Portray the Roma properly, or not at all

Romania is unjustly criticised for discriminating against its gypsy population with the Western media and poor journalism to blame, one reporter argues.

In the media, the numerous social problems Romanian gypsies face in their home country have made headlines all over Europe for decades.
As a Romanian journalist and observer, I have read most reports written by international correspondents about the Roma population in this country with interest.

One of the main aspects I have noticed about foreign journalists' correspondence is that they almost always refer to the Roma as being a disadvantaged minority who are institutionally discriminated against.

Few mention the wealth of rehabilitation programs set up for them and the many projects aimed at promoting their integration into popular society here; initiatives, that for the main part, are only promoted by the government and publicised on their web sites.

The foreign media also often "forgets" to research the Roma's traditions and habits in any depth.

Thus, they fail to explain what drives the Roma to keep their children out of school when the first 12 school years are free for all Romanians.

They do not investigate why the Roma people prefer to wander the country in carts rather than live in houses or why - some of them at least - wear silk clothes and golden shoes at important events like weddings and New Year's Eve parties but little more than rags the rest of the time.

Being an international correspondent means, first and foremost, being a translator - of cultures, experiences, and attitudes - for their audience, who almost certainly will not be hitherto familiar with the situation on the ground.

It is a real challenge for any reporter to bring a vivid experience to all of their readers at once whilst painting an objective picture of their subjects.

But this challenge seems to doubly difficult for reporters when writing about issues affecting the Roma if the hundreds of articles I have read about them over the years are to be considered.

I am tired of reading in the foreign media only half truths about the Roma community residing in Romania.

Yes, some of them are poor and unemployed, most of them are illiterate, but to say the only explanation is that they are being discriminated against is a simple exaggeration of the facts.

Some "distorted" reports about the gypsies here published abroad sometimes get republished in our own national media.

They put undue pressure on the Bucharest-based authorities who want to see the country join the European Union by 2007. The central government is consequently pushed to introduce measures that do little more than raise a laugh amongst its citizens.

One example of this is a recent scandal regarding the gypsies which was widely covered by the foreign press, involving the wedding of the 12-year old daughter of a Roma leader and a Gypsy boy not older than 15.

Although the youngest legal age for marriage in Romania is 18, the country generally tolerates the tradition among the Roma to marry early.

The "wedding" took place last Autumn in the medieval Transylvanian town of Sibiu. No marriage certificate was released.

The event would have passed unnoticed by the rest of the country if the foreign media had not presented the young gypsy bride as being the victim of a "rape".

Their articles drew criticism from the European Union and human rights groups, which prompted a local police investigation.

In the end, the case was closed, after child welfare officers decided the children were not forced to marry against their will.

Romanians already knew thousands of gypsy children are wed in arranged marriages every year. No matter what the EU officials' feelings were on the matter, and irrespective of how many investigations the Romanian authorities may open, this practice has been a cultural tradition among the Roma for hundreds of years and it will probably always will be.

Any reporter who had done their research would know this. They should try to truly penetrate, comprehend and explicate different cultures to their readers and listeners worldwide.

Take another example.

Western TV producers have long shown images of gypsies sleeping outdoors, regardless of weather conditions.

Yet, these same people have shelter - their own place to live - some examples are very modest, others are very large, ornate houses standing out among other Romanian houses. The latter have at least two stories, feature their own swimming pools either outside or in, are very expensively furnished and have marble bathrooms.

This is an interesting reality for many foreigners to observe.

What's more their lavish bathrooms often go unused. Asked why, one gypsy man replied: "I could never do such a thing in the house I sleep in".

Instead, they use a primitive toilet cabin outside, often in their back garden.

The gypsy music, known as "manele" is popular among many Romanians, especially when performed by a local pop star known as the Miracle Child.

Most Romanians own CDs of gypsy music as they enjoy listening and dancing to it at their parties, thus bringing money to the Roma artists. Where is the discrimination here?

In Bucharest, most of the Roma population lives in Ferentari, in the south-western part of the city.

Here, in a church established just over a decade ago, a day centre is run by volunteers, offering activities, food and schooling for the gypsy community. More than 300 Roma children are being educated here.

In September 1998, a similar day centre for underprivileged gypsy children was opened in the town of Rosiorii de Vede, 120 kilometres south of Bucharest.

These are just two of the initiatives taken to help the Roma that no foreign journalist found interesting enough to write about.

Only comprehensive and objective reporting allows the reader to catch a glimpse of what life is truly like for a minority group and, with luck, it can help promote tolerance as a result of sharing that knowledge.