[This post appeared May 25 on TOL's "Roma Blog"]
BRATISLAVA – It started out this morning as a café breakfast with the press, for the European Roma Rights Center to introduce its range of litigation, advocacy and research to the handful of Slovak media even interested in Roma issues.
The chat, though, led inexorably to the role these reporters themselves – and especially, their less-empathetic colleagues – play in shaping harsh Slovak attitudes toward Roma, a.k.a. “the Gypsies.” For me, it also revealed the need here for what some call “human rights-based journalism.”
One reporter opened eyes with his calculation that of the 15 journalists in his office, “thirteen are racist.” Another admitted, “We live in a racist world, and my company is absolutely racist.”
This is no surprise to anyone living in Eastern Europe, where you’re hard-pressed to find any minority on the entire continent more harassed than the estimated 8 million to 12 million Roma.
Yet this is relevant today in Slovakia, on the eve of June 12 elections. Following in the footsteps of neighboring Hungary and its elections last month, the Roma question is once again an irresistible platform for parties pandering to a public ready to scapegoat minorities for their frustrations with the whole post-Communist transition. And oh, by the way, both countries are now members of the European Union — an exclusive club of European democracies.
More notoriously, the ruling coalition’s far-right partner, the Slovak National Party, produced billboards featuring a bare-chested, obviously Romani man, heavily tattooed and gold chain draped around his neck. Beneath, the slogan: “So that we don’t feed those who don’t want to work.” (It’s since been revealed that the photo was, in face, digitally altered for dramatic effect.)
Defending the billboard, one SNP official creatively – but unconvincingly – accused critics of being the real racists: after all, they were the ones who assumed the man was a Gypsy.
Beyond the campaign, the Slovak public is fed a steady diet of reports on Roma criminality, joblessness, violence and welfare abuse, not to mention seamier stories, like the trafficking of women.
Over breakfast, ERRC staff appealed for “fair” reporting.
“There’s some balanced reporting, but the really biased, sensational reporting is what gets most of the attention,” says Tara Bedard, the ERRC programs director. “Reporting should reflect both sides of an issue, a voice from the community itself, a rights-based perspective – to counter what’s out there.”
The assembled reporters, though, described how tough it can be to make the case to editors for why to approach stories with greater sensitivity, or also pursue positive Roma stories, or report more critically about far-right demonstrations. Or even why the majority should care about the state of its Roma minority – as a “litmus test” for Slovak democracy, values and respect for human rights.
This discussion had me thinking back to the first training I did in this region, almost four years ago: with the Romani journalists of the Roma Press Agency in Kosice, the postcard-perfect city in eastern Slovakia. The eastern half of the country is also where most of its half-a-million Roma reside – about 10 percent of the entire population.
At RPA, I watched a bare-bones staff work to get out coverage of their community, in Slovak, English and Romani. I also saw them do something that opened my mind to the Roma reality. It was their feature program on television, “So vakeres?” – or in Romani, What are you saying?
At first I thought it might be a “fair and balanced” program on Roma issues, to offer the public an alternative to the generally one-sided reporting that perpetuates some of the worst Roma stereotypes. Wrong. This was a half-hour program that portrayed Roma unfailingly in a positive light.
My very American take on this was: Wait, if you’re only showing the other side, isn’t that, um, nothing more than pro-Roma propaganda? I’ll never forget what the RPA chief, Kristína Magdolenová, told me. I don’t remember verbatim, so I’ll paraphrase:
You don’t understand. The hatred has been planted so deep, there’s no space for high-minded, Western-liberal, even-handedness in broadcasting. The Roma are so beaten down by society’s perception of them, many have themselves developed low esteem for their own identity and peoplehood.
With that in mind, said Magdolenová, the RPA target audience was primarily the Roma themselves: to remind them of their humanity. But the second target audience was equally striking: the ordinary Slovaks genuinely curious about Roma culture, and those who in fact have some warm feelings for the Roma – or, at least for their Roma neighbor or colleague, past or present.
In a battle for Slovak hearts and minds, it was hard to argue with her rationale. It made sense.
Back at the breakfast, everyone understood there is no “magic wand” to resolve any of these issues. However, I suggested the possibility of some sort of journalism training that would invite Slovak reporters and editors to a workshop, explain the need for historical context, region-wide context, exploration of root causes, fairness and balance, etc. – then show them how to produce all these things.
No, of course not every editor would show up. And there’s no way to force them to. But I had one possible response – name and shame: “Then you could also write about the training itself, including those publications that declined the invitation. That would say something about their values.”