Stateless: Roma in the media today
07 December 1999
Information and the Romani state
The last time I wrote an article on Romani media, I quoted my colleague Dragoljub Acković: "the most effective solution to the problem of informing Roma in their native tongue will be realised only through the creation of their own state, with all its attendant functions and institutions. Until that time, Roma people are condemned to search for solutions, wherever they lie, under conditions dictated by others, who have scant regard for their needs."
This statement made me wonder what the price of a Romani state would be. While wandering in my thoughts I could not help but think of all the horrible and numerous human sacrifices, the blood spilt for today's new "democratic" states. Many of my compatriots with whom I have spoken about this have responded that we Roma have never waged a war and most probably we will not fight for our future state. Actually a state as a space which would belong to Roma is almost completely non-existent in the conceptions of most Roma. Most Roma feel that to us, the most important place is the one where we were born, and that is something broad and undefined on the Earth's globe. This kind of attitude has not changed even in the face of the repeated sufferings of Roma in the latest European - Balkan - ethnic wars.
We are far from the issue of media, but not as far as one might think: how communication among Roma takes place is crucial for the kinds of sentiments that emerge among us. The fact that the latest suffering of Roma - this time in Kosovo - was primarily medialised by non-Roma is important.
Traditional Romani communication
Since diaspora and the arrival of Roma in Europe, there has existed a more or less known and understood way of mutual exchange of information among Roma called patrin. This was an ancient form of communication by which Romani groups made known to each other the most important information about their surroundings, the way in which the various events of Romani life were chronicled and narrated. The expression which conveys this whole complex of everyday communication is the Romani word džaniben. The meaning of this word embraces notions of communicative knowledge, interpersonal exchanges of information, the very accumulation of a body of information about something.
An entire century after the publication of the first magazine about Roma named Gypsy Lore Society, there is no Romani media, not even on the horizon, that would in its essence be based on the meaning and practice of these two Romani notions: patrin and džaniben. It was exactly this problem made me look at the development of Romani media.
Assessing Romani media
When assessing the autonomy of Romani media, the following questions are important: what is the editorial policy of such radio or television programs broadcast for Roma? Who are the editors of such programs? What is the policy of censorship when it comes to Romani programs? What is the status of Roma employed in the editorial staff? What kind of equipment does the editorial staff have? What is the character of the program; what is the ratio between music and spoken word programs?
History of Romani media
The first Romani media were newspapers and, then as now, Romani newspapers have always had immense difficulty surviving financially. In 1935, Mr Svetozar Simi?, then a Romani student of law, the owner and editor of the Belgrade-based Romano Lil, one the first Romani newspapers in the Balkans, wrote, "Perhaps there are no more Gypsies who have never heard of newspapers. Many of our brothers, especially those who live in towns, sometimes even buy newspapers. They buy Politika, Štampa. These are big daily newspapers. For one dinar - the price of one issue of Romano Lil - one can buy a whole book. But none of our brothers ever ask, "How does a newspaper survive?" There are at least two conditions to be fulfilled in order for a newspaper to be published. There has to be someone to write for them, and someone to buy and read them. In a big daily, you can write about everything that is taking place; it is very difficult to publish a newspaper like ours. It is of small format and is rarely published. Everything that is written has to be short. Yet, there are so many things our brothers could be interested in. So much of our suffering, misery and troubles. And it is easier to publish a big daily newspaper. Because it is printed in many copies, it sells cheaply: because it sells cheaply, more of it is bought. Nevertheless, we have to sell our four little pages for one dinar! Yet, that does not sadden us. When we start publishing our newspaper in more copies than we do now, we will increase the number of pages too. For the moment, we are interested in two things only: if all of our Gypsy brothers are reading our paper, if they have read our first issue, have they understood it well and what it is that they do not like about it?"
Romani radio began, to the best of my knowledge, in 1963, with a Romani program on the station Radio Tetovo, in what was then the Yugoslav Socialist Republic of Macedonia and is now the independent Republic of Macedonia. The experience of hearing Romani on the radio came as a pleasant shock to the Roma of Tetovo, and it remains true that radio is one of the most effective means of reaching Roma. Early broadcasts, however, were extremely unstructured, had no clear editorial vision, and basically had the feel of "accidental radio": programming was whatever the person behind the microphone felt like doing at that particular instant. As a result, few of the broadcasts pertained to the real problems of Roma and their everyday lives: Romani radio was not, at its inception, community radio.
Many of the subsequent Romani radio programs founded in various countries in Europe began in state institutions. Many, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, were established by state or political party organs with more or less explicit political motives, not all of which had the best interests of Roma at heart.
