Nonetheless, racist slurs and hate speech spiked on social media during the COVID-19 pandemic, with some people going as far as blaming the Roma – who are Romania’s largest ethnic minority – for the spread of the virus. “Hate-speech is especially present in times of crisis,” said Csaba Ferenc Asztalos, President of the National Council for Combating Discrimination, Romania’s anti-discrimination and equality body. “Resources are less, society is more tense, competition is higher, and then people resort to prejudices, false news, to gain or to maintain economic or political power. In this context, the Roma are the target of prejudice.
Legal force questioned
Many wonder whether the law, which has seen no convictions to date, will be effective in curbing hate speech. A former member of parliament who spearheaded the law, Daniel Vasile, considers it essential, to protect the basic human rights of Romania’s Roma minority. This law is to punish the dehumanization of human beings — when people aren’t treated as humans anymore,” Mr. Vasile said. There are manifestations of hatred that are based on the perception that Roma are not actually human beings. So, you need a legal mechanism to defend our fundamental right, namely our right to life.”
Off the grid, on the margins
Living standards in Romania have been rising rapidly in recent years, with some of the highest economic growth rates in the European Union. Yet many Roma people are still having to endure social and economic exclusion, in addition to hate speech and discrimination. All around Romania there are signs of Roma people living off the grid, in places where social services and utilities are scarce or nonexistent.
“Lack of infrastructure brings bad education, and bad education brings bad jobs, or no jobs, and so on. If you go to a Roma community even today, you will understand what it is, because there end the resources”, said Ciprian Necula, a human rights defender and journalist, who has devoted much of his life to changing the narrative about Roma people.
“You know, you can see (that the) road is ending, electricity is ending, water is ending, all the resources are ending,” whenever you approach a Roma community, he added.
These inequities have been hard-wired into Romanian society for hundreds of years. “Basically, Roma were slaves in the 14th century in Romania. And that’s the history of Roma for the next 500 years. We’ve been slaves for 500 years and nothing else,” Mr. Necula said.
The anti-hate speech legislation, along with many other efforts by human rights defenders, aim to address some of the injustices of the past, curb hate speech and discrimination in its current manifestations, and pave the way to a better future.
Writing a new script
“I had to fight what the history brought into my life, the box where history put me, and the fact that to be born a Roma woman in the Romanian society is not the winning ticket,” said Alina Serban. Ms. Serban is an actor, and the first person in her family to not only finish high school, but also continue to university. She is also the first Roma woman ever in Romania to earn acclaim as a theatre and film director. Ms. Serban, whose plays have made the stage at the Romanian National Theatre, said that she has been driven to succeed in part because of the need to represent her community, but that being open about her roots is a double-edged sword. If I make a mistake, it’s ‘ah, it’s the gypsies, I knew you guys would behave this way,’” Ms. Serban explained, insisting that anyone else would be given a second chance.
Victimised and beaten
Her case made the headlines after a national news organization ran her story on the Observator Antena1 Romania channel. Dragomir recalled. “After that followed a series of very ugly offences to me, telling me that I am Roma, that I am a gypsy and that gypsies steal. The aggression followed, the blows followed,“ Ms. Dragomir said. Aggressions such as these are what spurred the legislative action. “We need to define these acts which are based on racism and hatred against the Roma. To regulate and sanction of these acts as offences,” Mr. Vasile said.
A question of education
Asked whose responsibility it is to educate people in Romania, Ms. Serban had this to say: “It is not up to me to educate the people. It’s up to other Romanians, the non-Roma, to do that, to question their privilege. To solve a problem, you need to face it. You need to bluntly say, Romania has a huge problem with racism, with structural racism, Ms. Serban said.
UN Photo/Manuel Elías
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