The media need scrutiny

By • on June 27, 2012

I studied journalism at Charles University in Prague and I work both in the majority-society media and in the Romani media. My experiences from my parallel work on both sides of the tracks have made it possible for me to understand the need for Romani press, radio and television broadcasting. What’s more, through my work in the majority-society media, I have become convinced of the existence of stereotypes to which the reporting on Romani issues done by the mainstream media must conform. I have witnessed this process with my own eyes.

Naturally, my colleagues and I at the nonprofit organization Romea are doing our best to break down these stereotypes by focusing on the media and on collaboration with non-Romani journalists. Sometimes we are successful, and sometimes we run into the persistent grudge that our society holds against Romani people, which has recently been intensifying again. This anti-Gypsyism has been appearing more and more frequently, along with racism in official publications.

We are all currently witnessing how Europe, several decades after the end of the Second World War and the horrors of the Holocaust, is allowing the return of a hatred against the Romani national minority. Because Romani people are economically, educationally and socially disadvantaged in different countries, post-totalitarian ones in particular.  They are not allowed genuine participation at the political level and therefore have no effective defense against either latent racism or racism expressed through physical violence.

The media, as we all know, play a fundamental role in the creation of public opinion about minorities, the Romani minority included. Sometimes this role is postive, and sometimes – unfortunately, more often – it is negative.

I will focus on several examples and observations that represent the situation in the Czech Republc in particular. However, these examples are comparable to those of other countries in Central and Eastern Europe.

The changes that accompanied the advent of democracy after 1989 unfortunately caught most of Czech society, including the Romani community, unprepared. In particular, we were unprepared for an increasing number of neo-Nazi and racist demonstrations and for the groups and individuals who choose to profile themselves that way politically.

The 1990s began in the Czech Republic on a rising tide of anti-Romani sentiment and tension. This took the form of drastic pogroms against places where Romani people live in greater numbers. The neo-Nazis have that violence on their conscience, as they do the more than 20 racially motivated murders that have been committed in my country.

Today the Romani minority is not represented in Parliament. Romani people are managing to defend themselves in a limited way only, and are currently being moved more and more onto the fringes of society economically.

At the start of this century, there was a further transformation in the sentiments against this minority. The Czech Republic, which unlike other countries has never had any historical experience with ghettos, has now allowed them to be created. The number of socially excluded localities is growing at a chilling rate and one-third of the entire Romani population lives in them today. These ghettos are accompanied by a high rate of sociopathological phenomena such as crime and drug use. The majority society is also calling Romani people “parasites” for accessing welfare.

The so-called “Romani topics” have been artfully reshaped during the last five to eight years into a policy against “inadaptables” which is being taken up not only by neo-Nazi parties, but also by “serious” politicians coming into both chambers of the Czech Parliament from regions that have long underestimated the importance of addressing these phenomena. These politicians are behind this continually intensifying “anti-Gypsyism”, which has suddenly found a more logical excuse for itself. This is no longer just about neo-Nazism or racism; instead, it is about the need to discuss these matters openly. Politicians score political points and support when they voice an openly anti-Romani, hateful ideology.

Anti-Romani sentiment in Europe, particularly after the economic collapse in these post-communist European countries, is very dangerous. This sentiment has been passed from the neo-Nazis to politicians who are more clever than they are at manipulating public opinion. In 2011, mobs of “decent citizens” with sticks in their hands marched through some towns in the Šluknov district, trying to reach buildings where the “inadaptables” live. Such events are a warning to us. Kristallnacht can repeat itself, as can the terminology of those days (which has just undergone slight permutations) for the non-Aryan, the unfit, the genetically impure, and the inadaptable.

A special role has been played recently in the Czech Republic by certain media outlets, in particular online ones, as well as by privately owned television stations. Excesses have been committed by public broadcast television as well. Public radio broadasting has essentially behaved the most professionally recently. Let me give you several examples:

In the Czech Republic there is an online media outlet called Parlamentní listy, which means Parliamentary News. Despite its name, it has nothing to do with Parliament. For the last year and a half, it has literally been conducting a media witchhunt against Romani people. The editors give space to people with documented links to right-wing extremism and publish vituperative articles about Romani people that are completely fabricated. These false reports are then reprinted by mainstream media outlets without any attempt to verify the information. Our civic association, Romea, is a thorn in the side of these hacks, as we have revealed several of their articles to have been lies. Not only did Parlamentní listy have to publish an apology, but the other mainstream media outlets had to as well. For example, one false report described the Romani treasurer of a party that does not exist in the Czech Republic, the European Romani Party, running off with this non-existent party’s non-existent money. All of it, naturally, was pure invention, and we revealed that after just one week of research.

Another example concerns the privately-owned television station Nova. Most recently, for example, Nova broadcast the testimony of a girl who claimed she had been attacked and raped by a small group of Romani men. This report prompted yet another wave of negative reactions to this minority. Two days later, police determined the girl had invented the entire incident. The television station never apologized.

My final example comes from the public broadcaster, Czech Television. Petr Uhl, the former Czech Human Rights Commissioner, and Anna Šabatová, the former deputy ombudsman, sent a complaint to the public broadcaster over the fact that the term “inadaptable” was being frequently used in the reporting of this public broadcasting television station to evoke a connection to Romani people and to create an anti-Romani atmosphere. A lawyer for Czech Television responded to their complaint by giving a shocking explanation. Not only did he harshly reject the complaint per se, he defended himself with these words:  “Several Gypsies work in our television station, one of them even anchors the news.”

My aim in giving you these examples has been to give you the hint that the media deserve greater scrutiny from us all. We need a bigger strategy on how to collaborate with them. There is no doubt that there is a need for media analysis, for work on the creation of public opinion, and for greater objectivity regarding the position of Romani people not just throughout Europe, but throughout the world.