Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Seizing the Opportunity: An Interview with Romani News Anchor Richard Samko

"My work has become my hobby,” says Richard Samko, the second ever Romani news anchor on Czech Television. “The work is colorful and diverse. It’s also an adrenaline rush, and I like that.”

[Richard Samko, photo credit Czech Radio]

Samko has worked in the field of journalism for eleven years as a reporter, news anchor and more recently host of Events and Commentary, a nightly program featuring news analysis and political commentary.

In the late 1990s, the Dženo Association introduced Samko to the world of journalism in a training designed to bring up a new generation of Romani reporters.

Samko is a pioneer, with only Ondřej Giňa, Jr., the first news anchor of Romani background in the Czech Republic, having blazed the trail before him. Samko’s drive, energy and passion for his work in the news media underscore our conversation.

“I stuck with it for years, working my way up, because I wanted to make it far," says Samko. "The opportunity was something a person gets only once in a lifetime. To get to work in Czech Television is huge; it’s power.”

Samko has covered topics as wide-ranging as immigration, problems inside the police force, right-wing extremism, traffic law, housing issues and unemployment. He has also taken part in producing documentaries, an interest he would like to pursue in greater depth.

One documentary on which Samko collaborated was The Saga of the Roma (Sága Romů), a film examining the changes in the Romani community and its relationship to the majority population during the second half of the 20th century. Samko confesses filmmaking is his dream.

"When I worked on The Saga, filmmaking really grabbed me. I saw that the work was more creative," Samko recalls. "I then made a few short documentaries myself."

"I would like to make a film that is Roma-themed,” Samko continues. “I can see that as the most realistic undertaking for me; a topic which I understand the best and can say the most about."

One of the most powerful aspects of being so visible in the media is Samko’s ability to inspire Romani children, who look up to him as a role model from their own ranks.

Whenever Samko’s hectic schedule allows it, Samko travels to Romani cultural festivals to act as master of ceremonies and to speak to the children.

"I want the children to see a positive example of what is possible to achieve," says Samko.

One of his projects is a program called Fledglings (Ptáčata), in which a television crew follows a group of second-graders, many of them Romani, as they learn to become camera operators, reporters and news anchors while documenting their own lives.

Samko is a visionary. He recognizes the potential in his community and advocates for the skills of those newly trained in his field to be harnessed. Once funding for Dženo’s Romani station Radio Rota is renewed and the broadcast expanded via digital satellite technology, Samko, who would work with the station in advisory capacity, sees an enormous opportunity for a new generation of journalists.

“Radio Rota should be funded,” asserts Samko, “because it would serve as a base for those who have started on a path towards a career in journalism. There is a potential here that should be developed further. In mainstream television, where I work, there is no time for on-the-job training or mentoring. New journalists have to be ready to start working at a professional level. That’s where media organizations such as Dženo and Radio Rota come in.”

Another role that Radio Rota could fulfill is that of enabling journalists from the majority population to access experiences of the members of Romani community whose issues would be of interest because they ‘affect the entire country,’ as Samko says.

“Mainstream media could draw on the work of Romani journalists reporting for Radio Rota,” Samko continues, “because they tend to be the ones with access to the Romani community, something the average Czech reporter doesn’t have.”

In addition to providing information mainstream journalists could draw on as well as hands-on experience to young Romani reporters, Radio Rota, because the Czech Republic is in the center of Europe, could serve as the heart of Romani newscasting, says Samko.

“Radio Rota could broadcast news programming from around the world,” Samko envisions. “We know journalists in Bulgaria, Hungary, Russia, Poland, etc. We know people everywhere. In all these places there are journalists who would contribute Romani-themed programs. The station could be a pan-European showcase.”

To close, Samko urges: “I want my fellow Roma to persevere in doing what they enjoy despite obstacles they may encounter. The opportunities are there. It may take a few years. There will be a few years of waiting, but then the chance to get to a better place will arrive and they will be able to fulfill their dreams.”

“And as far as the majority community is concerned,” Samko concludes, “more tolerance is necessary. There needs to be more room and less judgement of people based on their looks or minority status. Minorities must be given a chance.”

