Tomáš Bystrý began at ROMEA 15 years ago, today he decides what news Czech Radio will broadcast
As of March of this year Tomáš Bystrý, an ambitious 28-year-old Romani man, has been working at Czech Radio in the very prestigious position of news editor. During a hot afternoon this past August we interviewed him about his new job and much more.
Q: Tomáš, we first met years ago in the House of National Minorities where, at the age of 15, you were moderating an event called "The Minorities Among Us". It was clear that you have a talent for being a moderator. Is that something you wanted to do from childhood?
A: I wanted to and I still love being a moderator to this day, for example, at the KHAMORO festival. I had the good fortune to attend a primary school in Nusle [a quarter of Prague]. I was taught by Mr Jiří Luka, a brilliant educator and an advocate of what is called project-based learning, which is when you learn to present your own opinions, to express yourself, to create your own school projects. Mr Luka even won the prestigious Golden Amos (Zlatý Ámos) award for the best-loved Czech teacher. He greatly favored me, I don't know if it was because I am Romani, but I rather believe that was not the reason. At least twice a year we put together a theatrical performance for our parents and the school, and I always played the main role, I always moderated the school assemblies, and I soon became a kind of star of the school. Ultimately I became the chair of the children's parliament for all of Prague, which is functioning to this day.
Q: At some point you were personally contacted by Jarmila Balážová, who was the chair of ROMEA at the time.
A: Yes, I was in the ninth grade and Jarka even offered me my own column. I still remember that my first article was about the fact that back in those days it was possible to apply to just one high school. I did not hesitate and as a 15-year-old I asked for an interview with the then-Education Minister, Petra Buzková - I didn't get a personal meeting with her but I sent her questions and she answered me. Jarka greatly supported me in the beginning and encouraged me, that was great. When I was still in primary school Iveta Demeterová contacted me to moderate a program for the online Romani radio station Radio Rota. She always said I was too wordy, that I was turning it into something like a detective series - the originally 20-minute program became a 45-minute show.
Q: When I saw you at the age of 15 you seemed like an "old soul" to me. You did the moderating as if you were a 40-year-old, serious professional.
A: [laughs] Well, you're right - I even dressed like that, I had one leather jacket that I really loved... I had a problem with that until recently, everbody kept saying I was horribly earnest for my age, grave, taking myself terribly seriously. It's true, that's how I was. Today it's the opposite, my girlfriend says I still behave like a child (smiles).
Q: After primary school you headed for college preparatory school. In the beginning you were not a star there.
A: The transition from primary school, where I was a star and got all "A's" between first and eighth grade, was painful. My grades deteriorated at prep school and I took it really hard. At home I had been strictly raised to believe that all top grades were essential. When I got a bad grade in secondary school, I completely, slowly broke down. However, I ultimately dealt with it and began to be active again, I even established the class magazine, which later became the school magazine, and I was the boss. Then exams came, there was not much time, and what's more, I led the editorial team so horribly that it soon began to fall apart, I wanted to have the last word about all of it and I did not give much room to the others. Certainly puberty was partially to blame, but I am a bit of a self-centered type.
Q: After all your activities it's no wonder you applied to study journalism. Did you get accepted the first time? Traditionally the biggest onrush of applicants is to that discipline.
A: Yes, I did, to this day I don't comprehend it, but I succeeded. My second choice for a major was pedagogy and I was accepted there also, but journalism was my priority. After I completed my Bachelor's degree I completed my Master's at Metropolitan University. I had a big advantage because during prep school I had completed ROMEA's Media Course. What was brilliant there was the vocal preparation with Aleš Vrzák, who is the director here at the radio, and the commentator Libor Dvořák was super, as was the sociologist Jiřina Šiklová. During my study of journalism I had an enormous advantage compared to the other students when it came to practice. For example, we were tasked with interviewing somebody, and for most of the other students it was their first-ever experience with doing that, but I was excellently prepared thanks to my media training and my writing for ROMEA.
Q: You were already working during your studies?
A: Yes, first I wrote for the magazine Romano Voďi, then beginning in 2010 I made extra money at the radio, in the Romanes-language editorial team. I also attempted to work for Czech Television, in the news division, but there was a rather strange atmosphere there that didn't suit me, and so ultimately in 2013 I landed in the news division of Czech Radio as an editor of the news reports. That means you're in the newsroom, it's like the "brain" of the news reporting, and you write the daily news, you call people when you need their reactions to developments or to arrange interviews - you're basically a reporter. As of March I am now working in a new management position as news editor, officially the post is called "Newsroom Coordinator".
Q: What does that job involve?
