "Mafia" was a major topic of discussion at the workshop.
Romani participants, and some of the journalists, said that the mere use
of a gun or knife in a criminal act does not constitute "organized crime."
However, one of the journalists replied that the term "Gypsy Mafia" was
not different from such other terms as "Chinese Mafia" and that organized
crime can be of different types--economic, financial, or juridical. He
asked what journalists were supposed to do when there was a case of organized
crime. One response was to follow the example from Poland that had been
cited earlier: Write about "persons belonging to the Romani minority" rather
than "the Gypsy Mafia."
A participant from the press office of the Romanian
police expressed his belief that the role of the media is to act as a mirror
of society, and thus the problem was "not how the mirror reflects but what
stands in front of it." A journalist put it more bluntly, saying that the
cause of the negative image of Roma in the mass media is the behavior of
Romani persons, in Romania and abroad. The moderator pointed out that journalists
have a professional responsibility to present an objective and balanced
picture. That may sometimes require writing things that the public may
not want to hear, such as refuting a stereotype. He added that the more
liberal the society is, the easier it is for a journalist to act in a professional
The Role of the Police
As noted earlier, the police are an important source
of information for Romanian journalists. An example was given of a recent
report on statistics about crime in May 1996 and May 1997 that had been
prepared by the Department of Informatics and Operative Evidence of the
General Police Inspectorate. The report stated that, among the 21,825 perpetrators
and accomplices who had been apprehended in May 1997, "2,232 are minors,
8,638 are youth, 331 are foreigners, 1,983 are Roma" These figures were
then published in a Romanian daily.
A participant noted that Rromani CRISS had been studying the press releases
of the Bucharest police and the General Police Inspectorate and had observed
that persons accused of crimes might be identified as "Gypsy" or "Romani"
but not as "Romanian" or "Hungarian." In some of the press releases given
to the organization, however, the ethnic identification of the perpetrator
had been blacked out.* The press releases also included the address of
the suspect and information regarding occupation and past criminal record.
Romani participants expressed concern about the
studies of "Gypsy crime" by the Romanian police department. The historical
dangers of crime studies based on ethnicity, as illustrated by the case
of Nazi Germany, were brought to attention by the recent appearance of
The Unknown Next to Us, a book written by a researcher in the Ministry
of the Interior. The book concerns the "crime phenomenon within the Gypsy
minority" and is used as training material in the Romanian Police Academy.
One Romani participant said that, in addition, the press may be manipulated
by some state interests, such as the Ministry of the Interior's campaign
A representative of the press office of the Bucharest police acknowledged
that the police records of all recorded crimes in the country included
information on nationality along with information on such other characteristics
as gender, age, and occupation. He insisted that separate data were not
kept for Roma, although the information could be sorted on the "nationality"
field. When asked about the relevance of nationality data, he responded
that it was in the interest of society, of sociological studies, and of
crime prevention through the identification of possible accomplices. Indeed,
he said that his office had been criticized when it tried to present information
about crime without such details and that police departments in other countries
publish statistics regarding nationality and crime (though others pointed
out that it is illegal to do so in some countries). In any case, he said,
it was his opinion that the police press office should provide all data
to the media and leave the interpretation to them.
Other participants said that the collection of data on the ethnicity
of criminals and suspects, even in order to facilitate the apprehension
of accomplices, is a form of discrimination; that the prevention of crime
must yield to the prevention of discrimination; and that there would be
no opposition to the publication of information about the ethnicity of
a criminal or suspect when it was relevant to the story.
The basis on which ethnicity is determined was also discussed. The police
representative said that, in his department, ethnicity or nationality was
determined in the same way that it is in the census: by the individual's
response to a question on a standard form. Others suggested that a written
declaration would be better, because it was not certain that the individual
had in fact identified himself or herself. Romani participants agreed that
persons are Roma only if they choose to declare themselves as such.
Access to Romani Communities
One of the principle problems raised by the non-Romani
journalists was a lack of communication between the Roma and the media.
Even in the presence of a readiness to publish positive news about Roma-related
issues, Romani communities are closed to journalists. Other minority groups
provided information on a regular basis, but Romani sources did so only
rarely. Yet if more information came from the Roma themselves, journalists
would be less dependent on information from the police. If nothing else,
facilitation of journalists' access to Romani communities would diversify
their sources of information. One journalist complained that even in situations
of conflict, it was difficult to make contact with Romani community members.
Also, however, readers were generally more interested in the response of
the local authorities.
One journalist said that her magazine had experienced a negative reaction
when it published special material on the Roma. Readers in the majority
community were not motivated to buy the issue when they read on the cover
page that there was an article inside concerning the Roma. In fact, some
readers said that they would cancel their subscriptions if the magazine
continued to cover this subject.
