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Commentary: What the Czech media won't print about Romani people (or what Právo refused to publish)

Prague, 27.4.2012 20:12, (ROMEA)
Martin Šimáček, director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion in Romani Localities.

The following commentary by the director of the Czech Government Agency for Social Inclusion in Romani Localities, Martin Šimáček, was originally meant to be published by the daily Právo. In this piece, Šimáček responds to an article authored by an editor at the paper, Jindřich Ginter, entitled "Even wealthy Romani families abuse welfare" (Sociální dávky zneužívají i majetné romské rodiny, available in Czech only at http://www.novinky.cz/finance/264171-socialni-davky-zneuzivaji-i-majetne-romske-rodiny.html). Even though representatives of the Editor-in-Chief of Právo asked Šimáček to write this commentary after receiving critical responses to Ginter's article, the daily refused to publish it after two weeks of communication back and forth. News server Romea.cz is therefore publishing it here in full translation:

The social tensions we witnessed last summer and fall in relation to the events in Šluknov district seem to be furtively returning to the towns concerned and onto the pages of our newspapers. The dissatisfaction of the population with the social situation, their annoyance with crime, and their perception that social norms are being violated are once again breathing new life into ethnic intolerance.

In this situation, exceptional responsibility is borne not only by the Government and by representatives of regions and municipalities to try to find solutions to the problems that people are so fired up over. Such responsibility is also borne by journalists. They should be reporting in detail on the causes and circumstances of these events and reflecting on the current atmosphere in society. The way in which they perform their work has an enormous impact on society. If a journalist skimps on that work and just rides a wave of unconfirmed reports, whispers and myths, rising intolerance is often the only result. Combined with the principle of collective blame, such intolerance can never lead to any civilized solution to these problems.

Unfortunately, the article by Jindřich Ginter entitled "Even wealthy Romani families abuse welfare" is an example of such irresponsible work. This piece was published in the daily Právo and on its affiliated online news server, Novinky.cz. Without any proper citations or verification of sources, using general references to "the population of Ústí nad Labem", this piece places collective blame on all Romani people for illegal behavior. Other half-truths are added to the mix, while the most serious phenomena are not addressed at all. What are the most serious phenomena?

During the 22 years of freedom during which people residing in excluded localities (the vast majority of whom are Romani) became almost completely unemployed, a system has developed in the Czech Republic which can be termed "leeching off of poverty". Indebted families at the bottom of society are not only mistreated by loan sharks and members of the drug mafia. Various residential hotels - both municipally owned and privately owned - contribute their share of mistreatment through their half-legal and illegal practices. The owners of these properties pull money out of the welfare system directly, through the so-called "special recipient of benefit" mechanism, which means tenants' housing benefits go directly to landlords' bank accounts. Various sellers of telephones offering supposedly advantageous rates, pseudo-bankers offering quick loans anywhere and everywhere, and other con artists who can get people unschooled in the law to sign basically anything all form an integral component of this system. They are followed by the hordes of collections agents whose processing fees exceed the original debt owed many times over.

The business of poverty is sometimes absurd. Officials in some places, for example, allocate a benefit of immediate financial assistance to secure housing for a client who, "in exchange", leaves the officials' town to reside in the next one over. The client uses the money as a security deposit at a residential hotel and "the town is cleansed of inadaptables".

If an official has even the slightest suspicion that a benefit is being misused (i.e., used for a purpose other than the one for which it was awarded, or that it was requested improperly) that official must perform an investigation through an administrative proceedings and immediately recoup the money should the case justify it. Officials are not, however, supposed to make anonymous reports to the media about such occurrences.

Today the alarm is being sounded most often about the "misuse" of aid to those in material distress. Such benefits comprise only 0.4 % of the state budget and the disbursal of them is usually well-controlled. While it cannot be entirely ruled out that they might be misused, this is not a mass phenomenon. Experts estimate that misuse costs between hundreds of thousands to several million crowns annually. Such cases may turn up in the field, but the information published in Mr Ginter's article - that Romani people are making money through committing incest - is so comical as to be absurd. I do believe such a thing may have happened somewhere at some time, but has it happened so often that it can be considered an institutionalized practice?

Poverty certainly does turn people into wolves. The second post-1989 generation of Romani people from the ghettos (today's 20-somethings) never learned from their parents what it is like to make a living through legal work. Often the only work available to them is work under the table - and how many entrepreneurs take advantage of that! The survival strategies of these permanently excluded people are diverging further and further from majority norms, and some youths are annoying those around them, primarily through the petty crime committed by pickpockets and other gangs. However, these are individual crimes that should be investigated and tried without the suspects also being subjected to unnecessary, ethnically-focused lynching by the media. Such campaigns just fan the flames of a social conflict which is otherwise resolvable through reasonable social inclusion policies.

Anyone writing about the mechanisms of poverty must do the work of investigating the field from top to bottom. One cannot be satisfied with anonymously "guaranteed" information, myths and rumors. One has to know about and also write about the criminal practices connected to radical poverty. Not all Romani people will come out of such an investigation with a clean shield. Loan sharks definitely won't, and neither will those who don't want to work. However, the barroom tittle-tattle that makes out all Romani people in the Czech Republic to be burglars and sharks would eventually cease to be considered valid.

If journalists want to contribute toward resolving this situation, which is proving so corrosive to the Czech Republic, i.e., the coexistence of Romani people from the excluded localities with the majority society (primarily with those living near excluded localities, who often have long suffered the ramifications of that coexistence), then they should take a deeper interest in the work done by the Agency for Social Inclusion (where I work), in the workd done by the mayors of towns, by the ministries, by non-profit organizations and regional governments. The press should perform a serious evaluation of the work all of these actors are undertaking in the public sphere.

Gwendolyn Albert, Martin Šimáček, Martin Šimáček, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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