Is the Czech media helping give Romanies a bad name?

Photo: Filip Jandourek

A survey out this week has put Romanies at the bottom of the ladder as the least popular minority in the Czech Republic. It is not for the first time that they hold this unenviable position, nor is it likely to be the last. So what makes the Romany minority so unacceptable in the eyes of the majority white population? According to the Czech government agency for social inclusion the media is partly to blame.

Photo: Filip Jandourek
The government agency for social inclusion has an uphill task in assisting the process of Romany integration in Czech society. Its number one enemy is widespread prejudice and the agency says that the Czech media add fuel to the fire in their reports on the Roma minority. It undertook a survey on how the Roma minority is presented by the Czech media and according to Martin Šimáček, the agency’s head, the results were not good.

“We did our absolute best to remain impartial in this matter. So we monitored reports in 19 media outlets involving the Roma minority for the duration of over a year. There were over 6,200 reports and two thirds of them related to crime stories in which the Roma were reported as the perpetrators. The ethnicity of the perpetrator is stated without good reason and it would often appear that this is what makes the news worthy of publishing – that it relates to Romany crime. Other topics covered were extremism against the Roma minority and housing problems – but very often the reports focused on the problems of coexistence i.e. that communities do not want Romanies in their midst. So we found very many stories that build a negative image of the Roma and very little else.”

Kumar Vishvanathan who has spent over 20 years in the Czech Republic helping the Roma minority integrate says this one-sided image of the minority is very unfair.

“I think that there are a lot of positive things about the Roma that do not get out and the media could do a better job in reporting on them. Many Romanies work. without the work of the Roma this telephone link would not work because they lay the cables, replace the cables, do all the digging work. There are a lot of Roma working in the car industry, but nobody speaks of them. There are a lot of university graduates among them. There is a positive change, a deep structural change happening within the Roma community but even so they are facing increasing hostility.”

Kumar Vishvanathan,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
The results of the CVVM survey on how the majority population views minorities reflect this fact. A full 78 percent of respondents expressed a negative stand towards the Roma minority, with only 4 percent showing sympathy towards them. Martin Šimáček says that, intentional or not, the present style of media reporting is extremely damaging to Romanies.

“Confirming this stereotype is the media concept of the “respectable Romany” which they sometimes bring their audiences. They report on Romany success stories in a manner that says –you see there are respectable Romanies in our midst and integration can happen. So it often happens that even positive stories backfire by emphasizing the stereotype that the majority of Romanies are not respectable.”

The government agency for social inclusion works in 28 towns and cities around the country. In some areas, such as north Bohemia, the friction is particularly high and the agency’s employees say that under strained circumstances reporting only part of a story – for instance getting only the view of the white majority on a problem –can spark serious social unrest. Kumar Vishwanathan says he has plenty of experience in how quickly racial hatred can be whipped up.

“This morning on my way to work I was at a bus stop and a young man confronted me and said politely but quite firmly can I have a word with you. So I said sure. He stepped close to me and said that yesterday his wife was attacked by some Romany youth and that this was the end and he didn’t want any more dialogue, he wanted to take action, to take matters into his own hands. And he said he was organizing a big demonstration against the Roma. I tried to engage in a dialogue with him by asking him if he had reported the incident to the police and he said there was no point in that because the police do not do anything. So I said, but we have to have some dialogue, the information should come out and one cannot take the law into one’s own hands because if one side does that then the other side will follow suit and it would be an escalating problem."

Photo: Filip Jandourek
"He was speaking in front of a big audience of people and a lot of them said he was right. They said to him when is your meeting, we will all come – so it was quite unpleasant for me. I was trying to say that there are people who do mischief in all communities all over the world and it is wrong to suggest that all Roma are bad and that it is important to solve each issue separately. Whether it is Roma or non-Roma, crime should be dealt with individually and one has to begin by reporting the crime and seeking help. You see, the tragedy is that I know all these people who were standing at the bus stop and I wouldn’t say that they all view the Roma as a negative community, but the fact that in these troubled times one guy can come along and whip up a frenzy among people and make them lose their minds is a big problem. Similarly the media can whip up a frenzy saying that the Roma or pensioners - or whoever - are the cause of all evil and you immediately have a critical situation.”

The government agency for social inclusion has addressed the Czech media with a request for cooperation in establishing a more balanced and more just picture of the Roma minority. In view of its presence in 28 towns and cities and close contacts with the locals it is offering its services as a mediator in getting both sides of a story where emotions are running high and also tips on what has been achieved in improving coexistence. Martin Šimáček hopes this initiative will bear fruit.

“Of course one of the reasons why an incident of any kind makes the news is that it is negative, shocking or critical. Negative stories and disasters make the news more often than reports on something good having been achieved, unless it is in some way remarkable. That plays a role, but also the fact that journalists are a representation of the majority population and the tendency to stereotype or pigeonhole people can appear there as well. The damage this can do is enormous. Sometimes a one-sided, unfair or incomplete report sets us back two years and destroys all that we have achieved in a given location. So all we are asking is –if you are a journalist make sure you are fair, make sure you get the whole picture and get everyone’s take on it to get to the core of the problem.”

Martin Šimáček,  photo: archive of Radio Prague
Many Romanies feel very bitter about being shown in a negative light and hundreds have given up hope of change leaving the country for Great Britain or Canada in search of a better life. Kumar Vishwanathan says that although by and large criticism is merited there are signs of positive change on the horizon.

“I think there is an element of truth in the criticism that the media has to do more - could do more. We have seen in the course of this year and last year some very negative, hysterical reporting by the media which amplified the prejudices against the Roma, presenting them as the cause of all the ills of society, the economic downslide and so on. I think that is not helping the country a lot. On the other hand, I wouldn’t paint a completely negative picture of the media. From what I see in the local media – here in the Ostrava region- it is clear that the media can do a good job. We have had quite a lot of responsible reporting by the Czech media – both the public and private media – on events, initiatives and activities of the Roma minority and of the Roma and Czechs doing things together. So we shouldn’t make the mistake of saying that the media as a whole is doing a bad job. We should also see that there are good practices in some parts of the country which can serve as an example to others.”