Some of the journalists spoke of a need for a more
structured organization and diplomatic leadership in the Romani communities.
Clearer political platforms were also needed. There would be both greater
press coverage and wider public interest if there were stronger evidence
that the Roma were an ethnic group with specific political problems and
One of the participants questioned the extent of "modern" political
thinking among the Roma. In the discussion that followed, it was generally
agreed that the emergence of an increasing number of Romani organizations
in Central and Eastern Europe, some with clear political agendas, was evidence
of the spread of "political thinking" among Roma. However, some expressed
doubts that this was "modern" thinking, for there was so far only a minimal
number of Romani parliamentarians. The situation was described as one in
a process of development.
Some non-Romani participants questioned the impact of the Romani participants
on the rank-and-file members of the Romani communities. They expressed
the hope that whatever practical solutions might be identified would reach
beyond the Romani intelligentsia.
The Romani Media
Another important topic of discussion was the distribution,
audience, and funding of the Romani media. One of the Romani participants
remarked that the Romani communities had only a limited capacity for raising
funds, whether through increased readership or by raising funds from other
sponsors. Another participant pointed out that the editor in chief of the
Romani newspaper that is supported by the state is a political personage,
which restricts the scope of the news that it reports.
Some Romani participants said that there was a need for more television
and radio programs aimed at Romani audiences, since these would attract
more people than newspapers do. Others insisted that there should nevertheless
be a nationwide, daily Romani newspaper. But were there enough qualified
Roma to produce professional-caliber newspapers and radio and TV programs?
This was an area in which non-Romani journalists could cooperate with members
of the Romani community, although there has been some training of Romani
youth in radio reporting.
In the course of the workshop, the proposal was
made that a Romani press agency be created to increase the flow of information
from Romani communities to the mainstream mass media. Such an agency could
establish a network of correspondents who would send information daily
to a central agency, which would in turn send the information on to its
subscribers. Reaction from the non-Romani journalists was positive, provided
that the cost was low enough and the information was presented in a professional
manner. One journalist declared that this kind of resource would be more
useful than any number of Romani newspapers with limited audiences.
Although some participants said that Romani elites have insisted that
Romani issues be covered by Romani journalists, others maintained that
Roma must present their points of view through the mainstream media if
they wish to have an impact on their own image. Thus, there needs to be
more interaction between Romani and non-Romani journalists. Indeed, Romani
journalists could have a particularly great impact on the image of the
Roma by working for the mainstream media. To achieve that goal, they must
have the training and skills that will enable them to compete with others
in the field.
The discussion of possible solutions for the problems
that had been examined rested on an agreement about the importance of identifying
common interests between journalists and the Roma. One such interest was
that of professionalism, which pointed toward an increased flow of information
from Romani elites to the mainstream media, on the one hand, and, on the
other, a greater sensitivity among mainstream journalists to the type of
information that reinforces the stereotypes of Roma. A significant step
toward increasing the flow of information came with the announcement of
the establishment of a Contact Point, to be funded by PER and the Council
of Europe, between Romani associations and the press.
Another suggestion was for a law on data protection, which could limit
the provision of information from official sources about the nationality
of individuals. A similar suggestion was for a code of ethics, which might
be built upon a compilation of codes of journalistic ethics from other
Several participants pointed to the need for strong Romani media. A
journalist offered an internship to two Romani individuals, which would
give them an opportunity to practice writing articles and to learn how
a newspaper functions.
Finally, Rromani CRISS invited journalists to a press conference to
be held the following week concerning the recently issued report, The
Roma in the Twenty-First Century: A Policy Paper, by Andrzej Mirga
and Nicolae Gheorghe the PER Romani Advisory Council.
There was agreement among the participants that contact and dialogue
should continue, moving to more specific matters and cooperative solutions
and contributing to the process of building mutual trust and confidence.
The workshop at Sinaia was a continuation of PER's
efforts to improve communication and cooperation between ethnic communities
and the mass media. The participation of a larger number of mainstream
journalists on this occasion than was the case at the preceding workshop
in Prague proved useful in enlarging and facilitating the discussion.
The workshop succeeded in providing an open forum for a specific discussion
of the complex relationships between the Romani communities and their portrayal
in the Romanian mass media. However, the issues involved are not unique
either to the Roma or to Romania. Questions of objectivity and professionalism
in the media are universal and of increasing importance. As the rights
of free speech are expanding, new opportunities are being created for fostering
effective communication and mutual understanding among people of different
ethnic identities. These opportunities must not be missed.