Hungary's Roma challenge stereotypes on-the-air

Last week, a Roma radio station won a rare license. It fosters pride in a culture hurt by racism, discrimination.

The hallmark rhythms of Gypsy folk music waft in the background as two employees at one of Europe's most innovative radio stations take their seats on metal folding chairs in a closet-like, dimly lit recording studio. It's the top of the hour, and time for another news broadcast.

In a ramshackle apartment block in one of the poorest districts of the Hungarian capital, Budapest, a dedicated corps is broadcasting not only to inform, but uplift one of Europe's most disadvantaged ethnic groups: the Roma, or Gypsies.

Radio C is one of the first independent Roma radio stations to hit the airwaves in Central and Eastern Europe, where an estimated 10 million Roma live. The "c" stands for copyright, to underscore its trailblazing status.

After an anxious 30-day trial period, Radio C was awarded a much coveted seven-year license last week by the Hungarian national television and radio board, beating out several other would-be broadcasters, including an American evangelical Christian station.

"Right up to the last minute, it wasn't clear whether we would get the license, because the government was coming under pressure from right-wing groups in parliament who said, 'Why do Gypsies need a radio station?' " says Livia Jaroka. Ms. Jaroka, an anthropologist working on her doctorate, is one of 40 mainly Roma, mainly unpaid, staff at the station. One of its aims, she says, is to reawaken cultural pride among Budapest's 100,000 Roma, who make up 6 to 8 percent of Hungary's population.

The hope is to bring about the Roma's "emancipation," according to station manager Gyoergy Kerenyi. The struggle to get Radio C on the air dates back to before the fall of Communist rule in 1989.

The former Communist system provided few opportunities, mainly factory work. These jobs, in outdated industries, vanished following the collapse of Communist rule. As elsewhere across the region, Hungary's Roma still face widespread discrimination in employment, education, and social services, according to a report by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance.

In February, a US State Department report singled out Hungary for acute police brutality toward Roma and other dark-skinned ethnic groups. Here and elsewhere, Roma face ingrained stereotypes as petty criminals, beggars, or indolent slackers content to live on welfare benefits.

In some ways, race relations between Hungarians and the Roma community have worsened since the collapse of Communism, says Jaroka. "People have the freedom now, to say, 'You dirty Gypsy' to your face, and nothing happens."

Claude Cahn of the Budapest-based European Roma Rights Center contends a rise in the number of Hungarian Roma seeking asylum in the West prompted the government to grant Radio C its broadcast license. While he welcomes the station as a positive step, he says Hungary still has far to go in addressing the deeper problems facing its Roma population. "When we talk about the rights situation here, we're actually talking about police abuse, segregation in the fields of education ... lack of adequate housing, lack of access to social services, and healthcare. The whole range of just fundamental rights that are violated in a discriminatory pattern against Roma in Hungary."

Radio C is not designed as a direct counter to racism. "The predominant aim of Romani radio is to broadcast for the Roma, not to change the prejudices of the majority society, nor to meet the expectations of the prevailing white intellectuals," station founders wrote in their manifesto.

But it can provide a more positive, broader view of Roma culture and interests. Although broadcasts have only been going out for a month, Jaroka says, the station is already having a noticeable effect. "The whole image of being a Roma has changed. People dare to declare themselves Gypsies," she says.

The program format includes a range of Roma music, from traditional folk to rap. It has something of an open-mike policy, with Roma musicians literally coming in off the street for impromptu performances. There are also informative programs, including talks shows on key social issues such as unemployment, race relations, and Roma history. And there are more mainstream programs, such as a show on cars and another, aimed at teenage girls, that offer fashion tips and dating advice.

The station has received e-mail from thousands of fans, many in verse. "We've got five phone lines now to handle all the response we're getting," boasts Jaroka. She adds, however, that hate mail is also coming in.

Even before Radio C went on the air, Hungarian state radio and television broadcast one hour of Roma programming a week. But Cahn says most of this coverage only reinforces stereotypes. "There's lots of coverage of Roma as musicians, not a lot on successful Roma business leaders," he says.

And there are other efforts to establish Roma-oriented media and cultural institutions. The local Gypsy self-government in the northeastern town of Mateszalka, for instance, has set up its own cable-TV studio.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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