Slovakian Supreme Court legalizes defamation of Roma
It may seem unbelievable, but it is true. Even more, this could be a European precedent that will have far-reaching consequences for the social standing of Roma, and even non-Roma.
What is this about? Like some other European states, Slovakia has its neo-Nazi leader of skinheads and extremists, who consider themselves self-appointed protectors of human purity and morals. Slovakia has Marián Kotleba, a former boss of the fascist group Slovak Togetherness and also a leader of the far-right People’s Party Our Slovakia. He even dared to run in 2009 as a regional president for Banská Bystrica.
Not only is it shocking that his party was able to take part in elections, but there’s also the fact that it didn’t have any difficulties spreading its anti-Roma moods. Their election leaflets read that “With your support, I can certainly eliminate unfair advantages for Gypsy parasites.” The Regional Court of Banská Bystrica stood by him and stated that Kotleba’s slogan did not break the law.
Former Justice Minister Lucia Žitňanská appealed against the acquittal of Kotleba, in an effort to transfer the decision to lower-instance courts. She did not succeed. The Supreme Court approved the Regional Court’s statement, according to which Kotleba did not break the law. The Court agreed with the Regional judges that Kotleba did not target Roma ethnicity as a whole, but only those individuals who take advantage of what society offers. The Court concluded that Kotleba did not target Roma in particular, but also the majority of non-Roma inhabitants, a fact highlighted by the words “not only.’ “Not only” was Kotleba’s argument in court. He insisted that his program was focused on “parasites” from different ethnicities, nations or social groups. He claimed that he did not insult Roma because “the original term is still colloquially used even among the Roma themselves.”
The Slovak Helsinki Committee wrote in a statement that the courts utterly failed to protect a basic human right: the respect for the human dignity of every man. The Committee does not agree with the argumentation of the Supreme Court, which clashes with the jurisdiction of the European Court for Human Rights, with the recommendation of the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance, the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination and the Council of Europe’s campaign against hate speech. The Organizations like People Against Racism, the Roma Institute, Open Fund Society and the Centre for Research of Ethnicity and Culture are also supporting the statement.
Peter Pollák, Government Representative and Plenipotentiary for Roma Communities, also stands against the verdict of the Regional Court. He stressed that the tense situation between the majority and the Roma requires a responsible approach from all the competent sides involved. Approving of the use of politically incorrect words that portray Roma as “Gypsy parasites” will not contribute to defueling the current situation and creating good relationships. Furthermore, he pointed out that, during the Second War, we witnessed the slander of several Slovak ethnic groups, a fact that the majority did not assign much significance to. The extermination of Jews, Roma and other minority groups followed after that. Pollák thus declared himself against any kind of verbal assault, which he saw as leading to physical aggresion.
How did the Supreme Court justify its conclusion? From my point of view, it completely left out the complexity of historic facts, and the judges presented one argument, that “Gypsy” is just a commonly used word among Roma. They managed to support the argument by the lexicography handbooks which proved that there is a group called Gypsy Devils, a Gypsies Go to Heaven musical, or a Martin Sulík film titled Gypsy. Kotleba therefore used the codified form of a state language. However, NGOs decried the Court’s “grammatical analysis,” and accused the judges of ignoring Kotleba’s ideological orientation.
What should we think about the matter? Is there a chance for justice still?
It is obvious that Kotleba is not a “lonely rider.” He is a puppet manipulated by a long line of influential bodies whose opinions he represents. I believe that his election campaign was a well-speculated juridical game based on the important words “not only.” I also find it shocking that The Supreme Court accepted Kotleba’s argument that “he could not defame the Roma ethnicity with the politically insensitive word “gypsy,” just because he stated the original word for this ethnic is used even by Roma. The judges who let out that verdict should have studied Roma history and not listened to Kotleba.
The original term for Roma is Rom. When they left their homeland in India, they earned the abusive nickname “Gypsy” from non-Roma, which also imposed forced assimilation on them, as well as banning the use of their Mother tongue. They brainwashed us, so many did forget that we are not Gypsies. For example, as a child, I never heard anyone addressing each other as ‘Roma’ in our community. But why? Because generations after generations were forced not to use the ‘Roma’ term anymore. We were pressed to forget it completely. I only learned after the Velvet Revolution that we were Roma and not Gypsies. The Roma words that I knew from songs finally stopped sounding like incantations. We would sing songs without knowing what they were about. An avalanche of new and exciting information fell on me. I felt so proud to be Roma. Our Roma went a long way to be allowed to be legally called Roma again, and suddenly The Supreme Court tells me that whoever wants can officially call me a Gypsy because some Roma also use the word! What an argument!
Why cannot some Roma get used to the fact that they are Roma and not Gypsies? Well, if they called you Joseph from the day you were born, and only as an adult you found out that according to your birth certificate your name is Adam, how fast would you accept your “new” name? For some time, you might insist you are still Joseph, but then it would become natural to be Adam. If not, the brainwashing did a great job in stealing your identity, and turning you into a nobody, a parasite of society.
How can an educated person representing the highest form of justice hide behind the argument that this is how we call each other? Or that this is supposedly a codified form of language? Well, during Communism we would get “C” for “Cigán” or a “Gypsy“ next to our names. Maybe this was a codified form of state language, but not what happens today! We live in a democracy and I like to believe that forced assimilation is history. Today, Romani is codified and the term “Roma” is internationally accepted. So, what kind of codification of the word “Gypsy” is the Highest Court talking about?
The whole decision seems unbelievable. The case is as important as human dignity, justice and safety, but an extremist can win with just a stupid statement! If I were a judge, I would have to be terribly threatened and pushed into a corner to let out such nonsense, claiming that it came from lexicography handbooks. The codification of the word “gypsy” has no place in our democratic world. But it was not me but the Supreme Court who took the final decision.
The Kotleba group apparently knew that the campaign was not going to hurt them. Maybe they intended to win more than elections, and maybe this is the victory of their campaign. What an incredible precedent, now their journey is risk-free!
While the Slovak president Ivan Gašparovič asked Roma to embrace their nationality, the Highest Court decided that labeling as “Gypsy parasites” is not at all demeaning.
I hope this is not over just because the Slovak courts had closed the case, and that the quest for justice moved beyond the borders of Slovakia. At home we lost.