The possible impact of the media law on the media representation of Roma people

By • on January 18, 2011


The New Hungarian Media Law is in the crossfire of Hungarian and international media, various  journalist associations, and press freedom watchdogs. All of them are severely criticising it because of  the threat it poses to the freedom of the press in Hungary. The new law also impacts on the media representation of Roma people. I have talked to both Roma and non-Roma journalists about this issue.

The Hungarian Parliament, where the governing party holds two thirds of the seats, voted a new, 160 pages-long (!) Media Law on 21 December 2010.The law contains several problematic elements from technical as well as practical reasons, which might threaten the freedom of the press in the long run. Such elements are the centralization of public media, which would be supervised by a presidium under the control of the government, the extension of the official supervision on print media and online journals (including some blogs as well), an increase of the severity of sanctions, and lastly, an extraordinary power and special responsibility for the Media Council (founded in October 2010). According to the Hungarian Government, which holds a strong mandate, the National Media and Infocommunications Authority (NMIA) is able to represent the audience, endorse the interests of media consumers, and enforce the media law. NMIA declared on its website that the head of the NMIA and the head of the Media Council are the same person, who will be appointed directly by the prime minister for a nine-year term. And the power of the Media Authority has increased even further due to the new law.

An open question remains, due to the novelty of the law:  how will these arrangements affect the media representation of Roma people? One of its first consequences is the banning of a journalist from the public radio, due to his protest with a moment of on-air silence against the new media law. He is well known fpr having disconnected the telephone line in the middle of a live interview, when the interviewed politician used the politically incorrect “Gypsy crime” phrase.

In 2007, the Partners Hungary and the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour published the so called „Green book of media representation of Roma people”, the result of a long research and many passionate discussions. According to the authors’ general conclusion, while the institutions of free speech function satisfactorily, the situation of disadvantaged minorities, e.g. the Roma minority, remains hopeless, because most of the public is either unsensitive or unwilling to pay attention to their  problems. The media representation of the Roma population is not only a question of the media control or the media ethics: it touches upon the problem of their social inclusion, the well-being of the society at large, and its idea of fairness. So, in the last couple of years, although the freedom of the press remained intact, and the media took enough interest in  Roma issues, the media representation of this minority remained inadequate because of the attitude of the majority of media consumers.

Consequently, since the new media law potentially threatens the freedom of the press, it might feed the already existing negative tendencies in the media representation of Roma people, and leave the negative attitude of majority unchanged.

As a young Roma journalist, Ferenc Csontos, put it: „It is unlikely that the representation of Roma in the media will differ from the one that prevailed in the past few years. The minority programs of the public television can’t reach a big audience, so their effect remains much weaker than the effect of programs provided by the commercial media. In the interest of higher profit, they play upon the existing visceral emotions and feelings of the audience which meet the demands of the majority of viewers or readers. Besides, the Roma are being represented as homogeneous dollop.”

According to media theorists, the characteristic traits of Roma, as presented by the media, are passivity and homogeneity. This happens despite the fact that the Roma population in Hungary has several subgroups, each one of them boasting with its own, living culture.

As Bela Krumpli, the former editor-in-chief of www.sosinet.hu said: „In general, as the new media law will narrow the margins of the free press, the representation of Roma people in media will be  simplified even further. It will become even more difficult to change the negative image that the majority of the Hungarian society has about them. As the public media gets more and more tightly  controlled by the ruling political parties, we are facing a growing danger of the marginalization of  the political and cultural views of the opposition. Since the commercial media does not promote a  truthful representation of various Roma groups, the overall image will likely be more simplified, and the dissident voices of Roma groups will be neglected.”

The practice of the media is a serious task. As it appears now, the new media law will neither support a syncronisation with the European standards of diversity and plurality, nor promote a more adequate picture of the Roma minority in the media.