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Campaigning for Romani media in Bulgaria

7 December 1999

Rumyan Russinov1

"WHY, in the final account, do you need a Romani radio program?", one former director of Channel II of Bulgarian National Radio asked me in September 1997. The then-director told me that the journalists at his station, none of whom were Roma, were tolerant and made presentations about Roma. He was evidently satisfied with this state of affairs. He couldn't see why, given that his channel covers the Roma issue, there should be on the National Radio a special program presented by Roma. Yet at some point he agreed with me that Roma are regarded as foreign by their fellow-Bulgarians, that they live under the cloud of all kinds of prejudice - prejudice that could be pierced by greater exposure of the majority audience to Romani culture and traditions. Roma are estranged from the media as well, I told him, and the national media cannot afford to exclude one part of the nation. It seemed to me my arguments sounded to him more and more convincing until I said: "That's why we need Romani journalists in media. We need the point of view of the Roma on the national media. We don't want programs 'about Roma' any more." He cut me short with an uncompromising "impossible".

A second conversation with officials at Channel II took place a few weeks later. It was obvious that the idea of Roma on the air made them suspicious. I brought them a demo audio-tape with a program one Romani journalist had made for a local radio station. Apparently this worked, for the director agreed to give the idea a try. According to the plan that we agreed upon, one Romani journalist was going to share the presentation of a sixty-minute Romani program with a staff journalist from the radio. We wanted to present a kaleidoscopic program, including topics such as history of the Romani people, Romani language and culture, modern images of the Roma, and Romani music. The nature of the program as a means of communication between the Roma minority and the majority required that it should be presented in Bulgarian. In our vision, this program needed to reach the largest possible audience and challenge their prejudice against Roma.

The Romani journalist and the journalist from the National Radio worked together for several weeks, argued out their various concepts, made compromises, and were ready with their program. After the program aired, friends and colleagues of mine who knew the story of my negotiations with the National Radio were all glad that it had finally come to pass. They were nevertheless unable to understand why the Romani journalist appeared to be a guest on the program and not an equal partner to the staff journalist as myself and the director had agreed. The program was, in any case, the last "Roma program" we heard on Channel II. It was later explained to us by officials from Channel II, that there would be no more Roma programs because of the absence of a special place in the program scheme of Channel II for such programs, as well as because of the "delicate" political issue of "what the reaction of the other minorities would be if they knew that only the Roma were privileged with a special program on the National Radio". For our part, the decision to refuse further cooperation with Channel II came with the awareness that besides arguments about this or that technicality, there had been an absence of good will. Romani journalists were not welcome as equal partners who would propose their concepts and air their views. Instead they were cynically offered the position of a "permanent guest" on their own programs.

The participation of Roma in the mainstream media is an issue that has provoked exuberant discussions in the human rights and Romani communities of Central and Eastern Europe. This is logical in view of the fact that one of the fundamental problems facing our people all over Europe is the negative public attitudes reinforced to a large extent by the media. No doubt, knowledge of the culture and values of Roma will curb the negative stereotypes and will open a space for Roma in the public sphere. Such enhanced familiarity with Romani difference will also raise the social prestige of the community as a whole. When the Roma become aware that they are accepted as equals in society, they will have the stimulus to improve themselves. Roma have been absent from the media of the countries of Central and Eastern Europe for the past decades. Or rather, they were there as the negative epitome of their societies. Such a portrayal of the Roma made the already excluded group even more distant from the mainstream society. To diminish this distance (and why not make it disappear?), there should be a full presence of Roma in the media of their countries.

From 1995-1997, the organisation for which I work, the Sofia-based Human Rights Project (HRP), analysed the media image of Roma in Bulgaria. We collected piles of stigmatizing and denigrating articles about Roma that had daily poured onto the minds of the Bulgarian reader. We learned from collecting these articles that Roma were only written about: Roma never spoke themselves in the press and in the other media. In late 1997, the HRP decided to convene journalists from mainstream and local media and discuss with them the portrayal of Roma. We knew it would be problematic to gather journalists at a forum that from the outset would be critical of them. It was certain that written invitations wouldn't work in this case. My colleagues and I met individually with several dozen journalists from the press, television and radio before that conference, to explain to them the purpose of the event and describe what we wanted to achieve. The conference, "Minorities in the Media: Realities and Prejudices", was our first step in lobbying the media. Apart from being well-attended by journalists, the conference turned out to be a constructive debate in which many journalists from leading editions conceded that the tone of the media towards Roma is unfair. Right after the conference, several journalists from the mainstream dailies invited me to continue the discussion of Roma in the media. One journalist from one of the two leading national dailies promised to help the HRP publish articles about Roma in the newspaper for which he worked, and in the two years since then he has never broken his promise.

The conference and the follow-up period made us aware that criticism of the media was not sufficient, and that it takes day-to-day work to lobby the media for a more tolerant approach to Roma. I could not ignore the fact that apart from popular negative attitudes, the negative image of Roma is also a reflection of the ineffective work of the Roma themselves with the media. Lobbying the media is an indispensable part of our work. Several years later, the situation is not ideal, and yet a positive change in the approaches of the journalists to the Roma issue one can observe. It would be far-fetched to say that the media is now full of journalists familiar with and sympathetic to the Roma issue. Yet there are many such journalists already in many media. These journalists seek advice from us when they are about to write about Roma; offer to write articles in the respective newspapers on themes important to us; invite us for interviews on the national electronic media; request information or analysis on various issues related to Roma.