[This article originally appeared on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog]

Friday, July 23, 2010

Matters of the Heart: A conversation with Romani radio personality Iveta Demeterová

"It was when I started here in 2002 that my big love affair with this work began,” says Iveta Demeterová, Director of Programming at Radio Rota, the first Romani internet station in the Czech Republic, founded and operated by the Dženo Association.

“None of us at the station took the work as a mere job; we considered it our life’s mission and our passion,” recalls Demeterová. “For us, it was a matter of the heart. None of us ever looked at the clock; we worked until we were happy with what we produced.”

[Iveta Demeterová, photo by Tereza Bottman]

During Radio Rota’s heyday between 2002 and 2006, the station attracted tens of thousands of listeners from the Czech Republic and around the world each month. Radio Rota aired news, public affairs programming, talk shows, and cultural programs in three languages: Czech, English and Romani. The radio presented organizations to which the community could turn for help.

The hope is that if enough funding is raised, the station will soon resume broadcasting, this time in digital satellite format, reaching listeners in more languages, across as much as three quarters of Europe.

“The station served as a a link, connecting Roma who before the year 2000 immigrated to Canada, England, Belgium, Netherlands, Australia, New Zealand,” explains Demeterová. “We provided a way for them to communicate together, obtain information from us, and, in return, pass on information to us about how they were doing abroad; how they were faring in areas of housing, education, work; how they were perceived there and whether they had problems based on the color of their skin.”

The audience also included the majority population.

“Our motto was: ‘Radio about and for, but not only for the Roma,’” says Demeterová, who, as of September, will also be the new Director of Romani programming on Czech Radio, a publicly funded station with a weekly listenership of nearly 3 million.

“I was most thrilled by the fact that there was such great cooperation between the station and its listeners," beams Demeterová. "The telephone rang off the hook. We received so many emails, it was a challenge to respond to all of them.“

One of the regular programs was a show called Voicemail. “The messages that people sent to each other through us were incredible,“ remembers Demeterová. “People called in to confess their love for each other, to make birthday wishes, to express regrets that they cannot be there to celebrate their grandparents‘ anniversaries.“

Radio Rota even brought people together; not only couples, but friends or relatives who had not been able to find each other for years.

“I did not live my own life doing this work,“ Demeterová confesses. “I lived the lives of the others; the listeners, because I was their fan. I provided advice and contacts for organizations that could help them.“

During the time of campaigns, politicians were regularly invited to the Radio Rota studio to be interviewed and to discuss their platforms. Informally, many of them expressed their support for the station, but in the end, their words were mostly empty promises, says Demeterová.

“Funding was always an issue,” she explains. “The station was built for money from abroad. We asked the Ministry of Culture for funding, and we received it twice. We were glad we received the support, even though it was less than the amount we had requested.“

“We had to prioritize,“ says Demeterová. “There were times when we were only able to pay the bills and the contractors, still we continued working. We weren’t thinking about ourselves; we were thinking about the listeners who were waiting for the services the station provides.“

The importance of independent, minority-run media such as Radio Rota cannot be overstated. Demeterová says the station played a unique role in Czech society in that it emphasized a positive image of the Romani community.

“If the majority population truly wants to have a multicultural society and to be a lawful member of the European Union,“ Demeterová asserts, “if they want tolerance to preside over this land, one way to achieve this is [for the majority and the Roma] to continue getting to know each other. Radio Rota could be a vehicle to open the way for that process.“

Several years later, fans are still writing in, wondering what is happening with the radio station.

“People are still waiting for something to happen, hoping that the radio will continue,” says Demeterová.

The station provided not only information and entertainment, but also a sense of community as well as pride.

“When the radio was created, the community felt part of the experience,” Demeterová explains. “The people felt that they belonged there: ‘We, too, have our own radio station now.’”

“When the listeners wrote in, they did not call it ‘your radio;’” she concludes.“They called it ‘our radio.’ We gave them something to feel proud of.”

