Friday, October 25, 2013

Roma couple declared guilty by Finland's Iltasanomat -- until proven innocent

Presumption of innocence is a fundamental right of accused persons recognized in many European nations. The principle demands that persons accused of crimes are innocent until proven guilty. This right applies to the European majority population, but in cases involving Roma - Europe's most discriminated minority group - the presumption of innocence is shelved by the media and the court of public opinion.

News of a child found in a Roma camp in Greece in the custody of a Roma couple took the media by storm. Major international news outlets had catchy headlines about a blonde, blue-eyed "mystery girl" found in a Roma camp. Meanwhile Iltäsanomat in Finland came up with a more dramatic headline that declared the Roma couple guilty of kidnapping before they were charged.

News outlets like Huffington Post and Daily Mail used words like "abducted" and "kidnapped" in quotes -- thereby showing uncertainty. But Iltasanomat appeared convinced that the girl was kidnapped.

The Roma are Europe's most discriminated minority group and they face segregation, intolerance and violence in many European countries. Unlike the majority of Europe's population, they are stigmatized and are usually condemned by the media and the court of public opinion before full investigation of alleged crimes.

In my opinion, Iltasanomat's headline (see above screenshot) reflects prejudice and discrimination against the Roma. The tabloid, pending the outcome of investigation into the case, described the girl as kidnapped -- thereby indirectly declaring the Roma couple involved guilty -- in violation of the couple's right to presumption of innocence: a fundamental civil right laid down in article 48 of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and article 6(2) of the European Convention on Human Rights.

Irrespective of the seriousness of the alleged crime, I believe the Roma couple involved reserve the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Their lawyer said they adopted the child from her biological mother - although the adoption, according to the lawyer, was "non-legal". The couple have been charged with abduction and document fraud. The public and media should wait for the outcome of the investigation and legal proceedings. A Bulgarian woman said she left a child with a family in Greece years ago. Conclusions should not be arrived at simply because the accused are Roma. More importantly, the "blonde angel" case should not have a knock-on effect against Roma across Europe.

Members of the Roma community and human rights advocates (including me) fear witch hunt against the minority group across Europe as a result of the Greece case. A Finnish journalist questioned, in a widely read and recommended opinion piece (in Finnish), whether or not the response by the media and authorities, including Interpol would have been the same if the child found in the Roma camp was not blonde and blue-eyed.

Personally, I welcome the outcry and coordinated international cooperation to find the biological parents of the child found in Greece. However, response by the media and authorities should be the same in every case -- irrespective of how victims or suspects look like. There should be no double standards.

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