Journalists Today on Gypsies: Unconscious Racism?
Gypsies have been, and continue to be, written about in various ways, in various publications, and in connexion with various events.
Journalists covering cultural events naturally focus primarily on concerts by gypsy groups, festivals and celebrations. Sometimes this just involves a mention of a dazzling performance by gypsy artistes, at others an interview with a soloist or the head of an ensemble, and, quite often, the reporter’s personal impressions of a concert he or she has attended. Even in this traditional and apparently innocent sphere, the material can be presented in very different ways. A conversation between a knowledgeable journalist and a great gypsy artiste (for instance, Sergey Erdenko), in which professional secrets, musical tastes and artistic techniques are seriously discussed, is one thing; a TV show in which the journalist and sometimes even the artiste from a popular group reproduce, as if in jest, popular stereotypes, bandying such phrases as ‘Gypsy camp’, ‘Gypsy love’, ‘horse-stealing’ and ‘Gypsy district’). One might ask: ‘Why not joke?’ After all, many nations love to poke fun at their own alleged national traits and traditions, to make up jokes about themselves and to observe their own amusing features. This is all very well if a person, when joking, recognises the true position of things and is able to differentiate between irony and offensive accusation. Unfortunately, journalists are too often unable to tell when the joke is over and they themselves are casting serious aspersions, pinning labels on people and repeating old fables and calumnies. Can anyone really find it amusing when an inscription under a photograph of a gypsy ensemble in traditional dress reads: ‘Gypsies not only tell fortunes and steal but sometimes dance too’? What is this, a joke? It is open racism, an insult to a nation, a nationality.
Apart from articles and programmes devoted to cultural events, journalists love to write about gypsies in the crime pages. Here racism is the main approach and no one tries to hard to it. Accusations are made on the basis of ethnic features, and these, as a factor, are highlighted more than any other. Shame on those journalists who, forgetting professional ethics, emphasise the ethnic background of a person accused of a crime or, worse, try to root out the nationality of the perpetrators of a particular crime. The law is identical for everyone, but everyone is identical (and not just equal) before the law as well. If differences do sometimes exist, these may be linked to age, for example, but never nationality. After all, underage offenders are treated less severely than adults. Therefore, interest in an offender’s age is understandable and provokes no objection. Interest in the offender’s ethnic background is another matter. On 21 February 2004, the newspaper Moskovsky Komsomolets published an interview with Lieutenant General Aleksandr Mikhailov, Deputy Head of the Russian State Drug Control Agency, in which the detention of a large group of drug dealers was discussed. Those accused of the criminal enterprise were Moldovans. Though reporting this information, let alone publishing it, was totally unnecessary, the journalist willingly kept up and developed the theme of ‘ethnic crime’, and the conversation moved smoothly on to gypsies -and lo and behold we read about ‘gypsy drug barons’, about how hard it is for the police to work with gypsy transgressors, etc.
Gypsies are thus being pronounced ‘guilty’ without crime: we have here a conversation about a crime no gypsy is even accused of being involved in, but the stereotype still comes into force, and again we have collective accusation, again ‘they all’, again nationalistic accusations and generalisations.
And this is happening almost sixty years after the racism of Nazi Germany was condemned as an inhuman and senseless lie, and the theory that certain races are inherently criminal unambiguously pronounced false and unscientific. It is not always clear how far journalists are aware how close their statements and comment are to precisely those racial theories, ideological clichés and propaganda that cost so many lives in the twentieth century.
No doubt there are amongst the writing fraternity those who are not embarrassed by this comparison, who are ready openly to accuse not just gypsies but also Jews, Africans and people from Caucasia, and for whom the world even now is divided into good and bad races. We most often come across articles by such writers in the tendentious newspapers published by ultra-right, fascist politicians (such as the Pskovskaya Niva and Noviy Peterburg). It is pointless appealing to the conscience and reason of these journalists and their editors. No constructive dialogue is possible here.
It is much more important to focus on those programmes and publications that respect themselves and are respected by the public. After all, questions can arise even after certain publications by the most progressive newspapers in Moscow and Saint Petersburg. A recent example came with a leading article in an English-language newspaper in Saint Petersburg currently considered practically the most critical and politically literate publication in the city.
The article was devoted to a police operation called ‘Tabor’ [‘Gypsy camp’ -A. G.], which took place in Saint Petersburg in May 2004. Unfortunately, the writer’s indignation was provoked not by the operation itself, which, in contravention of all legality, was aimed against an entire ethnic group (after all, the word ‘tabor’ refers specifically to gypsies and their traditional way of life), but by the fact not all gypsies were driven from the city by this police action and some could still be seen on the main streets, as before. The article quoted complaints from tourists, tour company employees, the opinion of some Belgian photographer… It would be interesting to know which newspapers in the Kingdom of Belgium this photographer could publish such obviously racist comments in! Unfortunately, in Belgium too there are probably journalists who support the popular fascist Vlaams Blok party, which promotes ethnic intolerance, but not one editor with respect for his or her publication would allow gypsies on the streets of Saint Petersburg to be compared in print to ‘a cancer for such a beautiful city’. Here the question is one not just of the political leanings of a particular writer, but of a certain level of education, of knowledge of the fact that there are things one cannot permit oneself, just as one should not spit at people or use swearwords. Probably we are all to blame for the fact that so many people (and not just writers) do not yet understand this.
From our human rights cooperation with journalists from decent publications we know that sometimes a calm explanation of why a certain article or report on gypsy life is damaging to innocent people, offensive and untrue is enough for a journalist to realise his or her mistake and sometimes even to correct it.
