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'I Can't Keep Quiet:' Roma Activist Fights Back Against Online Hate Speech By Far-Right Party

Krasimir Karakachanov (left), Angel Dzhambazki (center), and Lilian Kovacheva (collage)

Fed up with the anti-Roma material posted on the website of a Bulgarian far-right party's website, Liliana Kovacheva, a Roma activist, sought justice and eventually got it. Sort of.

The far-right nationalist political party, VMRO-Bulgarian National Movement (VMRO-BND), was fined and prohibited from publishing material on its website that incites hatred against ethnic minorities by Bulgaria's Commission for Protection Against Discrimination (CPD) on June 26.

While the ruling has been widely welcomed, some say it doesn't go far enough. The fine of 1,000 levs ($574) is not exactly eye-popping. And while the VMRO-BND was ordered by the commission to cease publishing inciteful material, it was not obligated to erase offensive items that were posted in the past and which were still accessible as of July 20, highlighting what experts say is Bulgaria's tepid attempt to fight hate speech.

Like elsewhere in Europe, the Roma of Bulgaria face widespread discrimination, including in housing and schooling. Roma -- whose exact number among Bulgaria's 6.8 million population is hard to pin down but the Council of Europe estimates to be around 750,000 -- are mired in poverty, facing astronomically high unemployment.

They are also often targeted by hate speech and not only by the general public. The Romany community, along with LGBT people, "are the main victims of public expressions of hatred and prejudice," often by high-level politicians, according to the latest report on Bulgaria by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance. (ECRI).

In 2021, Kovacheva filed her complaint with help from Diana Dragieva, a lawyer who works for the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee (BHK), a leading human rights NGO in the Southeast European nation.

In her filing, Kovacheva said that as a Bulgarian citizen of Romany origin she felt discriminated against because of the malicious material littering The Gypsy Question section of the website of the VMRO-BND. Articles spoke of the "gypsy problem" with headlines and quotes including, "Gypsy domestic crime can and will be broken only with an iron hand," and, "These animals must be butchered to the bone!"

The articles in question were published at a time when the VMRO-BND was from 2017 to 2021 part of the coalition government led by the center-right GERB Party.

Some of the material cited by Kovacheva was penned by leaders of the party, sympathizers, or supporters, including Kostadin Kostadinov, then a member of the VMRO-BND, who now leads another extremist, xenophobic party, Revival. Another article was written by Angel Dzhambazki, a parliamentarian from the party, who was fined 2,000 euros ($2,237) in April 2022 for giving a Nazi salute in the European Parliament.

"These articles just stoke hostility and have nothing to do with the truth," Kovacheva told RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service.

"I am not saying that Roma are perfect and that there are no problems. But they are not solved by blaming an entire group," said Kovacheva, who is active in efforts to get more Romany children into the classroom.

"I do not defend criminals, but I am not one myself, and I do not wish to be declared one. I have paid my taxes all my life, my house is legal, and when they call me that, and from the highest levels of power, I can't keep quiet."

The Ruling

In its decision, the CPD ruled that generalizations based on ethnicity constituted discrimination. It also found the wording of the website section, The Gypsy Question, to be discriminatory "harassment," chillingly reminiscent of the Nazi era and the Holocaust, when 6 million Jews were killed in Hitler's genocide to resolve "the Jewish question."

Claims by the VMRO-BND of freedom of expression and free speech were rejected by the CPD because "racism cannot be justified by any goals -- neither by the right to freedom of expression, nor by political discourse, or by any high public or social significance."

The CPD decision, however, is not final and can be appealed. The VMRO-BND party did not respond to questions submitted by RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service. And as of July 20, no appeal had been filed.

Kovacheva and the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee are considering taking further steps, as they weren't satisfied completely with the ruling, especially the CPD's failure to force the VMRO-BND to clean up its website of inflammatory posts.

"What's the point of not making them remove them? It's a joke really," said Kovacheva, also taking issue with what she and others saw as a paltry fine. "1,000 levs will not stop such people from spewing bile again."

