Last summer, the government of Bulgaria, declaring scores of Roma homes to be illegally constructed, embarked on a demolition spree that left entire neighborhoods razed. Media coverage of the demolitions largely ignored the historical context of these neighborhoods, which were built by the communist regime in the 1960s to force Roma into permanent settlements. Nor did the media choose to focus their attention on the fate of the evicted families, who were left poor, desperate, and adrift by the brutal tactics that ejected them onto the street.
Six months after the wave of evictions, we conducted a nationwide study that showed exactly how damaging this kind of anti-Roma media coverage had been. What we found was shocking: 78 percent of Bulgarians support the demolition of Roma homes, their main arguments being that Roma take advantage of the system by not paying taxes or utility bills.
This, of course, is patently false. But behind this sentiment lies a deeper political bias against Roma. It’s no coincidence that the demolitions took place during a major election last summer.
As a Roma journalist, I know how important it is for us to reclaim our own narrative. We need to use the media as a weapon to counter mainstream rhetoric. For Roma, the media is an opportunity to build a public image for ourselves, to open the doors to our community, and to show that our children are educated and that Roma contribute to society by working, paying taxes, and coexisting peacefully with other communities. If the mainstream media remains closed off to Roma perspectives, then Roma should find alternatives, create alliances with independent journalists, and use the digital space to promote their views and their work.
This was my strategy when I worked on four documentary movies about Roma whose homes were demolished, and confronted high-ranking officials about their complicity in the evictions. The documentaries aired on the national television channel BNT, and were followed by a series of live debates with sociologists, government officials, journalists, human rights organizations, and representatives from the Roma community.
I made the films with one objective in mind: to show Roma as an integral part of Bulgarian society. Without stereotyping or victimizing, I show people who once enjoyed a decent standard of living and who now have nothing, people who have been abandoned by the state and are living on the street because of political policies that leave them vulnerable and marginalized. The films show Roma people coping with their problems on their own, people who are not waiting for integration programs to be implemented by the majority, people who pay taxes and are working to legalize the homes they live in.
In these documentaries, I hope Roma will see the extent to which they are being manipulated by the government, the media, and business interests. I also hope that public institutions will realize that Roma are, above all, Bulgarian citizens, and that their issues are Bulgarian issues and should be taken seriously.
By leaving its Roma population with nothing to lose, Bulgaria is creating a social time bomb. If nothing is done to improve the situation of Roma, we will all pay the price, Roma and non-Roma alike.