Prague, 11 June 1999 (RFE/RL) -- A few months ago, a new anchorman appeared on Czech state TV. Personable and smooth-voiced, Ondrej Gina is tailor-made for the job. His appointment, in short, would seem unremarkable. But in the Czech Republic, Gina is a pioneer sailing uncharted waters. He is the country's first ethnic Romany (Gypsy) newscaster.
Although the media, both foreign and domestic, have focused periodic attention on racism in Czech society and incidents of discrimination against the Roma, what is most noticeable about the country's largest ethnic minority is its invisibility. The Roma, of course, are not a homogenous group and this has made it difficult for the community as a whole to unite in fighting for its rights.
But one of the key elements contributing to the lack of Roma involvement in Czech society, say educators and sociologists, is their lack of role models. There are almost no Romany politicians, few public figures, artists, rock stars, poets, businessmen, or sports heroes. That means there are few Roma who can serve as an inspiration to the community and proof to the rest of Czech society that the Roma are contributing positively to the country. Most Czechs rarely come into contact with any Roma, and when they do, it is likely to be through TV reports of petty crime, which is ascribed to the Roma almost as a matter of course.
Gina, who spent several years working for a non-governmental
organization (NGO) devoted to improving relations between Roma and their fellow-citizens, sees his new job on TV as an opportunity to build some bridges. He spoke to RFE/RL in a recent interview:
"I would like, in my way, to help change society's perceptions a bit, so that opinions, which are entrenched in Czech society, do not only contain stereotypes and prejudices. I would like the perception to be formed that Roma are capable--that they are capable if they are allowed to be, if they are given the chance."
But Gina hastens to add that he sees his mission in a much broader context and hopes his presence on the air will push Czechs to think about what it means to live in a democracy and to be more tolerant towards all minorties.
"I don't want to concentrate only on the Roma community because these problems don't only concern the Roma community. These problems relate to each and every one of us.... And people who don't regard this problem as their own are also touched by it. Because we are an open, democratic society and the problems of a certain group of people are the problems of that entire society and the entire state. I see co-existence with the majority as a general issue--it isn't just an issue of the Roma."
Ivan Gabal, a Czech sociologist, is the author of a newly-published study on the position and treatment of ethnic minorities across Central Europe. He says that contrary to what may be surmised by reading the Western press, Czechs are not staunch racists. But he says they do exhibit xenophobic attitudes which were cultivated by the old regime. Gabal points out that for decades, Communist leaders encouraged a hermetic nationalism and actively stiffled groupings within society that aspired to represent minorities, perceiving them as a threat. That mentality, says Gabal, has worked its way down into people's attitudes, where it remains a potent force to this day.
"Czech society is a post-Communist one and that means it went through a long period when the accepted standard in daily life was to be average--not to stand out. Everyone here lived a very similar lifestyle and cultural homogenity was demanded by the system. In this sense, the [post-Communist] transformation meant a big break in this stability and anyone today who espouses a different lifestyle and different values is seen as a bit of a threat to that stability."
Gabal says that Czechs, as a nation, continue to define themselves along narrow ethnic lines, and only perceive one norm which defines "Czechness." As he notes in his study, "groups which are not able to assimilate, whether for racial or cultural reasons are unacceptable and unaccepted."
Milena Hubschmannova, who teaches the Romany language at Prague's Charles University and has conducted several studies on the Roma experience in Czech society, says schools are the forum in which minds must be changed. In an article published in the Czech weekly "Respekt" two years ago, she noted that children in schools are taught next to nothing about the traditions, culture and history of the Roma, Jews, or other minorities who make up Czech society. Children from those minority grups are taught little self-worth while children of the majority are not taught much tolerance towards fellow citizens who are different from them.
But Gina says that Czech society is changing, and especially as the country edges towards membership in the European Union and other transnational structures, Czechs will have to accept more minorities living and working among them. He says this in turn will force them to take greater note of local minorities, such as the Roma:
"The Czech Republic doesn't exist in a vacuum. It isn't only a closed-off space which no one can enter. It's the Czech Republic--that's a name--and there aren't only going to be ethnic Czechs living here. In 50 or 100 years there will probably be other ethnic groups living here with us, and we have to be ready for this. If we want to join European structures, we will be talking about the free movement of people. The borders will be open and we have to count on the fact that people from other countries will want to settle in the Czech Republic and raise their kids here--in short, we have to be ready for this."
Gabal agrees and says the media can help play a role in changing public opinion towards minorities and foreigners. But he cautions that television can only have a limited impact and he puts the onus on the government, which he says must institute educational and job programs to help the Roma integrate into the rest of society.
See Europe: British Cable TV Gives Minorities Air Time
for part two of this series.