ANTI-ROMA humour remains common within the Slovak media and on the Slovak internet, a fact that reflects the general attitudes of the Slovak population, according to insiders.
A brief bit of research conducted by The Slovak Spectator (TSS) over the course of only two days has revealed a number of sources promoting humour directed against the Roma (see below).
The website of Orange, one of Slovakia's two mobile telecommunications operators, was among them.
One of the 44 categories of jokes in the entertainment section of the company's website was called "Gypsies and Roma". The site enabled visitors to rate jokes and send them via e-mail or SMS.
When told about the jokes on September 2, Orange spokesperson Peter Tóth said he knew nothing of them and requested time to investigate. Within minutes, 42 of the 90 Roma jokes were removed.
"It is very unfortunate for us, because it is a huge faux pas," said Tóth later.
"Our company would in no way dare to publish jokes which would in any way discriminate, ridicule, or offend any part of the public or our clients; therefore, I have contacted my colleagues responsible for the content of the site's humour section and have asked them to adjust the categories," he added.
Already, by September 3 the "Gypsy and Roma" category, as well as one called "Homosexuals", had been removed from the website.
"I think the terms 'Gypsies' and 'Roma' are included in the dictionary of the Slovak language, and it was not our intention to use them with negative connotations. We do, however, realise that these terms can be interpreted in such a manner," Tóth continued. He admitted Orange was responsible for the content of its site.
"The website is prepared in-house. A special division of our company is responsible for the design, while the content is prepared by the communication department," said Tóth.
However, Tóth also stressed his firm gets the jokes from an external supplier.
"We buy from the database in good faith that there are no insulting, damaging, or offensive jokes," said Tóth. He would not specify who the supplier was, claiming contractual obligations prevent him from doing so.
"The database of jokes is being used in the information services of other companies as well," he said.
When asked whether Orange may reconsider future collaboration with the joke provider, Tóth answered: "Yes".
Another website found in the course of The Slovak Spectator's inquiry was www.funny.sk. It includes a category called "CD-Roma", which as of September 3, contained 183 jokes that people can rate and send by e-mail, SMS, or using voice messaging.
The website is intended primarily for young people, according to Štefan Fukas, the entrepreneur operating the site.
"The jokes are added by the users themselves," said Fukas. However, Fukas said not all entries make it to the site, and his people are responsible for the content. "Every joke is checked by one of our workers, so not each one is included," he said.
He did admit that some of the published material could be seen as unacceptable.
"Perhaps those [jokes] that you have selected are too much and should not be there," he said.
In his explanation of why the jokes nevertheless were included, Fukas pointed out the fact they are common in the culture and there is a demand for them.
"You know how it is - people keep adding them and they are also quite widespread," he said.
On those grounds, Fukas is at this time not considering editing the published material.
"If there are any complaints or requests, I am open to the idea of the jokes being reviewed. Then we can delete the most offensive ones. However, people don't complain, so I'm not in any way pressed to take them off," he said.
Fukas was unable to say how a Roma person might react to the jokes published on the site.
"I don't know. I cannot say how he or she would react. I assume the reaction would not be too positive," he said. None of the published jokes had been removed from www.funny.sk. by the time The Slovak Spectator went to print.
Representatives of the Roma community say all such "humour" should be rooted out.
"It is common to have jokes about various communities that focus on their particular stereotypes; even if they are particularly nasty, people still accept them," said Ivan Hriczko, director of the Roma Press Agency.
"However, purely racist jokes that ignite racial hatred or portray violence directed against the Roma community as something 'humorous' have no place in our society," he said.
Interestingly, at the time that The Slovak Spectator started looking into the issue, Hriczko received two jokes from the Orange site sent via SMS. This led the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center (ERRC) to send an open letter to Orange Slovakia CEO Pavol Lančarič on September 1, asking for the jokes to be removed.
In the letter, provided to TSS by Hriczko, ERRC also asks Orange to issue an apology to the Slovak Roma on its website, reprimand the responsible individuals, and make a "substantial donation to Slovak Romani organisations in an effort to repair the damage that has been done".
According to Hriczko, it is the general widespread prejudice against the Roma as an ethnic group that enables Slovak companies to get away with publishing anti-Roma jokes.
"One of the causes [for the prejudice] is the fact that those responsible for dealing with the Roma issue have an ineffective media strategy, causing public awareness of the actual status of the Roma community to be very low," he said.
"By preferring [to inform people about] social aid programs for the Roma, they create the impression that the entire ethnic group is socially unadaptable and cannot be integrated," he added.
"The average reader doesn't have time to look for missing information, and therefore accepts what is being presented as fact," Hriczko said.
Despite the fact that anti-Roma jokes are common in Slovakia, Hriczko said they do not represent a major issue for most Roma.
"The Roma community is so involved with its own problems that it perceives this fact as irrelevant and fails to realise its great significance," he said.
It is difficult to say whether publishing jokes about a minority contradicts Slovak law, according to experts.
"There is no question that it's not ethical. However, it's hard to draw the dividing line [between what is legal and what is not]," said Ján Hrubala, a lawyer with extensive experience in the field of human rights and the current head of the government's anti-corruption unit.
"Racial or national insults and the stirring of racial hatred are criminal offences. It would be necessary to investigate the nature of the internet site. I can imagine that if the jokes exceed a certain degree, the danger they pose to society can be sufficient for them to be seen as criminal offences," Hrubala added.
If convicted, perpetrators of such criminal acts could be sentenced to a fine or as much as one year in prison.
Hrubala pointed out there is no precedent for the criminal investigation of racist jokes in Slovakia. "Legal practice has not yet had the courage to set clear boundaries for when [jokes are] illegal, in part because no one has yet taken a serious look at it," he said.
However, according to Hrubala, racist jokes could be eradicated from public life if society stops tolerating them, there would be no need to take legal action.
"[In the West] even if you have people telling racist jokes in pubs, it's not something the media would do. They are ahead in this regard. If this were going on there, I'm sure there would be strong opposition from citizen groups. It's a matter of social attitudes," he said.
8. Sep 2003 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila