Radio Free Roma

Budapest station breaks down “gypsy” stereotypes

Tony Wesolowsky

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 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. 

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