Despite such doubts, many consider the ruling a win, given the paucity of government action against hate speech in the past.

Radoslav Stoyanov, a BHK activist, was a bit more upbeat, noting the ruling is a rare victory in Bulgaria, where law enforcement has long turned a blind eye to issues dealing with discrimination and hate speech. Given that no Bulgarian politician has been convicted under the country's hate laws, the recent ruling by the CPD, an independent government body tasked with preventing and protecting against discrimination, is a milestone of sorts, Stoyanov said.

Bulgarian legislation draws a distinction between discriminatory and hate speech. Article 162 of the Penal Code covers "hate speech" and allows for prison terms up to four years for violators. This article is rarely invoked, experts say, and when it is it tends to be controversial.

One of the first cases involved Volen Siderov, a far-right leader and city counselor who once ran for president, who has led anti-Roma protests in Sofia and called for Romany "ghettos to be dismantled."

However, in this 2008 case, Siderov was not the accused, but the accuser. He filed a complaint with authorities, accusing a Romany man of inciting racial hatred by distributing leaflets denouncing Siderov, the leader of the far-right Ataka party, as an "enemy" of Bulgaria's Romany community. The court ruled in Siderov's favor, handing a seven-month suspended sentence to the Romany man.

Bulgarian authorities' failure to take action against Siderov has not gone unnoticed -- not only at home but also abroad. In 2021, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg condemned Sofia for its inaction over Siderov's extremist rhetoric not only targeting Roma, but Turks, Jews, Catholics, and sexual minorities.

Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic: "High-level officials have used their position as a platform to further fuel antagonism and intolerance in Bulgarian society."
Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic: "High-level officials have used their position as a platform to further fuel antagonism and intolerance in Bulgarian society."

In a 2020 report after a visit to Bulgaria, Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic cited "the rampant intolerance manifested toward minority groups in Bulgaria" and "deplored the climate of hostility against Roma, in particular against those who had to leave their homes following rallies targeting their communities in several localities."

Mijatovic observed the mainly hostile media coverage of minorities, who are often depicted as criminals or presented as posing a danger to moral values and national interests. The human rights commissioner also noted that some "high-level officials have used their position as a platform to further fuel antagonism and intolerance in Bulgarian society."

The Bulgarian authorities have proved reluctant to apply the country's hate speech law despite what Stoyanov says are an abundance of possible cases.

"The prosecutor's office has serious problems recognizing racism, homophobia, and other discriminatory phenomena. It's hard to say whether it doesn't recognize them because of a lack of sensitivity or because it doesn't want to acknowledge them," he said.

A few Bulgarian politicians have run afoul of the leaner laws on discriminatory speech. In 2019, for example, Krasimir Karakachanov, a former leader of the VRMO-BND and a former deputy prime minister, was found guilty of discriminatory speech targeting the Romany community. That ruling was issued by Bulgaria's top court, the Supreme Court, which overturned acquittals issued by lower courts.

Cracking down on hate speech, especially when uttered by public figures, would send a strong signal to Bulgarian society, said Teodora Krumova, an expert at the Sofia-based Amalipe Center, which works and advocates for greater Roma integration into Bulgarian society.

Several studies, Krumova noted, indicate that general attitudes in Bulgaria toward the Roma are not extreme but appear to have turned harsher in step with more extreme rhetoric by public figures, with an uptick recorded after 2013 when analysts noted a rise in anti-Roma rhetoric from figures on the political fringes.

"We see it directly in our work. [Public speaking] affects the attitude of teachers, health workers, social workers," says Krumova.

That is why she also sees Kovacheva's successful appeal as a "significant victory."

"Because it must be said clearly and categorically that such speech is unacceptable. When it is spoken everywhere, from the TV, from social media, and it is not punished, people start to accept it as normal," she said.

Written by Tony Wesolowsky based on reporting by RFE/RL Bulgarian Service's Damyana Veleva
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    Damyana Veleva

    Damyana Veleva is a correspondent for RFE/RL's Bulgarian Service. She graduated from the University of Heidelberg and the Free University of Berlin.