A: The news editor tasks the other editors and reporters with what needs to be processed from the wire services, whom to call about a certain issue, and actively creates the content of the news. Then I have to check the form of the pieces, comment on them when something needs to be redone. Together with the broadcast editor we are basically responsible for what ultimately goes out on the airwaves.
Q: That's a heavy responsiblity, because if something goes wrong with the news...
A: Then not just the author of the news hears about it, but I do too. Naturally, things do go wrong, but people learn by error. Radio is a terribly fast medium, you must react quickly and under the pressure of time, mistakes sometimes happen. Nothing has gone dramatically wrong yet. I was a bit afraid to take the job, it was a big dilemma. I had always wanted to be either "on camera" or behind the microphone. However, over time I began to say to myself that I would also enjoy the job of editor, or any position in which I could make decisions about something. However, I decidedly did not anticipate that such an opportunity would come so soon. I am rather young for this job, I came into a collective of people who have much more experience on the job than I do. It's hard to tell a foreign correspendent who has actually been a died-in-the-wool radio person for many years how to do something, but I've already learned how to work with this, I'm doing my best to behave in a matter-of-fact way, and if I don't like a news report yet, I simply will not approve it for broadcast. That is my responsibility, after all.
Q: Isn't your current position, from the perspective of your career, a bit of a dead-end street? For me personally it's a bit of a pity that you are not on television, for example.
A: I don't believe that this job has to be for the rest of my life. However, it was a big offer that one just doesn't refuse. For the time being, I am actually enjoying the radio.
Q: What about your other job options? Does Czech Radio have an absolute exclusive on you?
A: I don't believe they absolutley "own" me, but I am an employee of the radio station. Nevertheless, I could probably do something in television, for example, but there isn't time for it. I am glad to be where I am for now. It's an enormous experience for me, a completely different type of work. I've had to learn how to tell people they were doing something badly.
Q: How do you view the position of Romani people in media coverage from your professional perspective as an editor?
A: If I could, I would prefer to base what I say on an analysis and not just speak from my subjective perspective, but unfortunately there is no other way to answer you at this moment. To speak very intuitively, right now the refugee issue is "winning" media coverage. If I had to compare the current situation with what happened around the Šluknov foothills five years ago, then you will certainly recall that back then every time people brawled in a pub somewhere and a Romani guy was involved it was reported by the media, while the hundreds of other places involving such brawls were considered of no significance because no Roma were there, it was total hysteria - I believe the migration crisis has partially pushed "Romani" subject matter to the back burner. It's just the topic of the pig farm [on the Romani genocide site] at Lety u Písku that is still alive now.
Q: What is your opinion on mentioning people's ethnicity in various news reports?
A: I have a simple principle I follow. If ethnicity does not play an essential role in the story, there is no reason to report it. If somebody robs a hardware store, it's actually all the same whether the culprit was Romani or not. That's not censorship, as some people believe. If a person's identity is of news value, then we report it, but I don't know why we should go out of our way to keep some stereotypical ideas alive in the news. In that respect I must say that Czech Radio absolutely honors the code of ethics. For that reason, I had to ask myself, even in the case of the pizzeria in Žatec [where a Romani man died] to what degree ethnicity played a role... I had to deal with that at the radio when the other editors asked me whether I believed it played a role or not. I was more cautious, because there were many things about the story that were unclear. Unfortunately, that is still the case to this day.
Q: Can you now, from your position as news editor, do something for your fellow Romani people? Do you even have such an ambition?
A: I feel that the fact that Romani people are working in the media is immeasurably important. Richard Samko [at Czech Television] also does not report primarily about Romani people, he reports on transportation and he does an excellent job. In his case, viewers don't just see a reporter, but also a Romani man, which I believe is an essential contribution. However, as I say, what is essential is that Romani people are working in the media at all, that they are physically present there. I'll give you an example from the time when I was not yet an editor: A regional news reporter was doing a piece about Romani weddings. Absolutely everywhere, instead of the term "Romani", she used the word "gypsy". She alleged that it was part of the context, that "gypsy wedding" is just a phrase. Her intentions may have not have been bad ones, but I went to the editor and expressed my categorical disagreement with it. If we had been discussing something in historical context, then maybe, but today, under no circumstances is that the vocabulary we use. The word "gypsy" is, according the Institute for Czech Language, a pejorative term, and a media outlet like Czech Radio cannot afford to use it. The editor called the reporter and told her to redo the reportage. The fact that I, as a Romani man, was able at that moment to explain to the editor the actual situation with the terms "Romani" and "gypsy" - that was absolutely vital.
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