ROMEA: Countering Stereotypes and Building Bridges through Media and Education
"Our colleagues in journalism, as much as we, are still looking for a way to write about the Roma and about Roma-related issues in a way that is not too ethnic; in a way that is not colored by various prejudices and stereotypes," says Jarmila Balážová, co-founder and chair of Romea Civic Association, a Romani media and education organization.
"It is not at all easy to do," she elaborates. "It has only been since (the Velvet Revolution in) 1989 that Czech journalists have been writing about the minorities. Even we are guilty of stereotyping sometimes, for instance, when we want to balance out a negative image of the Romani minority that continues to prevail in the Czech media. So sometimes we emphasize the ethnicity of a personality when it should not be done. But we do it to spread the word that Roma exist who are not known, and who, for example, represent this country on a national level in sports."
Jarmila Balážová is a woman in demand; a woman with charisma, vision and an uncanny amount of energy. She is an award-winning journalist and the driving force behind a number of programs and publications, including Czech Radio's Romani radio broadcast, "O Roma vakeren," which she founded and the Romani monthlies Amaro Gendalos andRomano voďi, of which she is editor-in-chief. Balážová is also a producer atCzech Radio 6, the former broadcasters of Radio Free Europe in Czech.
Balážová established Romea in 2002, along with a group of others, following a training of young Romani journalists, offered by the Dženo Association. Zdeněk Ryšavý, who is now the executive director, was also one of the co-founders.
Romea's mission is to "motivate and involve predominantly young Roma in civic life as well as to contribute to better relations between the minorities and the majority population in the Czech Republic."
Romea runs a press service as well as an internet news server, which reports on events from the world of the Roma, and is, according to Romea's annual report, currently the country’s most-visited Romani server. The server regularly broadcasts TV news reports on ROMEA.tv in both, Romani and Czech language. The monthly Romano voďi, which Romea publishes, provides coverage of current events from the world of the Roma as well as articles on Romani literature, music, history, language. A portion of the magazine is directed at young Roma, who can find pages that profile active and successful Roma and a two-page section “Through Our Eyes” focusing on "youth" themes. Romea also produces “10 Minutes”, a talk show which profiles interesting Romani guests.
I had the opportunity in late August to talk with Ryšavý and Balážová at their office about their work and Romea's role in the Czech media landscape.
"I think that the vast majority of the media, in fact nearly all media, continue to reinforce various stereotypes concerning the minorities," maintains Balážová. "I must say that some media do it less, others more. A huge difference can be seen between those who have been dedicated to these issues long-term, using an analytical lens. The result depends on who is writing and who is in the leadership at the particular media outlet."
When asked to discuss the mission of Romea, Balážová explains that providing information, but also monitoring the press for factual accuracy are some of the key roles her organization plays.
"We bring information to the Roma themselves," Balážová says. "Our role rests in that we think that if the Romani community is not well informed, the members will not be very politically engaged; that they will not be able to defend themselves well. That is the reason we provide information. And we write about notable personalities for a more balanced (public image of the Roma)."
"We also try to bring opinions of the Roma on the issues, because white Czech journalists never or seldom ask Roma for their opinions," continues Balážová. "If it weren't for us at Romea, who put in the effort and approach a number of Roma to obtain their commentary so that Czech News Agency and others can use them as sources, the angle would never change."
"I get very upset," chimes in Ryšavý, "when we have to correct journalists when they write nonsense they don't doublecheck. They go somewhere where conflict is occurring and usually ask only those from the side of the white Czechs. That has happened to us many times. And the way the articles are framed because only the whites are asked, makes the Roma instantly into the perpetrators. Then when we collect quotes by the Roma and contact newspapers, asking them to include this information, they usually write us back that their organizations are objective, that they could not interview any Roma because they could not find any. That is absolute nonsense."
When asked what he finds most rewarding about his work in Romani media, Ryšavý says he enjoys introducing successful Roma to the public. "It is interesting," he reflects, "that these types of articles are not of interest to majority media outlets. In general, the media write about what is wrong, not what is positive. We try to correct that by trying to place articles with a positive spin in mainstream media."
Balážová says that occasionally positive coverage does appear, especially on Czech Television, and especially about children. She, however, points out that Roma-related topics are often viewed as their own separate domain.
"Often both, the public and the journalists, understand Romani-themed issues to be separate from the rest," Balážová explains. "When the issue is something that has to do with discrimination, exclusion, stealing or looting, Roma will be written about. But when it is something that is unexpected, for instance help is provided to flooded communities by the Roma and not just along ethnic lines, there is not too much interest."
"I think it is the main weakness of Czech media," Balážová asserts, "that they perceive the Roma divided from Czech society and not part of it. This idea tends to always be emphasized."
Regarding dreams for the future, Balážová jokes: "World peace." But then gets more serious, describing how over the last eight years of its existence, Romea has always struggled with funding and has had to rely on volunteers, in addition to the core paid staff.
Balážová explains that, even at the price of getting funding cut, her organization is critical. Because of that, she says, they have gotten "smacked across the fingers regarding taking on new projects," as she calls it.
"The nonprofit sector is very much affected by this phenomenon," Balážová continues. The Romani organizations which are dependent on state funding, she says, "will not do anything that could go against the government or some politicians, who are offensive or anti-Roma. Our experience is that a whole lot of Romani nonprofit organizations, which are effective, which have lots of money, because they know how to apply for it, because they are well-established, will not ever join any demonstration or protest at all, even in support of Natalka (the two-year-old Romani victim of a molotov cocktail attack carried out by neo-Nazis last year)."
"It would be great if we could work in a more or less stable atmosphere," she says. "It would be great to find partners in the media or other relevant institutions for our educational and media-related projects."
Ryšavý agrees: "I would like Romea to become more financially stable. Another distant and more difficult-to-achieve goal is that of eventually cutting ourselves off from state finances, to obtain funding from other sources and not be dependent on grants, because that is very binding."
As a white woman involved in advocating for equal rights for minorities, I was curious about how Ryšavý wrestles with the fact that he is white in an influential role in a minority organization.
"I have an opinion about that," jumped in Balážová, who is a Roma. "He has been very active working on these issues, so he has already gone through a trial period when some people may have doubted his role here. I have to say that he has never tried to push himself to the foreground, only the last two years he has agreed to appear in the media, but only if I or another Roma from Romea is there."
"It is exactly the same," she continues, "as when a Roma has to prove him- or herself in a non-Romani company. In the same manner, a non-Roma must prove himself in a Romani organization. But from the beginning, we have declared, and quite loudly, that we will have non-Roma working here as well. Our mission is to improve mutual relationships, so we have to build on the fact that we can work well together."
As a white person, closely familiar with issues affecting the Roma, a person like Ryšavý has the unique position of serving as a bridge between the two groups. Ryšavý says he can influence the majority population's perceptions of the Roma by challenging his white friends when they say prejudicial things and engaging them in a conversation.
"It does work," Ryšavý explains. "At most you can influence your circle of friends, which is maybe two hundred people. It is possible. But the media influence people's opinions more." That is why Romea's work of bringing information from the perspective of the Roma to the public is so crucial.
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