Czech journalists criticize paper for article about Romani actress's alleged debts
Yesterday, 1 April, the front page of the Czech daily Mladá fronta DNES and the main page of its online news server iDNES.cz featured an article by reporter Artur Janoušek with the headline "Star Romani actress never paid for apartment" ("Romská herecká hvězda neplatila za byt"). While the vast majority of those posting comments to news server iDNES.cz were enthusiastic about this news and posted racist comments about it, some journalists are horrified by the lengths to which this daily, previously considered "serious", has gone by publishing the piece - many still cannot believe this was not actually an April Fool's joke or that the paper can have been serious about publishing it.
After receiving this criticism, editors changed the online headline to "Award-winning star of the film 'The Way Out' owes back rent" ("Oceněná hvězda filmu Cesta ven dluží na nájemném"). Over the past two years, news server iDNES.cz has improved its record with respect to reporting on Romani issues with the exception of their blogs, which have long been occupied by hateful bloggers who have won various awards regardless of their bigotry.
However, as far as the overall direction of the paper goes, after a recent change in its owner, Editor-in-Chief, and the departure of several other editors and managers, a significant trend away from serious journalism and a tendency toward tabloid journalism is visible in its output. It was evidently only a matter of time before these tendencies were projected onto Romani issues as well.
While we continue to hope that yesterday's article was merely an April Fool's joke and that Klaudia Dudová was in on it, printing this article has nevertheless sent iDNES.cz back by several years when it comes to serious journalism - specifically, to the days when it was no problem for this news server to reprint an invented hoax from the Parlamentní listy tabloid about a non-existent Romani political party allegedly being robbed by its non-existent Romani treasurer. Today, however, the roles are reversed, and it is now Parlamentní listy - and not just them - who are happily reprinting this news item from iDNES.cz without verifying it.
The following is a selection of the responses made to this peculiar media move:
According to the Editor-in-Chief of the RESPEKT weekly, Erik Tabery, this is a case of textbook racism. "First I believed this was an April Fool's joke when people started sharing it here, but then I looked at the front page of the print edition and it's really there. This is textbook racism. However, it is helping to sell the paper - I see the enthusiasm already, people are thinking 'Gotcha!' This is a newspaper which once broke the story on the theft of billions of crowns, but it is now devoting its front page to the rental history of a single woman, who, moreover, is never even given the opportunity to speak in the piece," Tabery posted to Facebook. News server Respekt.cz has written that it is interested in whether the paper's next front-page headline will read "Jewish pensioner travels on public transport for two weeks with expired pass".
Kateřina Čopjaková responds similarly on the Hatefree.cz website in an article called "The Harsh April Fool's Day of Mladá fronta DNES" ("Ostrej Apríl Mladé Fronty DNES"). "We must acknowledge that this is the kind of courageous humor that we do not anticipate from a daily like Mf DNES, which balances betwen serious journalism and tabloid journalism," she writes, referencing the April Fool's Day date of the article's publication. "At a time when anti-corruption police have arrested more suspects at the Na Homolce Hospital over its problematic public tenders, when the bombing of Yemen is underway, and when a large windstorm is threatening the Czech Republic, to dedicate this kind of space to the fact that an actress who is also Romani hasn't paid for an apartment is genuinely 'alternative'," she notes, going on to say that such articles belong on the pages of a tabloid "where they will be writing about [Czech celebrities and their relatives] as well as others who have gone into debt, not in the 'most-read serious daily', as that media outlet defines itself."
News server Britské listy has published a piece by Jan Dvořák on the issue. "The essential message of the article for the average reader is nothing less than that Romani people are all the same, and even when you give them a chance, even when they are famous and perform in a film, they will disappoint you all the same and not pay their rent, so they all deserve to be tarred with the same brush after all. The fact that iDNES has put this article on its front page and not forgotten to mention the 'Romani' origin of those involved is just par for the course - they have long taken this approach to the problem," writes Dvořák in an article entitled "News server iDNES is racist as always" ("Server iDNES rasistický jako obvykle").
News server ECHO24.cz goes even further - its article by Deputy Editor-in-Chief Jan Dražan calls the article incitement to racial intolerance. "This move by Mf DNES can be characterized by one word: Racism. This can't be written about in any other way. To do so would be to capitulate to political correctness, and we are sewing ourselves into that sack under pressure from those around us and this strange, vaguely defined atmosphere that dictates what should and should not be. This is about reporting on things proportionately, not committing incitement, not highlighting stereotypes. Among other things, this means giving matters the space they deserve. Does a debt of CZK 25 000 (!) deserve to cover half the front page of the biggest 'serious' daily? Only those who use the Roma as a pretext for their own frustrations, or those who work at Mf DNES, could possibly say YES to that," he writes. "This is a sample of racism in its crystallized form, this is what the Criminal Code characterizes as 'incitement to racial intolerance'."
The Open Society Fund Prague has republished the front page article on its Facebook profile with a laconic commentary and the question: "This is really not how we imagine high-quality journalism. What do you think?"
On the Facebook profile of Antifascist Action, which has almost 190 000 fans, a collage has been posted with a question for readers: "Which headline is fictional?" The reader gets to choose between the headlines "Romani star of the film 'The Way Out' owes back rent" and "White actor and producer Jiří Pomeje owes 5.5 million". Antifa believes there are no limits to the obsession of the Czech press with ethnicity.
Most of the people posting about the article to news server iDNES.cz, however, are enthusiastic about the piece. Its author has met their tastes exactly.
The administrators of the online discussion pages there seem to have gone on vacation, judging by the following posts that we have been able to read there:
Mf DNES responded to the criticism by other media on 2 April, publishing its standpoint on the issue to its Facebook profile along with an e-mail on the issue from Editor-in-Chief Jaroslav Plesl. "We strictly reject any allegations of racism," the paper writes.
"I first learned of this news item at the editorial meeting on Tuesday and listened to the pitch that Janoušek's text be the opener for our Wednesday edition. I disagreed with that, because I am not of the opinion that an article about a rent defaulter meets the parameters for a Mf DNES lead article. At the same time, however, I did agree that the article belonged somewhere on the front page, because I am convinced it perfectly relates to the award-winning film in which Klaudia Dudová created the main role. The film is about Romani people, which is why it also does not bother me that we are writing about her in the headline as a star Romani actress. If someone has a problem with that, all I can say is that she is in fact a star Romani actress. That's the reality," Plesl wrote in the e-mail to his subordinates.
"In journalism I stick to the principle that our main task is to describe reality. We should not conceal anything, we should not distort anything, we should not embellish anything. If we had failed to print Janoušek's piece, we might have been whitewashing reality for a while, but the problem would not disappear. Among other reasons, that is why I am convinced that it was the correct decision to put the piece on the front page. Janoušek produced a completely standard piece of journalism and I see no reason why we should be ashamed of it," Plesl writes.
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