[This article originally appeared on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog]

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The newly-formed Czech government wages a war on welfare while state-run energy giant profits soar

On Tuesday, Czech President Václav Klaus swore in the new conservative government, formed following the May Parliamentary elections, in which the left-wing Social Democrats won by a narrow margin, but center-right parties captured more votes overall. The right-wing coalition secured 118 of the Parliament's 200 lower-chamber seats. All fifteen Minister posts will be held by men, a choice which has been criticized by political analysts and women's rights groups alike. However, the Parliament now houses a record number of women, 22% of the MPs, and will be led by women. Ethnic minorities, who make up no more than 3 percent of the total population, on the other hand, have no representation in Parliament.

Those on the margins of Czech society have a reason to worry. One of the right-leaning government's highest priorities is placing limits on government spending, namely by cutting government jobs and salaries as well as slashing social expenditures and overhauling (read eventually privatizing) the pension and health care systems. The trend of reducing government spending, especially child and maternity benefits as well as support for the unemployed, is troubling for those already struggling to survive.

[photo credit: backspace.com's Social Designs]

"The new right-wing government will cause more intense isolation of the Roma on the margins of society," constituted Romani activist Štefan Gorol, one of the respondents to a post-election survey carried out by Romano hangos, a Romani monthly. "We will be denied access to resources which are available to other members of the society. These resources include employment, housing, social protection, health care, and education."

Mr. Gorol is not alone. Ivan Veselý, chairman of the Romani advocacy and media group Dženo Association, is one of many who are concerned.

"The times are getting tough. There are going to be serious ramifications," says Veselý.

Respekt weekly editor-in-chief Erik Tabery in his political commentary on the new government agrees that slashing social benefits is a terrible idea: "It's difficult to understand that the administration is apparently preparing to cut social benefits for poor families with children or support for people with a lighter form of disabilities. However much it may be necessary to prevent the abuse of various benefits, this type of support should not be abolished. A state that is not able to take care of the most vulnerable is worthless."

Something important to remember is that not all people living in poverty in the Czech Republic are Roma, as the mainstream press would have the public believe.

"Only about one-fifth of those on social welfare benefits are Roma," Veselý points out. This is still a disproportionately high number, considering the Roma make up around 2% of the total population (the number of Roma living in the Czech Republic is estimated to be somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000.)

At least half the Romani population do not live below the poverty level in socially excluded locations (sociologist Ivan Gabal estimates the number of Roma in socially excluded locations to be just over 85 thousand of the total of 150,000 to 200,000 Roma in the country) and many are college-educated professionals. Karel Holomek, long-time Romani activist and current president of the international Decade for Roma Inclusion 2005-2015, stresses just that in his latest blog post entitled “Absence of Rationality in Discussions about the Peaceful Co-existence of the Roma in Our Society“:

Such discussions point at a deficiency of the members of the Romani community, which they inaccurately call inadaptibility. What is talked about is careless attitude toward housing (on the part of the Roma), non-payment of rent, aggressive behavior of Romani children, unwillingness to learn or work, abuse of social benefits and other such matters. . . An unfortunate consequence is that the nature of this type of a discussion and, in general, such commonly and almost uniformly held societal views have a negative effect not only on a relatively small group of Roma, but on the entire society. . . The public’s hatred expressed quite clearly in statistical data is aimed against the entire Romani community, even though it is clear that it should only concern the part which is discreditable, if we at all accept such discredibility exists. And this group is much smaller than the entire Romani community.

The government's focus on cutting spending is driven by the Maastricht Treaty, which mandates all EU member states to cut their state spending to a threshold of 3%. Currently the public deficit for the Czech Republic is projected to be 5.6% of GDP for 2010. Of course, the recession is another reason for the cuts, the public is told.

While the media work the public opinion by highlighting random Romani families who find loopholes in the social benefit system to "take advantage of," and airing heated debates with guests who spout racist stereotypes and point fingers at the Roma as the "culprits for all the social ills," the government wheels and deals, bringing in record profits despite the recession, yet warning of drastic cuts to social spending.

