Hungary's Roma Challenge Stereotypes On-the-Air ; Last Week, a Roma Radio Station Won a Rare License. It Fosters Pride in a Culture Hurt by Racism, Discrimination

Article excerpt

The hallmark rhythms of Gypsy folk music waft in the background as two employees at one of Europe's most innovative radio stations take their seats on metal folding chairs in a closet-like, dimly lit recording studio. It's the top of the hour, and time for another news broadcast.

In a ramshackle apartment block in one of the poorest districts of the Hungarian capital, Budapest, a dedicated corps is broadcasting not only to inform, but uplift one of Europe's most disadvantaged ethnic groups: the Roma, or Gypsies.

Radio C is one of the first independent Roma radio stations to hit the airwaves in Central and Eastern Europe, where an estimated 10 million Roma live. The "c" stands for copyright, to underscore its trailblazing status.

After an anxious 30-day trial period, Radio C was awarded a much coveted seven-year license last week by the Hungarian national television and radio board, beating out several other would-be broadcasters, including an American evangelical Christian station.

"Right up to the last minute, it wasn't clear whether we would get the license, because the government was coming under pressure from right-wing groups in parliament who said, 'Why do Gypsies need a radio station?' " says Livia Jaroka. Ms. Jaroka, an anthropologist working on her doctorate, is one of 40 mainly Roma, mainly unpaid, staff at the station. One of its aims, she says, is to reawaken cultural pride among Budapest's 100,000 Roma, who make up 6 to 8 percent of Hungary's population.

The hope is to bring about the Roma's "emancipation," according to station manager Gyoergy Kerenyi. The struggle to get Radio C on the air dates back to before the fall of Communist rule in 1989.

The former Communist system provided few opportunities, mainly factory work. These jobs, in outdated industries, vanished following the collapse of Communist rule. As elsewhere across the region, Hungary's Roma still face widespread discrimination in employment, education, and social services, according to a report by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance.

In February, a US State Department report singled out Hungary for acute police brutality toward Roma and other dark-skinned ethnic groups. Here and elsewhere, Roma face ingrained stereotypes as petty criminals, beggars, or indolent slackers content to live on welfare benefits.

In some ways, race relations between Hungarians and the Roma community have worsened since the collapse of Communism, says Jaroka. "People have the freedom now, to say, 'You dirty Gypsy' to your face, and nothing happens. …