Radio Free Roma

Budapest station breaks down “gypsy” stereotypes

Tony WesolowskyMay 14, 2001

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. 

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 régime. 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 régime 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. 

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