How not to tackle hate speech

There was public outrage in Bulgaria yesterday when it emerged that a file uploaded on the Bulgarian president’s website contained an ethnic slur.

The file, which contained Bulgaria’s National Roma Integration Strategy (2012-2020), a document which sets out various objectives relating to education, employment, healthcare and housing for the Roma population and other vulnerable ethnic groups, was entitled NationalStrategyIntegrateMangali.pdf. ‘Mangali’ is a derogatory term for the Roma people, which translates approximately as ‘Gyppos.’

Roma community Sofia Bulgaria

I haven’t really had any interactions with anyone from the Roma community since I arrived, but I have noticed that in general, even the most tolerant and rational Bulgarians can hold (and share with you) some incredibly negative views of the Roma population. And it’s not just restricted to Bulgarians – an intern friend recently said that we shouldn’t take any valuables when we were walking near a Roma neighbourhood because they are ‘all criminals.’ Out of principle, I ignored him. And I am still in possession of all my valuables, unlike when I went to one of Sofia’s top hotels and came back handbag-less. Just saying…

According to the Bulgarian national census (2011), 4.9% of the Bulgarian population are Roma. 23.2% of Roma children between the ages of 7 and 15 do not attend school and 11.8% of the Roma are illiterate (compared with just 0.5% illiteracy amongst those of Bulgarian ethnicity). These figures in turn impact on ‘economic productivity’ – Roma people are far more likely to be unemployed than their counterparts of Bulgarian ethnicity.

The Census does not ask questions about reasons and motivations, so it is difficult to draw conclusions about whether low levels of education and employment are due to discrimination and problems with the system in Bulgaria, or whether they relate more to the aspirations and values of the members of the Roma community. But regardless, if the Integration Strategy is going to achieve its objectives, including “Increasing institutional and public sensitivity and intolerance to discrimination and hate speech,” then this attitude of sensitivity and tolerance needs to start at the top. That means you, president Rosen Plevneliev

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