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.


Switzerland sticks with mountain name despite ‘racist’ ties

A Swiss town on Wednesday refused to rename the Agassizhorn mountain despite its namesake's espousal of racist views.

Switzerland sticks with mountain name despite 'racist' ties
Switzerland's Agassizhorn. Image: Creative Commons

The 19th century Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz was known for research into fish, fossils and glaciers, but he has also been criticised in recent years for defending racist ideas.

After emigrating to the United States in 1846, Agassiz argued for racial segregation and hierarchies, and fiercely attacked Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

IN PICTURES: Powerful images from anti-racism protests across Switzerland 

But mayor of the town of Grindelwald, Beat Bucher, disagreed with those who wanted to change the peak's name, saying: “We cannot erase the stains of history.”

In a reference to the central Swiss summit, Bucher added: “It is better to accept it with its positive and negative aspects.”

The mountain peak, at just under 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) is shared by two other municipalities, Guttannen and Fieschertal, which had already rejected a bid to rename it.

A fresh effort was made after the killing in late May of George Floyd, an African American asphyxiated by a white police officer, generated a global wave of revulsion against racist symbols.

A similar push to rename the mountain was rejected in 2007.