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Czech reporter's articles promote anti-Romani stereotypes through half-truths and manipulation

9.11.2015 21:49
One of Martin Pjentak's anti-Romani articles on iDNES.cz.
One of Martin Pjentak's anti-Romani articles on iDNES.cz.

The Czech daily Mladá fronta DNES and its Internet portal iDNES.cz have published a series of articles describing the development to date of a project in the town of Přerov spearheaded by local councilor Jiří Kohout, who has also been chair of the Public Affairs (VV) party since last year. The aim of the project was supposed to be (and still is) the employment of persons who have long been unemployed.

Without explaining the direct connection, Kohout is quoted in the articles as automatically discussing Romani people and claiming that he estimates that more than 90 % of the Roma in Přerov are unemployed. One of the articles refers to the sad results the project achieved at the very beginning.

The authors of the project are said to have run up against the immeasurably inventive creativity of the unemployed in Přerov, who are said to endlessly complain of non-existent health problems. In order to avoid work, these people allegedly will do just about anything, according to the articles.

At the beginning of October, reporter Martin Pjentak, the author of one such piece, followed it up with another article reporting that of 12 people hired, only nine made it to their first day of work through the project, two of whom, quoted by Pjentak, do state their determination and willingness to work (which makes it all the more regrettable that the reporter does not provide any direct quotations from those who allegedly refused to work). Setting aside the alarming fact that this is the "nth" article in a row in this series (which has absolutely resigned itself to failure when it comes to ascertaining either the experiences or at least the opinions of the "other side", or at a minimum the opinions of any other entities involved, such as the Labor Office), then actually becomes interesting to study more closely how Pjentak handles facts, specifically, the language he uses to frame them.

This reporter has long focused on Romani people in Přerov, but the information he reports in his pieces is perpetually one-sided. Even though Pjentak roughly sticks to the format of a news item in terms of the content he communicates, he also uses expressive turns of phrase and connotations ("a gang rampage", "a powder keg", etc.) and maneuvers various concepts that are never further defined, such as "long-term unemployed", "minority" and "Roma" - categories that are never completely contiguous but which, through their tendentious contextual interconnection, covertly indicate that this is all de facto about one topic and one topic only, clearly demonstrating that these articles embody a standard form of journalistic manipulation.

The reporter - perhaps even inadvertently - is following a well-established journalistic model by taking up the issue in this way. The image of the Roma established through his articles bolsters a broad range of customary stereotypes about them, beginning with idleness and parasitism and ending with "bad habits" and "lack of discipline."

The constant refrain of his pieces is that the broadest possible range of authorities are assuming the role of disciplinarians and educators of the "Romani community", whether they be social workers, supervisors monitoring "whether [the Roma] go to work on time and sober", Pjentak's Hero No. 1 Jiří Kohout, or the Romani field assistants deployed by the municipality who "instill order among the locals" with single-minded determination. "They have defeated the rampages of the children's gangs and solved unrest at the social residential hotels," Pentak claims in his article entitled "Přerov wants more Romani assistants".

This series is carefully, slowly building up the image of a town facing what is all but a natural disaster, one that has been successfully averted thanks to the ant-like diligence of these individuals. The Roma are described as gradually "learning discipline" and as even being successfully prevented from "clustering in groups".

The broadest possible range of allusions (and blind spots) relying on collective stereotypes ("as anticipated, not even three people showed up for work") alternate in his pieces with turns of phrase such as "teams of aggressive Romani children", "terrorizing gangs", "Romani ghettos that do not create a good image for the town", etc. The journalist's position on the issue of minorities on the periphery of society and on poverty itself can be assumed from the formulations in another of his articles, headlined "Expel the troublemakers, homeless to the poorhouse", which includes, among other things, descriptions of how locals "are bothered by the homeless begging and imposing themselves" on them, or selected quotes like "Some detention facility would be useful for these people because they hang around polluting the streets - and they don't smell good," or "One local councilor told us a group of homeless is living on the banks of the Bečva near the Kazeta building. They even set a dog after them there."

Pjentak's articles very often come up short because, while they may present some significant facts, he does not undertake a detailed analysis of any of them. So, for example, in his last article about the employment project, when we learn that the unemployed are being offered just minimum wage, there is no discussion of the fact that such an amount of money can hardly be expected to function as a motivating factor for those involved - the author contents himself with reporting the employers' indefinite promise that their wages could increase after a certain amount of time.

The article also states that the unemployment rate in Přerov is the highest in the entire region (8 %), but the reader will learn nothing of the causes of that unemployment rate, nor of the ethnic distribution of the unemployed save for the "estimated number" of unemployed Roma. Both Kohout and Pjentak approach this with the suspicion that the area is combating some sort of intentional, unacknowledged migration effort - Romani people are allegedly moving there with the vision of more easily accessing social welfare in a region of high unemployment.

One proof of the validity of that theory is allegedly the fact that in the local residential hotels there is a suspiciously high number of people who have no local connections. Specific numbers or proof, of course, are nowhere to be found, and information as to how many of the people in the residential hotels are foreign nationals is also lacking.

The height of Pjentak's professional failure is that his articles raise obvious contradictions that he does nothing to resolve. He manages, on the one hand, to describe dog excrement and squalor in a park where "white" residents are allegedly afraid to go because of interethnic tensions, while on the other hand quoting the owner of a residential hotel who praises the cleanliness of his Romani tenants:  "A cleaning woman takes care of the cleanliness of the common areas, the tenants clean their rooms themselves. I must say that with the Roma there are no problems in that regard. They keep their rooms clean, there aren't any other complications with them. It's worse with the whites, whether it's their behavior or keeping order."

Instead of confronting the local councilor with this, or at least asking the Romani tenants themselves for their opinion, Pjentak contents himself with other statements. At a different point in the piece he quotes the same landlord's perspective on Romani people's interest in work:  "It is customarily said of them that they don't want to work, but guys from our property regularly visit me, as do guys from the neighboring residential hotels, and ask if I know of anyone hiring. They say that when they go somewhere on their own nobody will hire them. Whenever I need help with anything, all I have to do is ask and the guys pick up the shovels without saying a word and get to work."

As a final example, here are two claims from that article about "gangs of rampaging Romani children". While Kohout calls the situation very dramatic and "practically the outbreak of war", at another place in the article the reporter quotes Deputy Sherriff Kořínek as saying:  "After we received information about problems in this locality, we beefed up our patrol activity. The local police also contacted some parents. They did not record any extreme disruptions of public order. We can't be there 24 hours a day, so it's possible that conflicts might still occur between the majority and minority here."

Pjentak makes no further comment on these statements, which basically contradict each other. He does not confront them with one another or seek the origin of such diametrically opposed assessments of the situation.

His overall journalistic approach completely fulfills all the parameters that were so precisely documented in Czech journalism back in 1999 by the linguist Jiří Homoláč in his collection called "Police Blotter!" ("A ta černá kronika!") Pjentak's work clearly demonstrates the basic role played by extra-linguistic factors, extra-textual factors, and language itself on linguistic behavior during the process of this reporting, which involves anchoring claims with pre-existing steretoypes. 

Adéla Gálová, translated by Gwendolyn Albert
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Aktuality, Analýzy, informování o Romech, manipulace



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