Ten Years' Efforts to Change the Image of Roma in the Media
03 November 2006
One non-governmental organisation founded around the same time as the ERRC is the Hungarian Roma Press Center (Roma Sajtóközpont – RSK). Although undertaking a different mission, in many ways the two organisations have participated in similar developments over 10 years. Below, Gábor Bernáth, the head of the Roma Press Center reflects on their achievements and recent challenges.
ERRC: When was the Roma Press Center founded and what for?
Gábor Bernáth: RSK was founded in 1995. We published our first article in December 1995. Our main goal was to have Romani journalists writing about Roma, in addition to the Gadje [non- Roma – the editor] journalists. At that time, there were no Romani journalists who worked for daily newspapers, a few worked for magazines. Our first step was to find talented and interested Romani journalists, and we were fully aware of the risk that our articles might be weaker at the beginning because the people we have selected did not have experience. However, we never allowed this to drive us away from our main goal. In the beginning, we found our colleagues through personal contacts. The recruitment became institutionalised by the media internship program which we started in our first year. We selected the most talented and promising young Romani journalists out of 20 applicants. We not only aimed to train them to work at RSK, but for the mainstream media as well.
ERRC: How many young Roma had media education or media background in 1995? What were your selection criteria for your internship programme?
G.B.: The only condition we set out in the application was a high school diploma, because at that time there were very few Roma who attended or had finished higher education. Those who studied in universities came from families in which the price for quality education in most cases was assimilation. Many highly educated young people who came from a stigmatised, marginalised minority group had to give up their identity in order to become successful and accepted by the majority. This of course is not true of everybody, but out of 20 Roma people who graduated from university, there would be about five who would not hide their identity. Moreover, it was very difficult to find people who were particularly interested in Romani journalism. At that time, however, high media education was not a prerequisite to be a professional journalist and a number of Roma university graduates in other subjects were able to gain experience in mainstream media through the media internship program. Today, it is much more fashionable to be in the media, and the competition has become extremely tough.
ERRC: What was the main objective of RSK?
G.B.: The main goal was to change the image of Roma in the mainstream media by seeking to publish our articles in the mainstream media. Although we had good opportunities to obtain financial support to set up our own newspaper, I have always resisted such options and will continue to do so for as long as I am responsible for such decisions. I believe that the quality of our journalism is improved through competition with staff journalists of the mainstream media. When we succeed in placing an article in a mainstream newspaper, edging out a piece by an insider, we have demonstrated that we can com- pete with the best journalists in Hungary. This is what you have to fight for; this can measure your quality; this is how you can keep things under control. If you have your own newspaper, you can afford to write weaker articles, since the weaker articles would be published anyway. And this has been proven to be a good approach – 80% of our articles have been published in mainstream media in recent years.
ERRC: Why this mandate? What did the image of Roma look like 10 years ago?
G.B.: We first conducted research in 1996 about the image of Roma in the Hungarian media.2 Roma were associated with three main topics: poverty, crime and culture. Crime and culture each constituted about 25% of the articles, poverty covered 25-30% of the Roma-related news and the rest were various other topics. There were only a few discrimination cases covered by the media, although racial discrimination against Roma was as common as it is nowadays. Today, this ratio has radically changed; the most prevalent topic related to Roma in the media is discrimination. I believe that the RSK played a role in this. Mainstream media is much more sensitive to discrimination cases than ever before. Unfortunately, this is only true for national newspapers, since local ones are still more interested in poverty and cultural issues. The association between Roma and crime has almost disappeared. It is an interesting phenomenon that a discrimination case which occurs in a small village gets onto the national television and radio programmes, but local media often fail to report on such cases. This happens because local power interests have more direct influence on local media, but also because victims of discrimination are easily identifiable at the local level.
ERRC: Do you consider yourselves minority media or mainstream media?
