Swiss court rules ‘foreign gypsy’ cartoon was racist

The heads of the youth chapter of Switzerland's right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP) in the canton of Bern have been found guilty of racial discrimination over a cartoon protesting a regional government proposal for temporary camping places for "foreign gypsies".

Swiss court rules 'foreign gypsy' cartoon was racist
The court ruled this cartoon discriminated against Switzerland's Sinti and Roma communities.

A district court in the canton handed Nils Fiechter and Adrian Spahr suspended fines – a Swiss legal provision which allows for fines to become payable if people re-offend within a given period – for the cartoon published during cantonal elections last year.

The court ruled that the picture, which was published on Facebook in response to controversial regional government plans to provide additional camping spots for “travellers” in Wileroltigen in canton Bern, was discriminatory towards the country’s Sinti and Roma communities.

The cartoon shows a man in traditional Swiss costume holding his nose as he looks at a group of caravans surrounded by rubbish. In the background, a man with dark skin can be seen defecating in public.

“Millions of [Swiss] francs in costs for building and upkeep, dirt, faeces, noise etc, against the will of the local population,” the text above the cartoon reads.

Below the cartoon, the text reads: “We say no to transit places for foreign gypsies.”

The case came to court after the Swiss Sinti and Roma organisation filed a criminal complaint against the two politicians, arguing that by using the word “Zigeuner” (gypsy), the cartoon had targeted a specific ethnic group.

Linguistic defence

But the SVP youth wing leaders said they had never intended to be racist and used a linguistics-based defence.

Fiechter said the cartoon had targeted temporary camping places and not people. He argued the word “gypsies” (Zigeuner) used in the cartoon had been intended to refer to “travellers”, or caravan dwellers, rather than a specific ethnic group.

The word ‘Zigeuner’ is used in German-speaking countries to refer to ‘gypsies’ in general but can have negative connotations, and is often rejected by the Sinti and Roma.

But the presiding judge did not agree with the two politicians and ruled that the average reader would perceive the cartoon as an attack on human dignity.

Appeal now planned

In a statement released on Tuesday the youth party described the court’s sentence as “unacceptable” and said it planned to appeal.

In December, the canton of Bern announced it would spend 3.3 million Swiss francs (€2.9 million) to create 36 camping spots near Wileroltigen despite local opposition.

Defending its decision, the cantonal government said it was obligated to ensure there were enough camping spots available for “travellers”, including foreign “travellers” and that the Wileroltigen option was the best available.

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Switzerland acknowledges ‘systemic racism’ in the country

Despite a UN human rights group having accused Switzerland of being home to racist attitudes in the past, the country has never officially acknowledged it — until now.

Switzerland acknowledges 'systemic racism' in the country

In October 2022, the UN Human Rights Council released a report indicating that Switzerland discriminates against people of African descent. 

“The ubiquity and impunity of this misconduct indicates a serious systemic problem exists,” it said.

According to media reports, “Switzerland’s ambassador to the UN in Geneva broadly accepted the findings, although questioned the experts’ use of a limited number of examples to draw wider conclusions.” 

Though the problem has reportedly been lingering for years, Switzerland has never officially acknowledged it — until now.

As RTS public broadcaster reported on Monday, the government’s Anti-Racism Service (SLR) admitted, in an unprecedented move, “the existence of systemic racism in Switzerland.”

This includes “discrimination or exclusion based on racial criteria, such as skin colour, names, languages, accents, etc, as well as prejudices built up throughout history and now so deeply rooted in our society that they go unnoticed.”

In 2022, 708 cases of racial discrimination were registered in Switzerland, according to Federal Commission against Racism. Most of them took place in workplace and schools.

As an example of discrimination, the SLR report mentions difficulties that Albanian, Turkish, Tamil, and African people face in finding housing or jobs.

And that kind of attitude sometimes continues even after these foreigners obtain Swiss citizenship.

For instance, as The Local reported earlier, foreigners who become Swiss but who have distinctly foreign names or are visibly of other ethnic backgrounds, don’t have the same opportunities to get hired as their native Swiss counterparts.

A similar phenomenon affects the search for apartments: researchers found that applicants with Kosovan or Turkish names were not given as many opportunities to view apartments as non-foreign applicants.

READ ALSO: How employers and landlords in Switzerland ‘discriminate against Swiss citizens of immigrant origin’

However, researchers pointed out that Switzerland is no exception and similar discrimination against job applicants from immigrant backgrounds exists in other countries across Europe as well.

There have been various instances of racism in recent years, though many cases go unreported.

Among the ones that made news was a job advert for a truck driver, with the company specifying that the successful candidate must be a ‘Helvetian’ who eats pork — effectively excluding Muslims and Jews.

READ ALSO: ‘We eat pork’: Swiss company’s job listing for a driver accused of discrimination

Another, more recent example is that of a yodeller in the canton of Appenzell who performed in a black wig and painted black face.

Though this incident stirred controversy — as a black wig and face are not part of the typical yodelling attire — a court ruled that such a performance during a carnival did not quality as racism, especially as the yodeller didn’t make disparaging comments about Africans.

READ ALSO: Swiss yodeller cleared of racism over ‘black face’ performance

What does the law say?

In Switzerland, racial discrimination is defined as “any form of unjustified inequality of treatment, verbal statement or physical use of force that discriminates against a person or a group of persons on the grounds of their ethnic origin, race, language or religion.” 

There are several legislations in place, including a constitutional article, prohibiting racism and racial discrimination of any kind.

Article 8 of the Federal Constitution guarantees every person living in Switzerland the right to equal treatment.

Specifically, no one may be discriminated against because of their origin, race, gender, language, religion or way of life.

Anyone found to be guilty of breaking this law is subject — depending on the severity of the offence — to a fine or up to three years in prison.

Does this system actually work?

Yes, at least in some cases.

The most recent example, which is still making news in Switzerland, is that of a French comedian, Dieudonné.

In 2019, he stated publicly while performing in Geneva that “the gas chambers never existed,” referring to Nazi concentration camps in Eastern Europe, where millions of Jews had perished. 

A case against him was filed at the time by the Coordination against Anti-semitism and Defamation (CICAD) organisation.

A Swiss court found him guilty of racism and he was sentenced to a 36,000-franc fine, but he appealed the verdict to a higher court, claiming a right to free expression guaranteed by the Swiss constitution.

However, last week, on April 14th, Switzerland’s highest court upheld the previous ruling, stating that Dieudonné’s remarks “grossly minimised the Holocaust” and criticising his “inclination to make fun of the victims of the Holocaust.”

What measures will Switzerland take to curb racism now that it acknowledged its existence?

The SLR is pledging to step up its  fight against racism, starting with identifying the most vulnerable people, and then finding solutions in collaboration with public and civil authorities.

Concretely, it has committed to the following measures:

  • Awareness and prevention to fight against racial discrimination and defend human rights
  • Strengthen legal protection against discrimination
  • Publicise this information at national and international level
  • Provide funds to support anti-racism and human rights defence projects