Anthropologist Livia Jaroka vowed to keep a cool academic head
when she agreed to work at Eastern Europe's first all-Roma radio
station. But enthusiasm soon got the better of her. "It's incredible
what's going on at the station," says the 27-year-old Jaroka, the
daughter of a Jewish mother and a father whom she describes as a
"very dark-skinned" Roma. "People working here are so dedicated
and give so much of themselves."
Radio is a medium suited for the Roma, who often rely on word of
mouth to relay news. But as Jaroka says, Radio C is more than just
an information tool. It uplifts one of the most disadvantaged ethnic
groups on the globe. "The whole image of being a Roma has changed,"
she says. "People dare to call themselves gypsies."
Some 10 million Roma make Central and Eastern Europe their home.
As in much of
the region, Hungarian Roma face widespread discrimination in employment,
education and social services. Police abuse of Roma is "rampant" in
Hungary, according to Human Rights Watch. In the eastern Hungary town
of Hajduhadhaz, the European Roma Rights Center reported that police
routinely beat and verbally abuse Roma residents, and search their
apartments without cause. In Budapest, where 100,000 Roma live, changes
to Hungarian law have given authorities more leeway in carrying out
evictions of Roma families--a growing problem in Budapest's 8th District,
where most of the city's Roma live.
Livia Jaroka in the
Radio C office.
In some ways, race relations between Hungarians and the Roma community
have worsened since the collapse of Communism. Democracy pried the
lid off pent-up prejudices and biases bottled up under the former
regime. "People now feel no fear in telling to you to your face,
'You dirty gypsy,' and nothing happens," Jaroka says.
Although the Communists were hardly friends of Hungary's Roma,
the regime did offer them some benefits, namely jobs and housing.
Those guarantees have vanished, however, along with the Communist
system. "Roma have been totally marginalized," Jaroka says of the
transition to capitalism. "They don't go to work any more; they
don't have money to lead their former lives. The problems they face
have not lessened in the past 10 years."
Jaroka grew up in Sopron, a quaint village near Hungary's western
border with Austria. "There weren't any gypsies in Sopron so there
wasn't a lot of racism," she says with a slight laugh. But her father's
dark skin cost him his job. "The Austrians who travel to Sopron
didn't want to be served by a gypsy," she recounts matter-of-factly,
"so he was fired."
Moving to Budapest as a teen-ager, Jaroka found herself around
ethnic kin, awakening a curiosity in her Roma heritage. She went
on to Britain to study anthropology, specializing in Roma culture.
But the excitement of working at Radio C led Jaroka to put her studies
on hold and take up a full-time job at the station.
Hungarian state radio and television offer an hour of Roma programming
each week. But the shows shy away from examining racism and instead
enforce stereotypes of Roma as happy-go-lucky traveling minstrels
or petty thieves.
The idea of a radio station dedicated to Hungary's Roma was hatched
in discussions among Roma intellectuals in Budapest in the late
'80s. But it took until this year for the idea to come to fruition,
when the station's Roma backers won a trial license for an FM frequency,
whose range mainly covers Budapest.