Some questions have recently been raised about the Czech government's finance priorities in the form of backroom deals from which the country's largest energy provider, the state-run energy company and highest grossing Czech company ČEZ, stands to profit.

In 2009, ČEZ, the largest Czech corporation, earned a record profit of 196 billion crowns marking a growth in earnings despite the recession. The company, of which 69.4% is owned by the Czech government with the rest in private hands, is being questioned about its role in influencing policy as well as the outcome of the elections by placing its key allies and board members in ministry positions. It is also under pressure to explain its inflated expenditure (paid for by taxpayer money) for the construction of new power plants. The Ecological Law Service puts the excess at 30 billion crowns above market value.

In contrast, the latest estimate is that cuts in social benefit spending could save the Czech government about 11 billion crowns.

Jaroslav Spurný, assistant editor of the weekly Respekt pertinently writes:

“The amount at which the Ecological Law Service arrived showed that the three Czech brown coal power plants are overpriced by 30 billion crowns. We are witnessing either enormous waste or enormous theft. If it is true and the government doesn’t respond, we can forget about the reforms. They will be good for nothing, because what the state shaves off from social benefits, will be easily spent by ČEZ.“

[The original version of this post appeared on Tereza Bottman's Advocacy Project blog.]

Monday, July 12, 2010

Freedom of the Press: How do Czech media fare?

Journalists throughout Europe have been sounding an alarm about the trends of increasing conglomeration, censorship and diminishing freedom of the press. Where does the Czech Republic stand in terms of media freedom? How do independent vs. corporate media outlets fare? Is there room for human rights journalism in the current media environment? These are some questions I am seeking to answer, seeing them as relevant to my fellowship with the Dženo Association, which is partly a media organization with a history of magazine publishing, broadcasting and training journalists.

In its 2007 report surveying media freedom in the European Union, the Association of European Journalists found that freedom of the press is relatively unrestrained in the Czech Republic:

The Czech media enjoy a comparatively high level of media freedom and independence, reflected in the relatively mature media scene and the lack of high-profile violations of the media's ability to report on events in public life. Reporters Sans Frontieres, in its Press Freedom Index for 2006, ranked the Czech Republic in 5th place out of 168 countries assessed.

However, the Czech Republic's press freedom rating has since plummeted to the 24th place. Also, the report raises several concerns, among them subtle pressure sometimes exerted by business and political interests to influence reporters. Also among the report's criticisms is the problem that "Czech journalists sometimes fail to demonstrate the independence of mind and professional rigour needed to report adequately on sensitive issues," and that they "have shown a lack of independence and determination in questioning politicians and their decisions."

The concerns above are echoed by media expert and Czech journalism professor Jaromír Volek, who writes:
The continuing influence of the state on the public service sector is an. . . issue. This has been de facto "privatized" by the parliamentary parties and used as a megaphone for their own political ambitions; in effect they use the media to shut off individuals not affiliated to a political party from the public debate.

Regarding the rigor needed for reporters to question authority and provide alternative angles, Volek asserts that Czech journalism exhibits "a surprising degree of conformity in approaches, which, in turn, results in the campaign-style promotion of social agendas and collective media interpretations."

This reality is compounded by the fact that three of the four largest-circulation dailies "pursue a center-right political agenda," while the vast majority of journalists themselves subscribe to center-right political views and reject the Left. In fact, a study by the media monitoring group Hermes of the most widely read daily, MF Dnes, showed that left-wing political parties were presented less favorably than the right. Mainstream Czech press is thus clearly slanted ideologically, which has an impact on minority rights and social issue coverage. Pertinent to my fellowship is the fact that although a formal survey of the political preferences of the Roma community has not been carried out, the general assumption in and outside the Roma community is that the Roma are overall a left-leaning voter constituency.

The Association of European Journalists shares Volek's view about the declining journalistic standards, which "tend to encourage passivity and acceptance of the status quo instead of vigilance." The level of political debate and focus in reporting, says the AEJ analysis, is often "characterised by populism and an excessive focus on personality" and dominated by "dumbed-down" content.