The 1970s were a period of great initiatives and the Romani media gained strength. Roma and the issues of Romani lives were articulated more clearly than ever. However, many of the unresolved issues of the 1970s Romani media are still with us today: whom does the Romani media serve and to whom is it addressed. One of mistakes made by the founders of Romani press is that it was never something that Roma had firmly in their hands, in their heads, something that could become independent. Usually the editors and journalists of Romani papers were already known Romani activists from early sixties. They were people for whom Romani emancipation was a life choice. Many of them had double or triple roles - as members of the media and activists at the same time.
In almost all European countries, especially in Central and Eastern Europe, specifically Romani radio or television programs are in the language of the majority. In many countries the banal reason is given for this as "the fact" that most Roma do not speak their mother tongue, that the Romani language is not yet developed for modern communication.
Many Romani programs and shows are broadcast through the channels of governmental media, and the position of programming these Romani programs is open to question: since the position of Roma in states is degraded, why should we expect to see state Romani media in any better shape? Nevertheless, it is a hopeful sign that one now sees that some radio programs, for example in Macedonia, have established themselves as Romani community radio in the Romani language. The rebirth of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe has meant a flourishing of Romani media: in almost every town in Macedonia, for example, there is a Romani radio station run by Roma themselves. Many of these, to put it baldly, are pirate or semi-legal radio stations which exist and operate only because the law turns a blind eye. But there are also many Romani programs organised in local private non-Romani radio stations where Roma work and gain experience.
On the other hand, Romani media are still in a nascent state, in that they have yet to devote enough energy to wider problems, priorities of Romani lives like education, employment, culture, language, emancipation in general sense, political participation, social exclusion and discrimination, as well as to positive examples.
Romani media/mainstream media
Romani media has not motivated the international audience to consider Romani lives as a whole with importance. At the same time, Romani media in general has not built for itself a leading role in the sphere of Romani public opinion. Romani media, in particular the Romani press, cannot praise itself for being the best provider, producer, and recorder of most detailed information about Romani lives. Romani media has also not yet successfully promoted a fair and accurate presentation of Roma in the mainstream media. On one occasion, when comparing how Roma look through the viewpoint of mainstream media in Europe, I answered in the following way: if this were a case of relations between two states, most probably they would end diplomatic relations, if not have a war! People have learned to react against anti-Semitism, but not against anti-Gypsyism. Anti-Gypsyism in the mainstream press is commonplace, a profit-making topic. Roma become a part of an experiment in which journalists practice their writing skills in hatred and evil.
In my opinion, a key problem is that the Romani press has not yet taken seriously the necessity of becoming an advocacy press for Romani settlements, ghettos, and streets. The mainstream media has not incorporated important Romani themes partly because Romani press has not fought for this inclusion. Journalists and editors from the Romani press rarely co-operate with colleagues from mainstream media, experts teaching at journalism schools, with museums, libraries, archives, national or international press associations. All of this also applies to radio and television programs intended for Roma or edited by Romani journalists. On the other hand, Roma don't bear all the blame: the mainstream press for the most part does not respect the Romani press and almost never quotes from it.
The lack of education in the field of journalism of many Roma is reflected in, for example, Romani radio programming: this remains predominantly musical. That the Romani media have not yet taken a leading role in showing mainstream journalists and the wider audience the true life of Roma can be attributed to the level of education and experience of editors and journalists of Romani media. However, foundations dealing with minorities and their media have finally touched upon the Romani media issue: several media conferences and training sessions, and even schools, have been organised, and these could be catalysts of change.
Radio: the return of the patrin
Roma do not now have their own state means for the provision of Romani information. In the absence of this, we look to form modern means of communication as authentic and effective as the patrin. Radio has the most potential for fulfilling this role. Romani radio can and should acquire and provide the Romani community with the information it so crucially needs. One of the main advantages of radio stations is that they can be an active forum for exchange. Here the first pioneer steps have been made only recently and at a local level. Romani radio programs have brought Roma closer together and have brought Roma and non-Roma together. By rendering the public use of Romani more normal, radio - and here I mean not state broadcasts but local Romani radio stations and programming - has brought new dignity and status to the language, and furthermore has introduced the sound of Romani to non-Romani audiences.
A program for change in Romani media
Radio and television programs require an action plan with urgent short-term recommendations. Many Romani television stations, in the first place, should have a consultant for training the editorial staff, journalists, producers and technicians. This person or persons should be on site, and the overall goal would be improving the quality and quantity of local production. In the middle- and long-term, it is necessary for most stations to upgrade equipment and have access to the kind of consultancy necessary to make them truly professional.
- Orhan Galjus is director of the Roma Media Program of the Open Society Institute in Budapest, Hungary.