G.B.: We are not a minority media outlet, but we are on the periphery of the mainstream media. I would also like to believe that we are a type of Roma advocacy group which works in the field of media. Roma media can serve a lot of functions for the community, but it is not very likely that a discussion recorded, for example, by the Rádió C3 will be aired by a national radio station. Otherwise, I find it very important that Roma have their own popular, good and strong magazines, radio and television channels, because they can secure the internal political publicity of the movement, and minority media will be surely stronger in cultural issues than majority media could ever be. Hungary and many other countries in the region are not intercultural or multicultural but monocultural, meaning that minorities' cultures remain on the periphery, and news about minority cultures tend to fall into the "exotic" or "easily forgettable" categories. We have not particularly emphasised cultural issues, as our focus is investigation of discrimination cases. Although the RSK works on matters related to one minority – the Roma – discrimination is not a minority issue because the presence of discrimination describes the quality of the state, and the quality of life, in a given country. Discrimination is perpetrated by Gadje so of course it is their business as well.
ERRC: What are the discrimination cases that occur most frequently
G.B.: A major part of the discrimination Roma face in Hungary arises from the dysfunction of public offices. Hungarian Roma are disadvantaged mainly because of the generally poor quality and poor functioning of public services and because of local power decisions which have discriminatory purpose or effect. The RSK did not want to accept that if a Romani man cannot rent a flat in Budapest it was solely his problem. Or if an advertisement says that an employer is looking for a white-skinned bricklayer, it would not be a problem of the Roma only that the state is ready to dispense with 5-8% of its workforce. I believe this situation is simply not acceptable. So our strength is that while a majority journalist sees such cases as isolated and unique, we can show how general and complex such an issue is. It may not be interesting for the mainstream media that Little Johnnie was automatically sent to a special school for mentally handicapped but it is interesting that his situation is typical for every fifth Romani child and that the state itself forces people to live on social benefit when it fails to provide quality education for 20% of its pupils.
ERRC: As you mentioned before, there is a huge competition in the media. How did you manage to get RSK articles placed in mainstream newspapers?
G.B.: The first eight or nine months were a real war. Mainstream editors raised the concern that a Romani media agency would not be objective in certain situations. We had to argue that non-Romani agencies might be biased too, but this does not seem to disturb anyone. We now provide regular short news for the public at large and offer longer and full articles to those newspapers which we know are willing to publish our stories. Unfortunately, we always provided our service free and were never able to make it pay-duty. The media is a huge business, and we have tried to earn money for our services, not only because we regularly provide articles to the public and to news agencies and media outlets, but also because we provide the mainstream media with our contacts, regardless of whether it is the victim of a given discrimination case or organisations in our network. So slowly, we gave out our full contact system and never received any financial compensation for it. Due to our financial crisis recently, we started consultations with mainstream radio stations, newspapers and magazines for middle-level honoraria for our services. We have calculated that, if the 10 or 12 media which regularly work with us were paying us adequately, this would cover approximately 80% of RSK's costs.
ERRC: Your organisation has never been afraid to bring up controversial cases. How many lawsuits have been initiated against the RSK?
G.B.: We had only one media lawsuit and we partially won that one: the hospital in Eger in north-western Hungary filed a suit alleging that the RSK harmed their reputation when its journalists wrote three articles about the existence of segregated maternity wards for Romani women. In our articles we made only two mistakes: we erroneously called the "young mother room" the maternity ward and we could not prove that there was a time when a "C" for cigány – Gypsy in Hungarian – was scratched into the entrance door of the room. In this case, we experienced how important loyalty is when the local county newspaper openly turned against the RSK questioning its credibility and humbly tried to serve the municipality's interest. This is because local papers are closer to local interests and power groups. In this regard, national media are much more independent.
ERRC: We have talked so far about media that cover political and public life issues. What about entertainment media? How would you define the role of tabloids?