Lobbying non-Romani journalists is one strategy to achieve objective coverage of issues pertaining to Roma in the media. In my opinion, however, the participation of Romani journalists in the media is even more important. There should be a policy of support for the education of Roma in journalism. The fact that there are very few Romani journalists presently working in Bulgaria means that there is not yet a basis for bringing about change in the public image of Roma.

For a short period of time in 1996 it seemed that the airwaves of the private Bulgarian radio stations would be open to Romani broadcasts by Romani journalists. At that time, following a training program for Roma in journalism at the Department of Communications of Sofia University, the HRP started to negotiate with private radio stations throughout the country for Romani broadcasts. We were able to raise funds to pay for honoraria for the Romani journalists and for partial coverage of air time costs for the radio stations. Our idea was to support financially several broadcasts in five or six radio stations in the country and thereby prepare the ground for regular broadcast of Romani programs as part of the program schemes of the respective radio stations. Contracts between the HRP and several radio stations were made and for two months there were Romani broadcasts in Montana, Sliven, Pleven, Sofia, and Gromshin, paid for by the HRP. At the end of the term of the contract, with funds exhausted, the HRP attempted to continue the broadcasts by covering only the honoraria of the journalists and not the air time. Our old partners from the radio stations, however, were no longer enthusiastic about the Roma programs and the new contacts we established with other radio stations were not successful either. Whether they anticipated the loss of their Bulgarian audience or simply had financial difficulties, the radio stations with which we spoke were unwilling to broadcast Romani programs without money. Even the regional branches of the National Radio were highly resistant to the idea, claiming that their program schemes should be approved by the central administration of the National Radio. Program schemes which included Romani broadcasts were never approved by the National Radio, and our project for such broadcasts in the regional branches was never considered. Only one regional branch of the National Radio, in Blagoevgrad, ran a "pro bono" Romani program for three months. In the Plovdiv branch of the National Radio, I was received by open-minded and well-disposed people who took an interest in what I was trying to do and agreed to accept Romani journalists. We even made plans for how to promote Romani culture through the local radio and TV stations. Several weeks after my talks with the director of the Plovdiv radio, however, his interest was shifted to a human rights series, proposed by a Bulgarian foundation, which paid the radio station for air time. And since the director wanted to avoid "duplication", he cancelled plans to broadcast the Romani program.

In 1998-1999, with the appointment of new directors of the National Radio, I resumed talks about a Romani program with officials from the National Radio. I was once more advised by a senior official in the National Radio to contact the Director of Channel II, one of the least popular stations in Bulgaria, since the chances for us at Channel I were nil. The Director of Channel II readily agreed that a Roma broadcast on the national air waves would fill a public need. At my last meeting with her in June 1999, however, she was more interested to know who would be paying for the Romani programs and how much.

Why didn't we pay for the Roma programs on the National Radio? We probably could have done so. We could have sought support from foundations or businesses. And yet, if we paid once, everybody would have expected such payments to continue. Roma would be expected to pay every time they wanted to be side-by-side with their fellow journalists, and every time they wanted to speak about themselves in the national media.

We wanted to guarantee that the Romani broadcasts on the National Radio would be part of a long-term policy to promote multiculturalism in Bulgaria and not a part-time event dependent on the good will of sponsors. We wanted to inspire new thinking in the administration of these media - a mindset which would no longer exclude Roma.

As I write, the national electronic media continue to be media for the ethnic majority and closed to the Roma. The provisions of the 1998 law on media which encourage ethnic diversity in the national media continue to be resisted by a stubborn administration. This administration refuses to accept that Roma are part of the nation and are entitled to be part of its media as well.

My experience with a host of National Television officials, including directors, heads of departments, and lower level administrators, has made me aware that we cannot rely on the good will of individual administrators in order to make a Romani program on the National TV. Time and again, each time I was about to convince officials that a Roma program should be an integral part of the National TV program, it turned out that ongoing personnel changes in the institution meant that the person with whom I had been communicating would no longer be working on the issue. Three boards of directors of the National TV have come and gone in the course of my work, and each time I have had to start from the absolute beginning, because the new personnel had never thought about Roma in the National TV, and because the institution had never had a concept of which Roma were a part. Officials come and go, but the exclusion of the Roma from the Bulgarian media continues.

As I write these words, it appears that my hope that Roma will appear on the National Television has finally borne fruit. At the end of October 1999, the Program Committee at the National Television approved one project for a Romani television broadcast on Channel 1. Over the past several years, our work with the media has brought about if not a critical change with regard to Roma, at least an alternative to the culture which perceives Roma as so distant that it would be unthinkable for one of their kind to be in the TV studio, or in the radio studio or behind the computer typing their article for the next day's edition. We expect that in the near future, we will see this alternative weighing ever more against the status quo.

Endnotes:

  1. Rumyan Russinov is Research Director of the Sofia-based non-governmental organisation Human Rights Project and a member of the board of directors of the ERRC.

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