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Clumsy, crude, divisive; the media and their portrayal of the marginalized

25 October 2013

Emma Eastwood, MRG’s Communications Officer, comments on the recent media coverage of the removal of a young girl from a Roma community in Greece

It should have been a dream come true for a Communications Officer working in an international human rights organisation; over 900 hits in media outlets from as far and wide as Italy, Australia, Norway, USA and the UAE.

But the spotlight on Minority Rights Group International (MRG), as a result of a name check in an Associated Press wire story*, and the subsequent telling of the story of a ‘blond blue-eyed little girl’ found living with a Roma couple, unrelated to her biologically, in a settlement in Greece, has left a sour taste in the mouth of this particular activist.

MRG is deeply concerned for the welfare of the young girl, and all children who face discrimination and poverty worldwide, and urges the Greek authorities to protect the rights of all parties in this case. If the charges of abduction against the Roma couple are upheld, then this will be, according to Europol, one of a growing number of instances of trafficking and abduction of women and girls in Europe.

This particular situation stands out however from numerous cases of abduction, because of its portrayal in the media, and the vast amount of coverage it has received, not just by AP, but by countless other outlets.

MRG’s mandate to secure the rights of minorities and indigenous peoples compels me to comment on the media reaction to these events, and the possible consequences of insensitive reporting for Roma, and the many other dispossessed communities we support around the world.

The mention of MRG in the AP story reads, ‘Greece’s Roma community has for centuries been underprivileged and exposed to poverty and discrimination. According to the London-based Minority Rights Group, some 80 percent of the country’s 300,000 Roma are illiterate. Some resort to criminal activity, engendering resentment from the larger Greek community.’

The story cites a statistic on the elevated levels of illiteracy amongst Roma in Greece, from MRG’s Online Directory of Minorities and Indigenous Peoples. This in itself is fair reporting, acceptable contextual information for the piece; and an indicator of the extent to which this historically marginalized community lacks access to even the most basic services, such as education.

But in choosing to follow this statistic with a sentence on criminal activity amongst Roma, the reporter repeats the tired stereotype of linking crime with Roma, and the reader also presumes that this ‘fact’ can be attributed to MRG. Having carried out a rigorous search of our websites and online archive of our publications over the last four decades, authored by experts in the fields of minority and indigenous rights, I can attest that these are certainly not our words.

This is reporting at its most clumsy, crude and divisive, yet the subsequent development by other journalists of the story continues to offend. The imagery is stark; the message delivered by the photographs in this piece from the UK’s Mail on Sunday is clear. ‘Interest’ in this case has already had serious knock-on effects for Roma elsewhere. Two Roma children were taken into care in the Republic of Ireland, purely on the basis that they looked different from their parents. They have since been reunited with their Roma families.

When asked for a comment on the story, Dezideriu Gergely, of the European Roma Rights Centre, said to RTÉ, Ireland’s state broadcaster, that, ‘it was important to remember that not all Roma were dark-skinned and many did have pale skin and blonde hair.’ The fact that a community spokesperson has to explain the blindingly obvious is unacceptable. For some reason however it is permissible when referencing Roma, Gypsies and Travellers.

Louise Doughty, writing in The Guardian, rightly places the racist attitudes of the media within the historical context of ‘the age-old myth that Romanies are in the habit of kidnapping white children,’ and refutes the myth by citing the case of Yenish Gypsy children in Switzerland, who from 1926 to 1972 were ruthlessly hunted down by an Association, partly funded by the Swiss state, and forcibly removed from their parents.

MRG believes it is crucial to challenge the stereotypes that feed intolerance and keep minorities forever on the edges of mainstream society, and we were pleasantly surprised and pleased when  US broadcaster NBC called us last week for advice on use of the words Roma and Gypsy when reporting this particular story.

We should not forget that some media have a blotted record in spreading hate speech and intolerance (for a chilling example of this see Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines’ role in the genocide in Rwanda), and this makes them a natural target for MRG’s work. We are currently running a training programme, funded by the European Union, which will hopefully equip young and novice European journalists with the skills and sensitivities to produce measured and quality news stories on minority and indigenous communities.

Rest assured this particular ‘case study’ will be prominently featured in future training sessions…

*As of November 2020, this press story seems to have been permanently taken offline.

This article reflects the opinion of its author only and does not engage MRG’s responsibility.