Yet another Czech tabloid news server perpetrates a racist hoax
On 16 July the European Court of Justice (ECJ) announced a significant finding in the area of racial discrimination. The court did not pronounce judgment on anyone, but merely expressed a legal opinion which an EU Member State court should now follow.
At the beginning of the year, the court of an EU Member State took advantage of its right to ask the ECJ for a legal analysis so that its own decision in a particular matter would accord with EU law. Several days later, online tabloid news server Reflex.cz demonstrated through its reporting how a journalist, merely by ignoring information, can spark a strong dose of hatred against a particular ethnic minority from his readers.
All one has to do is look at the discussion posts beneath the article in question. Under the headline "ČEZ discriminated against Roma by not letting them steal electricity", reporter Jiří X. Doležal reviews the recent opinion of the ECJ on a suit against the Czech power company's operations in Bulgaria.
His piece comes to the conclusion that European civilization is "lost" as a result of the court's actions. Soon afterward his commentary became the server's most-read article, which naturally pleases its owners and increases their profits.
Advertisers appreciate it when the websites they advertise on are followed by many readers. Once again, of course, this has happened to the detriment of the international organization of the EU and of the people the author attacks in his piece.
ECJ says majority-society member can become a victim of discrimination against a mninority
Let's try to analyze in detail how Doležal managed to distort the truth and create his hateful article out of this story. In the piece, he writes: "A local woman filed a lawsuit against ČEZ. Between 1999 and 2000, ČEZ allegedly installed meters in her neighborhood on concrete electrical wiring columns at a height of six or seven meters above ground."
According to ČEZ, the plaintiff herself never stole any electricity, always paid her bills on time, and was merely surprised when she received what she believed to be a disproportionately high bill for her power consumption. She was unable, without assistance, to compare her actual consumption on the meter with the number of kilowatts consumed as billed by ČEZ.
The meter was located at a height at which no one could have read the number of kilowatts without significant assistance. Doležal goes on to say: "In the Bulgarian town of Dupnica, in the Romani ghettos, it was the custom to place the meters high up on columns so the consumers would not interfere with them."
In the ECJ finding, of course, there is no mention of "ghettos" - instead, the finding refers to parts of town predominantly inhabited by Romani people. This fact is precisely why both the Bulgarian court and the European Court of Justice demanded clarification of the practice.
Is the power company locating its very high posts with meters on them only for households where power theft has occurred, or does it do this across the board in neighborhoods where most of the residents are members of a particular minority? ČEZ responded that it has "lost" the documentation demonstrating that an increased number of thefts occurred in these neighborhoods - it just can't find it anywhere.
Doležal closes his article as follows: "This decision can be understood as completely groundbreaking. The right to steal is raised about the right to protect private property. Western democracy stands on the protection of private property, on the principle that one does not steal. Despite this fact, the optimistic court has decided that it is discriminatory to prevent thieves from accessing the places where they can steal."
Who is really stealing here?
Of course, the local plaintiff, who the court says is not Romani, is not complaining that she is unable to steal, but that ČEZ might be robbing her. Due to the discriminatory measures applied by the utility, she is unable, without significant assistance, to verify what the actual state of her power consumption is.
That is why the ECJ made the decision it did. On the day the court announced its finding, it also published it online in full in several languages, including Czech, for journalists just like Doležal.
Who has the interest or the time, though, in using such easily available information? The tabloid has its harvest to reap, and not just in the Czech Republic.
So the gentle reader might have some idea of what it is that Doležal has ignored, I will quote from the ECJ press release on the day the finding was announced: "The placement of meters at an inaccessible height in a neighborhood predominantly inhabited by Romani people may constitute discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin if the meters in other neighborhoods not inhabited by Romani people are placed at a normal height." In other words, even if it were to be demonstrated that the meters had been abused in the neighborhood in question, such a practice is disproportionate with respect to ensuring the security of the power grid and proper accounting of the electricity consumed.
"EU directives on equal treatment ban any discrimination on the basis of race or ethnic origin concerning, inter alia, access to goods and services and their delivery," the press release reads. It describes that since the 1990s, Ms A.G. Nikolova (who is not Romani) had been running a grocery store in the "Gizdova mahala" quarter of Dupnica, where mostly Romani people live.
ČEZ RB, the Bulgarian daughter firm of the Czech company, installed meters for all consumers in the quarter, Nikolova included (whom ČEZ itself says has never stolen any power from them) at a height of six to seven meters on the concrete power poles. However, in other neighborhoods where Romani residents are not as numerous, the meters are installed at a height of 1.7 meters - most frequently directly inside consumers' buildings, on their facades, or on fences.
The fight for justice is a long road
ČEZ RB claims the reason for its differential treatment of these various parts of Dubnica was the growing number of consumers manipulating the meters, illegally interfering with them and causing numerous incidents of illegal consumption in the neighborhood at issue. In December 2008 Nikolova filed her complaint with the Commission for Protection from Discrimination (KZD) stating that the inaccessible location of the meters was a consequence of the fact that most of the neighborhood's inhabitants are of Romani origin.
Ms Nikolova was mainly bothered by the fact that she could not check her own power onsumption visually. The KDZ found she had been discriminated against in comparison with customers whose meters are accessibly located.
ČEZ RB then filed suit against that decision with the Administrative Court in Sofia, which then turned to the ECJ with its questions regarding the applicable EU jurisprudence. In its finding, the ECJ first stated that "the principle of equal treatment is not merely applicable to persons of a certain ethnic origin, but to all persons, even if they may not belong to the ethnic group affected, but who are also treated less favorably or are specifically disadvantaged along with them on the basis of a discriminatory measure."
The ECJ also emphasized that "the presence of inhabitants who are not of Romani origin in the neighborhood affected does not in and of itself rule out the notion that the practice in question was introduced because of the ethnic origin of most inhabitants of the neighborhood (i.e., Romani ethnic origin)." It will, however, be up to the Bulgarian court to take all the circumstances of this practice into account and to determine whether this practice was actually introduced for ethnic reasons and whether it therefore represents direct discrimination as per the directive.
Court says discrimination leads to stigmatization
As the ECJ asserts, "this practice indiscriminately affects all inhabitants of the neighborhood in question irrespective of whether their individual meters have been tampered with and who has committed such abuse, if any." The utility's practices, therefore, indicate that the residents of this neighborhood are, as a whole, considered possible perpetrators of illegal behavior.
In this context, the ECJ clarified that "the practice at issue represents unfavorable treatment of the residents affected because it is of an insulting, stigmatizing nature and because these residents find it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible, to look at their meters in order monitor their power consumption." The court also stated that "if the Bulgarian court does not consider the disputed practice to be direct discrimination on the basis of ethnic origin, this practice could essentially be considered indirect discrimination."
That would mean that this indirect discrimination resulted in disadvantaging both the non-Romani and Romani consumers in the neighborhood at issue in comparison with persons who do not consume electricity in that particular locality. All that is left to do here is to praise the press department of the ECJ for informing the public, in such a comprehensible way, of the meaning of its findings on the very same day they were released.
However, if no journalist in the Czech Republic is capable of getting a hold of this information or reading it, then unfortunately this effort is in vain. Mr Doležal's motivation for writing such a biased article can only be a matter of speculation.
He may have just wanted to ingratiate himself with the owners of the publishing company for whom he writes - who knows? In any event, he has robbed his readers of a detailed, truthful review of an interesting case.
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