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22 April 2022

The image of Roma in the Bulgarian media - yesterday, today, tomorrow

Savelina Danova, external expert

NGO Organization Drom


This topic has been a relatively rare object of research interest, although it is interesting in itself insofar as the Roma minority is one of the two major ethnic minorities in the country and it is important what the media's attitude towards it is.

The image of Roma in the Bulgarian media in the period 1991-2021

In the first months after the political transformation of 10 November 1989, Bulgaria witnessed a turbulent political debate in which Roma were almost invisible and rarely mentioned in the national media. Sporadic appearances were registered around the first democratic elections held in June 1990 in which the Roma were mainly reflected neutrally and in some places even positively. In the first months after 10.11.1989, the ethnic profiling of perpetrators of crime did not appear in the police crime reports ("Avalanche of thefts", 13.03.1990, Trud daily).

The Roma started to become relatively more visible in the media only in 1991. The change of the media prism towards this minority did not happen gradually but almost suddenly and without any distinct triggering events. Leading national dailies such as "Duma", "Trud" and subsequently "24 hours" etc. began to publish articles with headlines such as "Gypsy thieves beat up a policeman" (Duma daily, 31.01.1991), "Gypsy thieves caught" (Duma, 8.01.1991), "Dark annexation" (Trud, 21.01.1991) etc. Several important features become immediately apparent in these publications. First, they are based on information given by the police. There was no journalistic investigation, no search for other sources. The media appeared only as a transmission of information from the police. Secondly, the information was not presented according to the usual journalistic standards, such as presenting an alternative point of view. Thirdly, the Roma in these publications were presented in the vast majority of cases as perpetrators of criminal offences. Fourth, the publications usually made repeated references to the ethnicity of the Roma, thus suggesting a logical link between ethnicity and the commission of the criminal act.  The tendentious approach and double standard in the publications was illustrated by the fact that the ethnicity of alleged perpetrators of crimes was only mentioned when referring to Roma and not done in cases involving other minorities as well as members of the majority.

It should also be noted that the sudden change at the beginning of 1991 that we are describing was not the work of a single author or an occasional publication, but encompassed the entire media field. It was obvious that the approach to the Roma issue was hardly a spontaneous media reaction to a new reality that had emerged. The article in Trud daily by the journalist Veselina Sedlarska, "The Big Pretence", is a summary piece in which the whole spectrum of prejudices about the Roma are masterfully woven. The abundant negative stereotypes contained in the publication are like a template and are still in public circulation today. Such as: Gypsies are a criminal factor, Gypsies show aggression towards ethnic Bulgarians and public institutions are indifferent to this, Gypsies are a demographic threat to ethnic Bulgarians, Gypsies are a privileged group, Gypsies drain the social welfare system, Gypsy parents are irresponsible to their children, Gypsies are not interested in education, Gypsies are primitive, there is a cultural and civilizational gap between Gypsies and Bulgarians, Gypsies are a problem for the Bulgarian state ("The Great Pretence. "Trud, 4.03.1991)

With periods of peaks and valleys, for 30 years now the media reality in Bulgaria has reproduced this distinctive catalogue of stereotypical and false ideas about Roma. It would not be an exaggeration to say that after 1991, hostile discourse towards Roma in the Bulgarian media became a daily routine.  Moreover, this phenomenon occurs not in marginal but in mainstream media, in newspapers with the largest circulation. Sometimes it happens that there are 3-4 negative articles in one issue of a newspaper.

In the following years, the negative media campaign against the Roma escalated.

In 1994, according to the overwhelming majority of the media, the Roma were not only portrayed as frequent perpetrators of crime, but were also blamed for the overall socio-economic collapse of the country. Again V. Sedlarska formulated the new accusation that Roma and economic elites are equally responsible for the national catastrophe. In the piece "How I committed national treason" she claims :" Dark speculators took half the country retail to the southeast ... red businessmen took the other half wholesale to the northwest..." (How I committed national treason. Trud, 3.04.1994)

However, the material that stands out most clearly and which most eloquently illustrates the described tendency in the media to blame the Roma for all the troubles in the country is "Gypsies pooped Bulgaria" (24 hours, 10.09.1994). The piece was printed on 4 newspaper pages, which is a considerable print space for an article by Bulgarian standards. The headline is in huge letters, coloured to stand out and attract extra attention. The article, obviously intended to reach the maximum number of readers, was published in the Saturday issue of the newspaper when the circulation reached half a million copies. The article does not shine with anything special in terms of content, rather it is a mechanical compilation of previous articles designed to illustrate "Gypsy crime". None of the manipulative techniques have been spared, such as: deliberate exaggerations, well-chosen and combined expressions, clever use of bombastic, inflammatory, vulgar and derogatory language to reinforce the message, use of destructive verbs associated with Roma (Gypsies pooped), purposeful reinforcement of the negative collective image of Roma as people prone to crime and bearing collective guilt. All of them in compilation created a powerful message that "Gypsies and "ciganization" are the greatest danger for the future of Bulgaria as a country.

