Czech Television journalist Richard Samko: Why I don't mention ethnicity in my reporting
Richard Samko first came to the attention of the Czech public in 2001, when he and Nora Fridrichová filmed an investigative report on British immigration controls at Prague's Ruzyně airport at a time when large numbers of Romani people were leaving the Czech Republic and emigrating to Britain and Canada. Back then the Czech Foreign Minister went so far as to call him a liar. Now Richard Samko (age 33) is a member of Czech Television's inner circle of reporters contributing to the station's main news show, "Události". In addition, he also records 10-minute interviews for Romea.tv from time to time where he speaks with guests who are, as he himself says, "ordinarily out of the ordinary".
Q: What did you film today, Ríša?
A: The hockey championships. Tomorrow the Czech Republic and Slovakia compete for the finals. I filmed an interview with Mr Brzobohatý's family.
Q: Wait, you're losing me… The actor Radoslav Brzobohatý?
A: Sure. He's in a "mixed" Czech-Slovak marriage and is a big hockey fan, so I wanted to find out what it will be like for them at home during the game, who will root for whom. I found out that Ms Brzobohatá will, understandably, root for the Slováks and her husband naturally for the Czech team. In the end, however, they agreed that whichever team wins is the one they will root for in the finals together - either the Czechs or the Slovaks.
Q: That's at least a "relaxing" topic after everything the news has been covering the last few days on the David Rath scandal, right?
A: You bet.
Q: What do you think of the new format for Czech Television's main news broadcast? It started in April - did any of those changes affect your everyday work?
A: We started the new work system long before the new format for the news was launched, around October, when Zdeněk Šámal returned to manage the news division. Transformation of the news was one of the main aims of our general director, Petr Dvořák. We started developing our contributions more creatively and doing better graphics work. Everything has to have a main idea behind it, which is sometimes the hardest part. How do I like the changes? I mainly like the new virtual studio. I believe the whole composition of the news is good now. Sometimes it bothers me when the interviews are too long, that can slow down a "sure-footed" opening.
Q: Nothing against that, but doesn't it bother you that the moderator of the main news program on public broadcast television is a person who has let herself be photographed in her underwear?
A: Listen, that's for the bosses to decide. If they decided a person like that should be there, then that's who is there. It's all the same to me. If Aneta Savarová can attract a younger audience with her charm and her performance, as she herself claims to be doing, then why not? Time will tell. I think it's still too early to evaluate the new "Události".
Q: Zdeněk Šámal is the reinstated boss of Czech Television news. This is the person who hired you in 1999. Under his leadership, Ondřej Giňa started anchoring the main news broadcast, the first-ever Romani television news moderator in the Czech Republic.
A: Exactly. Zdeněk Šámal really gave Ondřej an enormous opportunity. While most people had to wait several years to be considered for the position of moderator of the main news, or maybe even decades, Ondřej succeeded in being given that job during roughly three months. He attended a journalism course for Romani people with the rest of us at that time, it ran from 1998 – 1999 and was organized by the Dženo association. During the course he started to work for the Romani programs on Czech Radio, then he turned up on television and was anchoring the evening news right away. Shortly after that, he was even anchoring "Události". Zdeněk Šámal gave us all the green light - besides Ondřej and me there were two or three other Romani people working there too - but unfortunately the others all gave up, even though they were from Prague and didn't even have to commute like I did back then.
Q: That seems to have paid off for you. Thanks to your work as a Czech Television reporter you are going places ordinary mortals will never see during their entire lives, like Afghanistan. Weren't you afraid for your life when you filmed there?
A: I was there three times. We've driven through Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kosovo. It might sound stupid or heroic, but I wasn't ever afraid. I didn't fear for my life because I never did anything risky. We spent the whole time with the Czech soldiers at their bases, we only drove outside the bases a couple of times, like when we went to watch the training of Afghan police officers. The one time I was a bit afraid was in Iraq. We had finished our visit and suddenly a siren started to wail, they said there was some threat of danger. In the end, everything was fine, but two days later bombs started falling there.
Q: That's a journalist's work - interesting, and sometimes also dangerous. Nevertheless, it's just a trade like any other. You don't necessarily have to have studied journalism to work as a reporter. You yourself studied to be a cook/waiter, and today you represent the biggest public broadcasting media outlet in the country. Why do you think there are still so few Romani journalists here?
A: I don't know, it's probably still too far away from the world of some Romani people. Most of them, just about, are growing up in the families of bricklayers, carpenters, cooks, taxi drivers and waiters. I know what it's like in Náchod, where I'm from, that's what it's like there. However, on the other hand I believe the situation is changing. There are more Romani college students now, a completely new generation of Romani people is growing up who, we hope, are aware of the need for education in this world. I, naturally, really would like to see more Romani people on tv, but it's good Romani people are working in a media outlet like this. Some you don't see on screen, but they have successful careers working for television nonetheless - Aladár Olách coordinates graphic design for ČT24 news. It's true one must really work hard to climb the ladder, whether one is Romani or not. It takes a long time. I had a lot of luck and met many good people who gave me the green light.
