Spain: Press in the Basque country when faced by blatant racism

During my recent visit to the Basque Country, I was asked to reflect on how the media of a small town should react when residents in a neighbourhood harass a family simply because they are Roma.

The town of Vitoria-Gasteiz, the administrative capital of the Basque Country, has witnessed a slow, deliberate pogrom since August 2017, fuelled by collective social hysteria against the Romani Manzanares Cortés family.

Crowds in two villages on the outskirts of Vitoria, initially in Abetxuko and later in Asteguieta, organised to drive an atmosphere of collective hysteria, attributing criminal acts to the Romani Manzanares Cortés family simply because they are Roma. Their reasoning is quite simple: they associate the Romani ethnic group with criminal attitudes. Because of the alleged “insecurity” brought about by the family’s arrival in the neighbourhood, the solution was simply to expel them. This, in the Balkans, is called ethnic cleansing (it would be true to say that here it is on a smaller scale). A more accurate definition would be racism, of the most blatant kind.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to combating racism against Roma communities in Spain is that it is not visible, or worse, people do not want to see it. It is typically an issue into which everybody is born and raised. Spain’s historical institutionalisation of racism against Roma communities is nothing new. Here are two facts that should freeze our presumably democratic blood. The first is that in July 1749 the “Great Raid” (Gran Redada), also known as the “General Imprisonment of Gypsies” (Prisión general de gitanos) took place, resulting in King Ferdinand VI of Spain’ “Extermination project” after the option of expulsion was dismissed. This consisted of arresting, and finally “extinguishing” all “gypsies” (gitanos) in the realm by physically separating them according to sex and age. The second fact is that, until 1978, the Guardia Civil regulations ordered for “gypsies to be scrupulously monitored” (Article 4). Article 5 in these regulations established that “As this kind of people do not have a fixed residence, often moving from one place to another where they are unknown, it is convenient to provide them with all necessary warnings to prevent them from committing robberies of horses or other animals”.

How should the press react to such news? Could the press in Vitoria-Gasteiz have contributed to the creation of this narrative, not to mention hysteria, by criminalising a family? It is clear that certain media, with definite exceptions, have been carried away by sensationalism and populism. And in the end, they have legitimised positions that are clearly racist.

Looking at newspaper articles compiled by human rights activists since August 2017, the picture is worrisome. It looks as if the ethical and deontological codes of many, if not all, journalists have been permanently erased.

Evidenced by the first articles from 2017, a narrative of social conflict was established, accepting and legitimising rumours without subjecting them to the slightest scrutiny or fact checking with the involved parties.

Articles show the Manzanares Cortes family described by euphemisms such as “the feared Clan of the Bartolos”. And it is not until several months later before the first articles materialised in which the Manzanares Cortes family was interviewed and given a chance to speak. By then, however, the damage caused by media bias and subjectivity had already been done. Sensationalist descriptions and euphemisms, which undermine professional, fact-based journalism, have dominated media coverage on these events. For example, in their reports on neighbours’ acts of harassment against the family, newspapers reported these abuses as “walks for coexistence”, (as described by the aggressors) without analysing the facts involved. In one instance shown by videos available on social media, the organised crowd chanted a song calling the family “rats”. This is when we would expect the media to have informed and explained to the public what amounted to the serious dehumanisation of a minority group family by a majority group. Unfortunately, this did not happen.

How is it possible that the press did not expose such deeds as acts of discrimination? How can it be that no information was made available about the impact that this pogrom in Vitoria-Gasteiz had on one of its families, the Manzanares Cortes? Why was there no information on the impact on one of their basic and fundamental rights, the right to freedom of movement?

During my visit I had the chance to speak about the responsibility of the media in cases of racism and other issues with professionals from the press, human rights activists, and even people from these Vitoria-Gasteiz neighbourhoods in a conference organised by the Argituz Human Rights Association and the Vitoria-Gasteiz Town Council.

It is evident that, given its position of power, the press has a responsibility to promote not only freedom of expression but also equality and non-discrimination. It is vital that journalists’ codes of ethical conduct and deontology become guiding and relevant documents in media newsrooms. A social majority cannot be allowed to establish itself in a position to control whether minorities can or cannot enjoy their fundamental rights. The first step is to expose what happened in Vitoria-Gasteiz for what it is: blatant racism.