Further, the escalation of the anti-Roma discourse was not so much in the direction of increasing the print space, but in moving from simply portraying the Roma as a criminal group to provoking hatred of the macro society towards the Roma and even provoking violence. According to Antonina Zhelyazkova, an expert on minority issues, the Bulgarian media provoke not only hatred towards the Roma, but also violence (Antonina Zhelyazkova: "Two thirds of Roma children do not study", 24 hours, 22.2.1994). Another strikingly provocative text is the article in Trud ("Hands off the rakiya pots", 22.11.1995) which directly calls for violence against the Roma. The editorial urges: ' It won't be enough to cut off the hands of the Gypsies who broke into the brandy vats in Dobrich. What monstrous insolence - to touch the cauldron and the brandy - the only joy of the people".

In conclusion, we can say that these trends in the negative coverage of the Roma issue in the Bulgarian media have not changed significantly and are more or less valid until 2021. The difference lies in the fact that in the second decade of this century the media started to willingly provide airtime and print space for the anti-Roma topic to a significantly larger number and more "authoritative" spokespersons, such as: high-level executive representatives, parliamentarians, politicians profiled in the topic at national and local level, journalists, sociologists, political scientists, observers, "demographers", representatives of the non-governmental sector and even representatives of various scientific units. Over a period of thirty years, these targeted actions have inevitably poisoned inter-ethnic relations and it will probably take decades and a lot of effort to return these relations to their old pre-transition levels.

What is the situation today regarding the image of Roma in the media?

Already with the fall of the previous government from power in March 2021, there has been a significant change in the media's approach to the Roma issue. There is no reason to conclude that negative media coverage of Roma has been replaced by positive or neutral coverage. Rather, the Roma issue has almost dropped off the media agenda. There has been a noticeable decrease in information about "Gypsy crime", which was previously abundant in news broadcasts and on the pages of newspapers. This trend in media coverage has been consolidated with the current government coming to power in December 2021. Moreover, information and analysis about the real perpetrators of criminal activities that for years the media had attributed to the Roma began to appear in the media.

This is the case of illegal deforestation. A report by Alexander Dunchev, MP from "We Continue the Change", is quoted in the information of 26 March 2022. : "Gerb and DPS companies have siphoned off no less than BGN 20 million from 20 state forest holdings in the last 3-4 months.The scheme is a continuation of a long-standing vicious practice of cutting down Bulgarian forests, which continues with impunity to this day. According to preliminary estimates, the damage is about BGN 100 million a year, and this is not the whole picture of the timber mafia's pogrom on our forests and nature. " (Bivol, March 26, 2022, Companies of GERB and DPS are draining BGN 100 million a year from forest and hunting holdings |

Again we stress that there is still no trend for positive coverage, for in-depth and serious analyses on the Roma issue, for seeking the positions of serious experts, Roma and non-Roma. Apart from Roma issues, unfortunately there is no demand for Roma expert opinions in the media space and on mainstream issues. There is also no policy of attracting Roma journalists to the media space, as there definitely is in the three leading TV channels regarding the Turks, for example. But, at least, the interruption of the policy of blaming Roma in the media for all the ills in Bulgarian society deserves to be noted and encouraged.

How do we see the situation with Roma and the media tomorrow?

Observing the described trends and in view of the complex situation, it is difficult to predict, but at least we can point to the desired future. Roma journalists, of which there are many, should be actively attracted to all mainstream media. It is imperative that they are in the Bulgarian national television and the Bulgarian national radio. They should cover all kinds of topics, not just Roma ones. Roma problems must be treated, like the problems of any other community, without prejudice and double standards, expertly, seriously and with concern. The image of Roma in the media must be objective and, if possible, without stereotypes. And given the damage done in the transition by the political-media environment on inter-ethnic relations, it is imperative that all these actions start as soon as possible. All of this will benefit not only the Roma, but the whole Bulgarian society.