G.B.: Tabloids have only recently begun covering Romani issues. The danger is that these magazines and also some television shows are more popular than regular news. Whereas we managed to find our tools to change the presentation of Roma in mainstream media, we realize the difficulty to do the same in tabloid television shows and print media. I believe that NGOs which defend the rights of Roma should be much more sensitive to the image of Roma in the media and should organise more actions. Tabloids have a tendency to show the "stupid Gypsy" character – which has been there since the time of the silent films – as this is one of the oldest and most common stereotypes and it sells well. I have to mention here that the question of the media image is a very delicate issue, which you have to balance wisely. If you introduce an image that people are not used to, the audience is willing to interpret it as an exception or propaganda. Take as an example the Bill Cosby Show in the US: This was a show about a very successful African American family, where the mum was a lawyer, the dad a doctor and they had two children studying at university. The show was very popular among white people too. A survey seeking to find out whether stereotypes about black people had changed as a result of the show revealed that a significant part of the interviewed people said that it just proved that the problems of blacks are created by the blacks themselves, and that if they worked hard like the Cosby family, they would not have any problems.
ERRC: So how can you find the balance in this?
G.B.: We have to see that this is an organisational and sociological question. Nobody is able to become a friend of every decision-maker in the media world or to depend upon their good will. So you have to combine services with pressure, for example by organising protests against anti- Romani shows. The ideal situation would be if there were enough Romani professionals in the media who could influence decisions about the selection and broadcasting of programs. I do not believe that mainstream media will learn any time soon to judge what is degrading and to start applying self-censorship. Another solution would be if the media could present many different Romani characters, so that it would be impossible to see only stereotypical images.
ERRC: What do you define as a major challenge in your work?
G.B: One lesson we have had to learn is that there is no war won forever. This means that, without permanent and regular pressure, the media would follow its old routine. In 1996-1997, in three out of four Roma-related articles, journalists failed to interview the affected Roma. Although this ratio has gradually improved, Roma are still not interviewed in local newspapers, when, for example, municipalities or local labour offices make statements about how many and what kind of programmes they have started for the benefit of Roma. And so, readers will hardly find out when such a programme involves only 10 people in a Romani settlement where 390 others have no job. We can not expect that a press conference could be organised in a Romani settlement to show the 390 unemployed people, so we have to find other ways to provide people with the general picture. This is an area where you have to be very loud to be heard. And in the course of such efforts, you have to use both legal action and other public pressure mechanisms. You also need to work in cooperation with other Roma rights organisations to achieve the highest possible effectiveness. You need to know about the legal background and you have to educate Romani youth so that the mainstream media cannot use the excuse of not having enough talented and educated Romani journalists. We have tried to improve the trust of Romani organisations in the mainstream media, and to foster the view that media also belong to them. We have tried to promote the notion that a Romani NGO might invite journalists not only for cultural events but also for field visits to Romani settlements. We have tried to encourage the view that one can influence the media. This means that these organisations should be prepared to come into conflict with local interest groups. They also have to be aware of the fact that politicians are still afraid of negative articles.
ERRC: How does the public atmosphere influence your work?
G.B.: I believe that the 2,500 news items that we have published so far are not enough to secure permanent changes. In order to achieve that, the civil rights movement has to grow stronger as well. We could publish hundreds of articles aiming to change the false image of Roma as criminals, but if organisations like the Roma Civil Rights Foundation or the Minority Ombudsman's office would not have been able to achieve prohibition of the identification of Roma suspects or criminal offenders by their ethnic background, our articles would not have been successful. If the public atmosphere would tolerate open anti-gypsyism, we would not be able to change the image of Roma through our articles only. Someone has to order this to stop. Due to the RSK pressure, there are more and more journalists on the editorial staff of the mainstream media who deal with Romani issues, conduct necessary background research, follow Roma related-news and build contacts with Roma. We wish that one day it will be embarrassing to publish Roma-related articles without Roma, to not have a Romani colleague on the staff, or to miss important news related to Roma just because the journalist has no Romani contact.
ERRC: The RSK celebrated its 10th Anniversary this year, so we congratulate you and wish you much strength and success for the future.
- Gábor Bernáth is the Director of the Hungarian Roma Press Center.
- Editor's note: See for further details Roma Rights 4/1999 at http://www.errc.org/cikk.php?cikk=1168.
- Editor's note: Radio C is the only Hungarian Romani radio.