Q: That seems to have not been in vain, as that investigative report with Nora Fridrichová showed, or at that time her last name was Nováková. When you did the report on British immigration controls at Ruzyně airport, it prompted an unusual amount of response. Former minister Kavan even called you a liar because he could not believe they didn't want to let you into Britain because you are Romani. Was the filming of that report the moment you said to yourself: Yes, my career is starting here?
A: The thing is, not at all. I even thought the exact opposite, that my job would be over when the report was done. That was really crazy. I wasn't able to cope with the fact that I was suddenly being written about in the newspapers, that Kavan was saying I had lied, etc. He never even proved what that alleged "lie" was even specifically about. It was hard for me to take all the pressure. At that time I learned how rough journalism is, how easy it is to get caught up in machinations of that sort. However, I must say that people really stood up for me at work back then. We kept filming on that topic.
Q: When you look back on it today, do you believe that reporting was objective? Was it necessary to use a hidden camera? Under certain circumstances that could be considered unethical journalism.
A: I believe it was objective. If we hadn't used a hidden camera, we would never have found out what immigration officials' interviews with Romani people were like. I had filmed at the airport prior to that and had seen how differently Romani travelers were being treated. They had to undergo far stricter measures than non-Romani people did.
Q: Now a somewhat different topic: How the media reported a few months back on the unrest between Czech and Romani people, for example in North Bohemia and elsewhere. How do you evaluate that publicity? Do you share the feeling that some journalists were reporting on every banal pub brawl that happened to go down between non-Romani people and Romani people there, even though at the same time 20 other people were probably brawling somewhere else in the country without the media ever mentioning it?
A: I don't know, to be honest I don't much feel like evaluating it, but when I think about it now, I believe that Czech Television - unlike, for example, news server iDNES and other commercial media - really did not broadcast every little rumor. We essentially don't do crime reporting, rather, we do our best to work with material that concerns society as a whole. The way some reporters, mainly with commercial television stations, reported on exacerbated ethnic relations (and still do) is a result of the fact that regional-level reporters must have something to offer their editors every single day. No report, no money. Those reporters are simply pushed every day to film something interesting, a sensationalist report. Most of them have very close ties to the police, so they get a lot of information very quickly. A journalist calls up a friend who is a police officer and asks him if he knows of any interesting cases, and the officer tells him they recently had a case of Romani guys beating someone up, and that starts the ball rolling. The reporter thinks it's interesting because Romani stuff is "in" now, and starts filming a report on the incident.
Q: That almost sounds like you're defending them.
A: No, that's no excuse. Essentially it's up to the boss or to the editors at the media outlet to evaluate whether the reporter has brought them information that is relevant and has been verified by at least two independent sources. If he hasn't, then that's bad - but even that kind of information gets released, because all of the news servers and television stations want to be the first to report on any story. In that respect, Czech Television's approach is just really very sober. It often happens that I give our regional-level reporters contacts to various Romani people so they can also comment on camera on whatever events have occurred.
Q: Do your colleagues often turn to you when filming on such topics?
A: Lately quite often, but they also turn to me about other topics. For example, whenever I film stuff about the Army, I also call Karel Rožánek and ask him about stuff. If he's filming something about extremists, he sometimes consults me about it.
Q: What about the term "inadaptable citizens"? Does it bother you? Some journalists working for public broadcasting media love to use it. I believe it was in November of last year that Anna Šabatová and Petr Uhl turned to the Council for Radio and Television Broadcasting with their protest over the use of that term. The Council basically rejected their protest.
A: Well there's nothing to be done about it, Romani people are labeled in other ways too. At first the label was "Gypsies" (Cigáni), now they're "inadaptables". No - I'm being a bit facetious. When it comes to Czech Television, we basically never use that term as part of our own commentary on events. If someone uses it, we always just paraphrase, just like in those cases where people label someone "Gypsy" or Romani.
Q: I'm not sure whether it is correct to use the term "inadaptables" in such cases - always when Romani people are concerned. On the other hand, I do understand that for many journalists it's complicated to decide when to use the phrasing that "Romani" people were involved, and when to refer to matters using the vocabulary of those discussing them. To what degree should ethnicity be mentioned by the media if it has no relation to the case?
A: I do my best to never reference ethnicity. If I can genuinely avoid it, if it's not of essential benefit to the report, then I just leave it out. After all, video footage of a specific person already indicates whether he or she is Romani and in my opinion there is no need to emphasize it to the viewer. Why? Even when I was filming the Khamoro music festival I didn't do it, I never emphasized that it was a Romani festival, I never referred to the performers as Romani bands, I just gave the name of the group and where they were from.
Q: Khamoro is coming up so I believe we'll see each other there.
A: We hope so.
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