But why this substandard quality of journalism in the Czech Republic? Both Volek and the Institute of Democracy for All, a media monitoring group, have argued that this deficiency is caused by the consolidation of ownership and commercialization, even “tabloidization“of the media.

After the fall of communism in 1989, a rush to privatize all state assets ensued. The Czech media were no exception.

“The Czech Republic,“ writes Milan Šmíd in "Media Ownership and Its Impact on Media Independence and Pluralism.", a 2004 Peace Institute report, “was the first country in Central and Eastern Europe to award a nation-wide broadcasting license to a private person, and to allocate a complete network of frequencies formerly used by public television to private television. . . (By 1993), there were no state media in the country. Three former state media outlets, i.e. Czech Television, Czech Radio and the Czech Press Agency (CTK) already operated as independent public service companies. . . All other media companies were in private hands.“

Now with more than eighty percent of all state-run enterprises privatized, the Czech Republic, with a population of just over 10 million, has the highest concentration of foreign-owned press in Central and Eastern Europe after Poland.

Although 87 percent of Czech print media outlets are foreign-owned, with German and Swiss companies owning 80 percent of Czech newspapers and magazines, the media monitoring group Institute of Democracy for All asserts that commercialization, homogenization and a trend toward infotainment have much more of an impact on today’s journalism than the nationality of the media owners.

Volek expresses a similar analysis:
Unable to reconcile their former role with the demands of the new technology and economic pressures, journalists have gradually been "de-intellectualized" and reduced to administering the machinery of communication. The "new type of journalist" as a "media employee", whose existence depends on respecting the dominant logic of infotainment has, for now, won out over the traditional role of the journalist as reporter and interpreter of events.

He continues: "Most of the Czech media have adapted to the economic realities of the market: the media is just one more commodity forced to adapt to market imperatives as it comes ever closer to being little more than infotainment."

If mainstream journalists are so beholden to economic, and sometimes political pressures that content starts to become uncritical and tabloid-like, the role of independent media is even more important in terms of investigative reporting and of presenting of stories which may not have commercial appeal or mainstream political endorsement, but may be crucial to the understanding and reforming of the current political and social landscape in the Czech Republic. Such is the role media organizations like Romea, a Prague-based Roma news service, and my host organization Dženo which plans to launch an international, multilingual satellite broadcast on Roma issues and culture. The question is always that of funding and funding priorities.

"Media publishers and broadcasters support investigative journalism only exceptionally," writes media analyst Milan Šmíd in the Peace Institute media study," not because of its contentious nature, but because it is an expensive, time consuming and costly affair."

The current economic crisis is creating yet another excuse for those with the purse strings to divest from social services and causes. Perhaps there are still those funders who see the value of independent media and are willing to support the voices of the underrepresented for the long haul. Media freedom and diversity as well as independent and probing journalism are signs of a healthy democracy.


[The original version appeared on Tereza Bottman's blog.]

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Even for Highly Qualified Roma Candidates, Racism Still a Barrier in Czech Job Market

"I am very upset,” says Milan Kováč, who is visiting the Dženo Association office.

“You need to try harder,” one of my office mates jokes sarcastically and we all laugh, but the laughter is tinged with a sense of letdown.

Mr. Kováč, holds a college business degree, knows five languages and has many years of professional experience in settings ranging from the non-profit and government to the private sector. He has, for instance, worked as Project Manager at both, the Ministry of Youth and Sports and the non-profit Athinganoi, an organization specializing in supporting Romani students in obtaining secondary and post-secondary education.

Since losing his job eight months ago, he has been searching for work. He has applied for more than sixty positions and has gone through an average of seven job interviews a week to no avail.

Recently, he applied for the position of Local Coordinator at the governmental Agency for Social Inclusion in Roma Localities, which employs only one Roma of the total of twenty-five staff. As a strongly qualified applicant and a Roma himself, he was convinced his chances were high, especially considering the fact that the role of the agency is to promote the integration of Roma in socially excluded regions in the job market, among its other missions.