It is not always beneficial to react emotionally, hastily bringing down one’s -often justified- anger on a hard-nosed journalist. Objectively, it is of much greater advantage to work assiduously with representatives of the press -and not just on pointing out the failings of this or that publication, but also on overcoming the undeclared ‘conspiracy of silence’. After all, actual living conditions for gypsies, as a rule, have nothing to do with organised crime, or concert halls. But who writes about the real lives and problems of Russian gypsies -and what do the people of our country know about this?
At present very little is written -and, hence, known- about this. The media clearly has colossal potential for disseminating both the ‘minus’ and the much-needed ‘plus’. Looking again at the experience of our colleagues abroad, it should be said that over the last ten years the dam, as it were, blocking information about this issue in many countries where gypsies live has been broken through. Almost daily do newspapers, radio and TV provide much-needed, and, most frequently, objective, information on Roma life, thus overcoming the centuries-old isolation of this people and so helping rid society of racism.
Working with journalists is one of the most important human rights tasks. We must fight for honest and objective publications, or else we shall not be able to deal with the dominance of existing stereotypes, with old myths or with the propaganda tricks of racist politicians.
After all, we not infrequently face a dilemma: should we inform the press or not? The main thing here is a simple principle -‘Do no harm’. And even honest journalists with the best intentions can harm if they are unable to keep within the boundaries of decency.
At the same time, the attention the media pays to everyday gypsy problems is also very important. Journalists primarily focus on this theme every year on 8th April, International Romani Day. And this year too many people remembered the gypsies on this day. The main publishing even was a massive article covering an entire page in Izvestiya. We should give the journalist, Dmitry Filimonov, his due: he devoted his material to a very important, and normally little-covered, theme: the problem of school education for Kotlyar gypsy children. One cannot but welcome the very fact that this country’s leading newspaper published an article on this theme. A great deal of effort went into preparing it -the journalist contacted our North-Western Centre for Social and Legal Protection for Roma (Gypsies), visited Memorial in Saint Petersburg, read our newsletters in detail and, most importantly spend, along with a photographer, an entire day amongst Kotlyar gypsies in Peri, Leningrad oblast, and at Oselki middle school, where children from Peri study.
All this is reflected in the publication. The reader is first struck by the excellent, and extremely expressive, photographs of gypsies. This undoubtedly improves the visual appeal of the published material.
But not everything is uncontroversial in the article itself. One would not wish to over-criticise, but it is hard to refrain from remarking that when a journalist from a major newspaper reprinted entire paragraphs of an article by one of his colleagues from a smaller publication (such as our Bulletin of the North-Western Centre for Social and Legal Protection for Roma), it is ethical for him or her to acknowledge it, all the more so as this requirement is both generally accepted and stated in the Bulletin.
Nonetheless, for the sake of justice we will admit that the reproduction of our information, and even of our analysis, does not go against the main principle -‘Do no harm’. On the contrary, we can be happy that facts usually known to only a few have received such publicity. After all, it is not often that someone manages to focus the attention of the entire country on sad and important issues as the growth of racism against gypsies and the increasing number of neo-Nazi attacks on people from this minority.
This plagiarism may, of course, be considered mutually advantageous: we have gained a voice -albeit an anonymous one- and the journalist has gained material for his article. Much worse is something else: having interviewed teachers at school attended by gypsy children, the journalist was evidently careless, and when he later came to reproduce their words from memory he was worse than inaccurate. Here is just one of the ‘inaccuracies’: the teachers related with pride how seven-year-old Ricardo, having no money for the bus (his parents had left early in the morning and had forgotten to leave some), sold his school pen for six roubles and paid for a return ticket (a ticket on the school bus cost three roubles each way). In Izvestiya that six-rouble pen had somehow turned into a gold fountain pen, the money from the sale of which was apparently enough to cover an entire year, and of the pride of the school -the assiduous young Ricardo- it was written that: ‘we won’t go into where he got hold of that fountain pen’ -in other words, the insinuation is clear: he had stolen it. A trivial matter? Four of the teachers came to us together -in tears! And the school’s headmistress said sharply: ‘That’s it! Don’t bring any more journalists to us!’
The principle ‘Do no harm’ was violated: human rights workers almost lost the trust of both teachers and gypsies, and a child trying to go to school was slandered. Even trust in the school was in some sense undermined. After all, people need to understand how difficult the conditions are in which educational work takes place. At the age of 14, boys are saying: ‘I want to study further, but I’m ashamed’. We wanted to help those attracted by education, to write about their difficulties and their efforts and about those who help them, who fight for their future on a daily basis -about their teachers. But things turned out completely differently, and the article made a thoroughly negative impression.
How could it have happened that a journalist who had chosen a social theme, had access to objective information, and had seen the real-life ‘plus’ (and this is what the school in Oselki may indeed be called), still come up with a ‘minus’?! Moreover, the reason is not that he really did come across the unattractive side of life, and did not want to say something bad but had to. No, the story of the gold fountain pen is a fiction, the fruit of an imagination not free of racism and prejudice.
What is this, if not unconscious, almost involuntary, racism? Moreover, Izvestiya cannot allow itself to risk its reputation -it is not the Pskovskaya Niva. But evidently no one in the editorial staff realises that racism -even ‘unconscious’- is offensive and unacceptable.
Most people in our society are not yet ready to perceive the plain truth, to cast off stereotypes and myths. Journalists are a part of society. Sometimes it may be hard, but it is necessary to try to get through to them, to open their eyes, and to change their minds. I would like to note the important contribution made by Nikolay Bessonov to this important and difficult matter, with his helpful pamphlets ‘Gypsies and the Press’, specifically for journalists, and his new website ‘The Gypsies of Russia’, where this information is available to all. The works of this Moscow scholar of gypsy life, writer and artist constitute an undoubted ‘plus’; they are full of patience, kindness and faith in the power of persuasion.