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Hungary: New Budapest Radio Station Seeks To Change Roma's Image

A new sound is wafting across the airwaves in the Hungarian capital, Budapest. It comes from Radio C, the first Roma -- or Gypsy -- radio station in Central and Eastern Europe. The station's mission is daunting: to instill pride in one of Europe's most disadvantaged and misunderstood ethnic groups. RFE/RL correspondent Tony Wesolowsky reports.

Prague, 19 March 2001 (RFE/RL) Radio C has only been on the air for a matter of weeks. But according to the station's Livia Jaroka, it is already having an impact on Budapest's estimated 100,000 Roma.

"In the beginning, we [had] not expected such a big reaction, but we are totally amazed at what [an] interactive radio it became. It's obvious it is for the Gypsies now. It is obvious that it is listened to by the Gypsies -- most of them, most of the time. It became a very local radio. People are very enthusiastic, they call in all the time. Now we have five telephone lines, ringing all the time."

Claude Cahn, a researcher for the non-governmental European Roma Rights Center based in Budapest, says the city government granted Radio C's license after coming under growing Western scrutiny for its treatment of Roma. The European Union, which Hungary is eager to join, is particularly concerned with the country's record on human and civil rights.

The station is likely to remain on the air for some time. Two weeks ago, the Hungarian national television and radio board granted the station a seven-year broadcasting license. But Jaroka says there is still opposition to the station -- mainly, she says, among Hungary's right-wing political groups.

"Even though we got the frequency, there are still some parties saying that -- usually right-wing parties -- saying that it's not going to work and it shouldn't work at all."

Cahn of the European Roma Rights Center welcomes the government's decision to grant Radio C's license. But he says Hungarian authorities have a long way to go in addressing important Roma issues.

"This [the license] is [only] window dressing, which is why our issue is not media but really people being set [out] on the street. When we talk about the rights situation here, we're really talking about police abuse, segregation in the fields of education, [a] wave of evictions, lack of adequate housing, lack of good access to social services and health care -- the whole range of just fundamental rights that are violated in a discriminatory pattern against Roma in Hungary."

Some 10 million Roma call Central and Eastern Europe their home. Under communism, the under-educated Roma were guaranteed work, but mainly low-skill jobs in factories. Many of those jobs vanished along with the Communist system more than 10 years ago. Today, Hungary's Roma are struggling as never before, as Radio C's Jaroka explains.

"The biggest problem, I think, is that they [Roma] lost their jobs and they became unemployed. So they lost their every-day financial background. They've been totally marginalized for this reason. They don't go into work places any more, they don't have money to lead their earlier life. Their children are still often put into segregated schools, into special schools for handicapped people for no reason. And the atrocities that they face have not lessened in the last 10 years either."

Independent monitors say that since the collapse of communism, there has been an increase in intolerance and prejudice toward Hungarian Roma. According to the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance, Hungary's Roma now face widespread discrimination in employment, education, and social services, a situation that is sadly familiar wherever Roma live. A U.S. State Department report on Hungary's human rights situation, issued last month, singled out police brutality towards Roma and other dark-skinned people.

Jaroka is lighter-skinned and says she doesn't experience the type of racist treatment some of her friends do. She recounts a recent incident involving a friend shopping at one of Budapest's upscale boutiques.

"A good friend two days ago had to face some pretty horrible stuff in one of the big plazas in Budapest. This guy is a pretty famous Hungarian actor, a Gypsy, a darker, very beautiful looking model guy. And he walked into one of the very fancy shops to buy pants for himself, and the shop assistant, totally unexpectedly opened the [dressing-room] door quickly, because they wanted to see if he is stealing anything. And this guy was totally ruined -- for three days he didn't talk to anybody."

Jaroka says Radio C's mission is not to tackle Hungarian racism, but to provide a more positive image of the Roma.

"We are not trying to change these stereotypes through this radio. We decided to do this radio only for the Roma and we stick to this in the future. That is what we said latest. That's what we agreed on. And not only because there are not so many non-Gypsy listeners to the radio, because I think when the seven-year frequency will go on, people will listen to this also because of the good music. But still we won't take on any, like, anti-racist propaganda or things like that because that is not what this radio was done for."

What the station does offer is lots of Roma music, from the familiar folk variety to the not-so-well-known Roma rap. There are also hours of talk involving Roma artists, as well as roundtable discussions on everything from Roma history, police abuse, advise on finding work, to religion.

Before Radio C began broadcasting, Hungarian radio and television offered one hour a week of programming for and about the Roma. But Cahn and Jaroka dismiss much of the state's effort as merely reinforcing stereotypes of Roma.

There are also other efforts to establish Roma-oriented media and cultural institutions in Hungary. The local Roma self-government in the northeastern town of Mateszalka has set up its own cable TV studio, but does not provide the hard-hitting social programming that sets Radio C apart.

The struggle to get Radio C on the air dates back to before the end of communism in 1989. As long as it has taken to obtain the license, this appears to be one struggle Hungary's Roma have finally won.

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    Tony Wesolowsky

    Tony Wesolowsky is a senior correspondent for RFE/RL in Prague, covering Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, and Central Europe, as well as energy issues. His work has also appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Bulletin Of The Atomic Scientists.