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Training programs for Romani journalists

7 December 1999

Janis Overlock1

a young reporter ventured into the Romani settlements in the Hungarian countryside to cover a story about educational inequalities for a major political daily newspaper last year. Dark-skinned and almond-eyed, the reporter looked like a direct descendant from his ancestral India. "I am a journalist from Magyar Hírlap and I would like to talk to you about a story I am working on," he said. The residents of the settlements looked at him suspiciously. "We don't want to talk to any more reporters from Budapest," they said. He explained that he is also a Rom and a brother. The residents crowded closer to him. "You said you were a reporter for Magyar Hírlap." Yes, he replied. "Then you can't be a Gypsy. There is no such thing as a Gypsy journalist in a Budapest newspaper." He spoke to them in Romani. Shocked, confused, then jubilant, the settlement residents invited him from one dwelling to another. His hosts celebrated and said, "One of us made it! There is a Gypsy reporter at a big newspaper in Budapest!" The journalist had become a voice for the voiceless.

The reporter was a participant of the Roma Mainstream Media Internship Program organized by the Center for Independent Journalism and the Roma Press Center. The program is designed to provide young Roma with at least a secondary education an opportunity to develop careers in the mainstream media. I am the director of the internship programs in Hungary and Slovakia through the Center for Independent Journalism. We have plans to expand the program to Romania and the Czech Republic in the year 2000. The Roma Press Center began the original program in 1996, but then officially joined it with the Center for Independent Journalism in 1997.

Starting work in a newsroom is an intimidating experience for any novice, but it is especially so for one of Romani origin for whom there are few role models. When I interviewed candidates for the Slovak program last year, a young woman asked what type of protection the program could provide her if she were to be attacked by skinheads after being seen on television as a reporter. What can I say to this? As a white American journalist and journalism trainer, I have never had to consider such personal intimidation.

The fact is that young Roma who come forward and take on the risks to become mainstream journalists often have the very stuff of which reporters are made: courage, tenacity, and curiosity. We endeavor through our program to add the other components. The year-long program includes bi-weekly journalism training in basic skills such as radio and television production, private tutoring in grammar and stylistics, professional voice broadcasting lessons, and workshops on law and government. In addition, the students have the option to study English and/or Romani. We try to provide each student with at least one short sojourn in another country, so that they have an opportunity to broaden their horizons. In addition to all of this, they must work for 20 hours per week in a professional mainstream newsroom under the guidance of a "mentor". The purpose of the internships is to train professional journalists who happen to be Romani to cover anything from fires to lawsuits to business.

So far, the programs have been successful. Of the eight graduates of the Hungarian class of 1998, five are working in the media on a regular basis. Two Hungarian graduates won a national prize for political reporting this summer and one current Slovak student recently won second place for one of his news stories at an international festival for local televisions. Two Hungarian graduates will be made editors by January of next year. Of the ten Hungarian interns and the twelve Slovaks in this year's program, the majority in both groups will probably continue their work in the media when the programs end in December.

This is not to say that implementing the programs has always been smooth sailing. Before placing an intern in a medium, we go and interview the editors and potential "mentors" to make sure that the place will be hospitable to the Romani interns. The Slovak program is based in the eastern part of the country, an area with a large Romani population as well as a high level of anti-Romani racism. One editor from the area asked me how much I would pay him to have a Rom work in his newspaper. I told him that was not the way the program worked. We pay the interns a stipend so that the medium does not have to remunerate them, but this is the limit of our financial commitment. On the other hand, we keep track of the interns' progress in the newsrooms. If we find that an intern has no opportunity to work on stories and is assigned nothing more challenging than making coffee, then we will relocate them to another place. "Well, you can send one of your Gypsies here, but I doubt you will be able to find anyone who will work or is intelligent. If they so much as break a pencil tip, they are out of here. I know all I need to know about Gypsies and I know there isn't a smart one anywhere." The irony was that the person who was translating this to me was a very capable university-educated Romani woman who spoke five languages fluently. For obvious reasons, I did not send an intern to work under this editor's supervision.

The Slovak intern who received the prize for his work in television has been celebrated in the national and international media as the first Romani television reporter in the country. When his first story aired, journalists and viewers bombarded the station with calls asking whether he is a Rom. The response was overwhelmingly favorable and the intern is often lauded in the street by other Roma. His celebrity status also resulted in backlash. He was verbally attacked by an elderly non-Romani woman in Košice after one of the broadcasts. "Who do you think you are? Do you think you have all the answers? Do you think you can solve all the problems?" As attacks on Roma in Slovakia go, this one was rather mild.

I do not think that the programs will solve all the problems of stereotyping or imbalanced reporting of the Romani community. But it has happened that a non-Romani reporter covering an event in the Romani section of town paused before writing the story and asked the intern for his opinion on what had occurred there. Sometimes reporters simply do not have access to the Romani community and lack an understanding of the forces affecting it. Unbalanced reporting is often due to ignorance rather than design. One editor of a small-town newspaper in Košice said that the intern who works there has completely refreshed their way of how they cover the Romani community. Another editor in Slovakia thanked me for sending a student there as it challenged his way of thinking.

We hope that the interns will become bridges between the majority and minority communities. As they progress in their careers, we also hope that they will become role models for other Romani youth as well as stereotype busters. As these young journalists succeed, they, too, will become voices for the voiceless in the media.

Endnotes:

  1. Janis Overlock s the director of Roma Projects for the parent organization of the Center for Independent Journalism, the New York Times-based Independent Journalism Foundation. Those interested in learning more about programs of the Center for Independent Journalism are urged to contact them at H-1053 Budapest, Egyetem tér 5. I. em. 7, Hungary; telephone: (36 1) 117 5448; fax: (36 1) 267-4613; e-mail: cij@mail.datanet.hu.

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