Misrepresentation of Romani asylum issues in the Hungarian press
03 April 1999
Since the issue acquired international concern in autumn 1997, the Hungarian electronic and written media have reported extensively on the Romani asylum seekers leaving Slovakia and the Czech Republic and seeking asylum in Great Britain and Canada. For the most part the Hungarian media accepted that there might be valid grounds for the flight of Roma from those countries, and reports - especially concerning the Czech Republic - contained more than a little schadenfreude over the fact that at last the Czech Republic, the West's darling since 1989, had some mud on its breeches.
Beginning in early 1998, rumours began that Romani families in Hungary were fleeing the country. The main daily newspapers began sporadically reporting on the issue, and especially on curiosities such as the report that some offices of local Gypsy Minority Self-Governments - a local government advisory body in many Hungarian municipalities - were issuing documents certifying that the bearer was Romani. In general, articles during the early period of Romani migration from Hungary were characterised, first of all, by the disbelief that Roma in Hungary could be regarded as persecuted and, secondly, by various misrepresentations of what an asylum procedure is. As a result of press reports, many Hungarians laboured under the impression that asylum could only be accorded to politicians, or that while applying for asylum, an individual would be presented with a checklist and forced to choose between one of several "flavours" of persecution - political, ethnic, etc. The press also tended to treat persons assisting Roma in leaving the country as - depending on the political slant of the newspaper - either irresponsible or treasonous.
Some articles belittled the possibility that Roma from Hungary might be legitimate asylum seekers by treating the issue with cryptic forms of scorn. On January 19, 1999, for example, Népszabadság ran an article entitled "Even skinheads asking for asylum in Canada". No additional information on this intriguing topic was included in the article, although it discussed the problem of other non-Romani Hungarians who declared themselves to be Roma in order to seek asylum.
On December 1, 1998, Judit Kopácsi Gelberger, member of the Board of Directors of Toronto Roma Community Centre told listeners of Tilos Rádió's Roma program that more than one hundred Roma from Hungary had been granted asylum in Canada. The interview was published in the January issue of Amaro Drom, the monthly publication of the non-governmental organisation Roma Parliament. The ERRC knows of no other publication of the number of positive reviews of Romani applications for asylum in Canada in a feature article.
On the contrary, on January 22, 1999, Népszabadság - the daily with the largest circulation in Hungary - ran an article with the headline "Canada Does Not Grant Asylum to Hungarian Roma". This assertion flew in the face of the fact that in 153 of the 397 primarily Romani applications by Hungarian citizens reviewed in 1998, Canadian authorities found that Roma did have a legitimate fear of persecution in Hungary.
Rejection of asylum applications by Roma from Hungary was, on the other hand, front-page news in Hungary. On January 5, 1999, Népszabadság and on January 7, 1999, Magyar Hírlap, another of the leading dailies, published front page articles reporting on decisions in two controversial procedures by the Immigration and Refugee Board of Canada. Both dailies reduced legally complex and heavily politicised issues in Canada to the simplistic formula that as a result of the two decisions, Roma would not receive asylum there. Magyar Hírlap put this in pseudo-authoritative voice when it wrote, "as precedent-setting is a practice in Canadian law, the legal decisions made concerning these two families will effect the applications of other refugees". This misrepresentation reached the Hungarian Romani families waiting for review of their asylum applications.
Czech Romani refugees in Canada were again dragged into the Hungarian media in early 1999, this time to shore up unfavourable comparisons with Hungary. The February 18 issue of Népszabadság for example informed the public that 737 Roma from the Czech Republic - more than two thirds of all applicants - had been granted refugee status in Canada.
Hungarian magnanimity toward the rejected asylum seekers has featured prominently in the Hungarian media. The January 19, 1999 issue of Népszabadság reported Hungarian Romani leader Flórián Farkas's request that the Hungarian government help the returning Roma. Ministry of Justice Secretary of State for Political Affairs Csaba Hende's assuring reply - "The Romani leader is knocking on an open door" - was also published, but the promises were not described in detail. Népszabadság reported that "the Hungarian state would give comprehensive support to Romani families returning to Hungary".
The editorial page has treated the issue of Hungarian Romani refugees with somewhat more sympathy. A January 7 editorial by Miklós Újvári in Magyar Hírlap stated that "last year 146 Hungarian citizens were given refugee status in Canada," and opined, "While the separation of Roma and non-Roma is a continuous practice at schools, offices and dwelling places, this state will not be free, democratic and happy". The predominant tendency in the Hungarian media throughout the Romani refugee episode, however, has been to assist the Hungarian public in maintaining the widespread view that, on minority issues, Hungary is the best student of Western Europe and all comparisons with neighbour states such as Slovakia or, Heaven forbid, Romania, are misguided.