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Italy’s billboards of hate

7 September 2011

Claudia Santoro, who recently spent four months as an intern with MRG’s communications team, looks at how the media affects public perception of Roma in Italy and how the Decade of Roma Inclusion is perhaps falling short of its aim to support impoverished and segregated communities.

The media has the power to turn the spotlight onto emergencies and social issues. At the same time the way it presents reality can strongly influence public opinion. In this context, the way the media portrays minorities can create a hierarchy where there are first and second-class minorities. This is certainly evident in the portrayal of Roma in Europe.

During the past months I’ve found it hard to believe how discrimination against Roma has been publicly addressed in Italy. In May, during the campaign for the election of the mayor of Milan, members of the People of Freedom Party and the anti-immigration Northern League, the parties that retain the majority in the government, created huge billboards with explicit racist attacks targeted against Roma.

Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi stated on his party website, ‘If Pisapia [the opposition’s candidate] wins, Milan will became a Gypsyville of Roma camps’ and ‘Milan cannot turn into a zingaropoli [Gypsytown].’

Xenophobic billboard in Italy
A xenophobic billboard used during the election campaign for the Mayor of Milan. Credit: REPUBBLICA

The Commissioner for Human Rights of the Council of Europe, Thomas Hammarberg, who was visiting Italy during the political campaign , said he was ‘shocked by the use of xenophobic messages against Romas.’ This statement must be welcomed, but my question is: how long it is going to take to repair the damage caused by the hate speech contained in those billboards?

Just a few weeks before, in Rome, many communities had been evicted from unauthorised settlements in the suburbs of the capital city. These actions affected pregnant women and many children and made some 700 Roma people homeless. But by that time, the arrival of large numbers of migrants from North Africa to the southern island of Lampedusa created a bigger emergency and eventually diverted media attention away from the Roma evictions.

Roma live in very difficult conditions in Italy, and continue to be targeted by the national and local media. The typical “us vs. them” dichotomy dominates the national press as well as in everyday speech. This extends to stereotypes, where Roma are described as ‘dirty’, ‘dishonest’, ‘superstitious’. The Italian media portrayal of migrants forced the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to launch an appeal to create guidelines for journalists reporting about immigrants and asylum seekers. Following this request, the National Council of Journalists’ Association and the Italian National Press Federation established a code of conduct for journalists reporting about migrants, refugees and asylum seekers.

Recently, the Centro d’ascolto dell’informazione radiotelevisiva, a monitoring body on broadcast information, presented a comprehensive analysis that looked at thousands of cases, both in TV and radio, and confirmed the concerns of minority rights activists of the constant connection made in the media between crime and Roma citizens. The findings of the project were presented in Rome, and the vice president of the Italian Senate, Emma Bonino, stated that it is necessary to create a monitoring body on information and media at a European level.

Indeed, Roma live in dangerous conditions all over Europe. The ‘Decade of Roma Inclusion’ (2005-2015) is a Europe-wide initiative to help impoverished and segregated Roma communities. European leaders are buoyant about the progress made in the inclusion of Roma, however there are many dissenting voices. Gelu Duminica, executive director of the Impreuna Agency for Community Development, a Roma organization based in Bucharest, believes the decade is a failure, because of the scarce effects of the initiatives promoted in EU member states. In the Balkan Insight article, journalist Nikoleta Popkostadinova calls on European states to put words into action on the ground. The strategy, which has the slogan “Nothing for Roma without Roma”, does not involve enough Roma communities, he says. Adam Ademi, who works at the Decade of Roma Inclusion’s Secretariat in Budapest, believes that ‘many believe that the Decade Action Plans are mainly focused to reach already involved and already aware citizens.’

I think projects for Roma integration should also address the mainstream society, in order to remove barriers that block inclusion. Certainly, the lack of integration of Roma in Europe is not only caused by inaccurate reporting, but also, and principally by the (lack of) policies to address these issues.

Protection of minorities is a condition for joining the European Union, but unfortunately member states are not really setting a good example. They are happy to consider Roma issues as a European issue when it involves integration (so that national governments can wash their hands of the problem), but when it involves expulsion they will argue it is a national issue, preventing any effective regional action.

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