Upon successfully completing the first phase of the interview process, Mr. Kováč was verbally invited back. However, soon he learned he was not selected for the second round of interviews.

Mr. Kováč’s experience is not unique. A multi-country study by the European Roma Rights Center, conducted partly in the Czech Republic, found this to be the case:

The most prevalent incidence of employment discrimination against Roma is at the job search stage and in the recruitment practices that companies apply. Raw, direct discrimination prevents applicants from even reaching the phase of the interview. Many companies have a total exclusion policy regarding the employment of Roma and practice across-the-board unmitigated discrimination against Romani applicants. As a result, Romani job-seekers are eliminated and excluded from the application process at the very outset; regardless of education, qualifications and competences for the job.

In his appeal letter, sent to the agency which rejected him after the first round of interviews, Mr. Kováč wonders whether the organizations in charge of eliminating barriers to equal participation in Czech society facing the Roma are truly “pro-Roma.“ He writes:
The Agency for Social Inclusion in Roma Localities was founded to advocate for the social inclusion of Roma . . . One of its roles is to promote the inclusion of Roma from socially excluded communities in the job market. There is also a whole host of non-governmental and non-profit organizations which present themselves as “pro-Roma.“ They champion an open attitude on the part of employers towards the Roma under the generous support of the European Social Fund. Are these organizations themselves actually open to employing the Roma and are they in reality practicing what they preach?

When the fact that not a single Roma advanced to the second round of interviews was criticized, Michael Kocáb, commissioner on human rights, who chairs the Monitoring Committee of the Agency for Social Inclusion in Roma Localities, responded that he was not aware that there were any Roma applicants interviewed to begin with. Mr. Kocáb has in the past said he is committed to increasing the number of Roma employees in the governmental agency. Additionally, Mr. Kováč was promised an appointment where he could present his case, but this meeting never took place. Instead, in the hall of the Office of the Government, in passing, he was told by the agency’s director that he was not chosen because he lacked the necessary qualifications, although he was clearly selected as a promising candidate earlier.

Many a study, including a 2008 report prepared jointly by the Government of the Czech Republic and the World Bank, conclude that the barriers for the Roma in the job market are largely due to a lack of skills and qualifications. But what about the Roma who do possess the experience and skills that match the position sought?

The above-mentioned 2006 ERRC study, Systemic Exclusion of Roma from Employment, states:

The mass-unemployment of working age Roma is most often perceived as a labour market supply- side issue and the high level of unemployment is attributed to Roma’s inability to find employment because of their low levels of education; out-of-date work skills and detachment from the labour market. Also because large segments of the Romani community lost out during the economic and industrial restructuring that occurred during the transition from Communism. Undoubtedly, these factors create very real barriers that reduce employability and exclude many Roma from work but there is another dimension – discrimination – which significantly aggravates the situation and causes systemic exclusion from employment for vast numbers of working-age Roma.

Mr. Kováč touches on the very issue of anti-Roma discrimination in his letter:
I want the society to know that the Roma are continuing their education, raising their qualifications, applying for quality work, but that still barriers, factors and influences exist which make it impossible to achieve success.

Unfortunately, both cronyism and racism still play a determining role in key decision-making in this country. Those with whom I have spoken who have been active in Roma rights advocacy for years confirm this reality, which the ERRC study enumerates and Mr. Kováč's story illustrates.

One way to combat discrimination in the job search and recruitment stage, suggests ERRC, is to mandate the collection of data disaggregated by ethnicity and to monitor and respond, in a structural way, to inequities based on this data in order to improve job access for qualified Roma applicants. This is currently not done. The ERRC states:

There is strong evidence, from countries with the most effective measures to combat racial discrimination in employment, that workforce monitoring, including the collection of data on ethnicity, is a key means of obtaining statistical evidence to support positive actions to address under-representation of ethnic groups in the workplaces and more generally in specific occupations and sectors of the labour market. Monitoring, recording, reporting and responding to the ethnic composition of a workplace are key factors that guarantee the effectiveness and efficiency of equal opportunities policies.

[This post originally appeared on Tereza Bottman's blog.]