Ivan Vesely is reversing negative perceptions of the Romani minority in Central Europe through alternative Romani-produced media and public events. At the same time, Ivan encourages Romani people to self-organize around community problems, an essential part of overcoming their marginalized position in mainstream society.
The New Idea
For too long, Central European Romani or gypsies, have survived on society’s fringes. Rather than helping them, mainstream media has perpetuated societal prejudice and further alienated these communities. To reverse their marginalization, Ivan is providing various new platforms from which they can be heard. Most notably, he has established a media platform—produced by Roma—that give voice to an array of Roma issues in the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary and beyond. Beginning with a Romani-led magazine and radio station, the media has several functions: 1) to combat predominantly negative or condescending stereotypes of the Romani minority in Central European society by providing alternative perspectives 2) to bring Romani issues to public attention, and 3) to provide the Romani themselves with models for self-organization, discussion, and problem-solving. The last function is the most important aspect of Ivan’s work and he promotes it with a complementary strategy of Romani community organizing. Ivan founded a network of Romani clubs throughout the Czech Republic, built on the idea of Romani coming together to identify common challenges faced by their communities and ultimately improve their situation. These issues serve as content for Ivan’s magazine and radio, but also as focal points to organize public events that intend to change unjust policy toward the Romani in the Czech Republic, and in the future, across Central Europe.
Despite the relative success of the Czech Republic during its post-communist transformation, the country’s public policy has largely overlooked its population of approximately 300,000 Romani. Just after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1992, many Roma had their Czech citizenship revoked, reducing them to second-class citizens. Numerous examples illustrate the extreme disdain with which the Romani are viewed by much of mainstream Czech society and the extent of the implications. At least one city has built a wall around its Roma neighborhood, and many more have been moving the Roma to barren apartments on the outskirts of cities or into urban ghettoes. The majority of Romani children are disproportionately placed in “special” schools. Recently, the Czech public was shocked to learn of cases of sterilization of Romani women. Finally, at Lety, the site of a WWII concentration work camp, where several thousand Roma perished, there remains a pig farm. Much of the mainstream media in the Czech Republic and throughout Central Europe portrays only stereotypes and prejudices of the Romani. At best, they are a romanticized stereotype, and at worst, they are scapegoats for societal ills. For example, before the Czech Republic’s acceptance into the European Union, the Roma were accused of drawing negative attention during their travels abroad; threatening the process toward EU acceptance. Most journalists do not focus on Romani issues or attempt to thoroughly understand their situation—when they do, the Romani are almost always portrayed in a negative light. In this way, mainstream media promotes the notion that Roma are the problem and desensitizes the public to racial prejudice and extremism. Almost no one challenges this perception of the Roma or tries to change the situation. Because the Romani are so discriminated against, their problems are largely ignored. Their interests are often represented only by charities, citizen organizations (COs), and a handful of minority politicians. And because they have been marginalized for so long, most do not think they are capable of improving their situation. A practical question for the Roma has been how to have the agency to talk about their issues for themselves. So far, there has been no forum to discuss and challenge not only the problem of representation but also the many struggles of the Romani minority in Czech Republic. Existing attempts at giving the Romani a voice in the media have limited impact. Run by COs, they rely heavily on enthusiasm and voluntary work and consist mostly of narrowly focused web resources and specialized magazines. Written documents and internet-based materials do not reach far in a population that is largely illiterate and without access to the internet. The Romani also lack a way of finding out about these activities.
Ivan’s current activities are aimed at changing the position of the Roma in society through providing unbiased information from the regions and communities on issues facing the Roma. He is systematically building all the components of a new media platform that links the Romani and the rest of society. He also designs various forums for Romani to identify the major problems faced by their community and for society as a whole to discuss issues related to tolerance and ethnic cohabitation in the Czech Republic.Ivan’s Dzeno Association, established in 1994, publishes Amaro Gandalos, a Romani magazine and produces Radio Rota, an internet-based radio station. Radio Rota is the 8th most listened-to internet radio station in Czech Republic. Through this media channel, Ivan tries to provide balanced and objective information on the Roma, their lives, problems, and differences as well as traditional values. Because he is targeting the perceptions of mainstream society, Ivan ensures that the magazine and radio language is as understandable and accessible to as many people as possible. A significant component of producing this media is having Romani journalists who are trained to write it. As a result, Ivan has created a training program for Romani journalists. He ensures that all staff collect original information and are capable of editing and preparing their work to serve his overarching purpose.As much as it is intended for mainstream society, Ivan’s new media is also targeted at the Romani community, giving them new ways to talk about the issues that affect them. Media content encourages dialogue and self-organization, and offers examples and role models for Romani communities. But Ivan goes beyond mere examples to foster community building among the Romani, primarily through a network of partners and cooperating volunteers throughout the Czech Republic who organize events and regular club meetings. These events and clubs are intended to strengthen the Roma community across the country, but also to serve as a better way to identify key issues facing the community today.Ivan soon plans to launch a live satellite broadcasting of the Radio Rota, taking it beyond the confines of the internet. This is essential, he realizes, because most Romani do not have access to internet resources and are sometimes illiterate. A radio broadcast can also have an impact beyond the borders of the Czech Republic, as the Czech language is accessible to Slovaks and a majority of the Czech Roma originally come from Slovakia. Ivan has a clear launch strategy, consisting of thorough methodological, technological and human preparations. He plans to sustain this initiative with state funding, as the Czech constitution guarantees support for minority media. To change public perspectives of the Romani, Ivan also communicates with influential public officials to help make the Romani voice heard at the highest levels. In addition, he organizes events that provoke broader discussion in mainstream society. For example, he organized a hearing in the Czech parliament, where he brought 150 Roma together with 150 members of parliament to discuss several pertinent issues for the Roma minority. This event led to the amendment of several laws, regulations and policies, which have directly influenced the Roma community. Although his primary focus is on the Roma in the Czech Republic, Ivan is aware that many of their problems are similar to those in other countries. Therefore, he regularly organizes cross-border conferences and information exchange, in addition to advocating for a network of like-minded media in Central and Eastern Europe. Besides 11 people working with him in the Czech Republic, he has two other correspondents in Hungary and one in Slovakia. They provide information in their local language, which in the future can prove useful for effective exchange of information across the borders. His next steps for regional expansion are to broadcast in Hungary and Slovakia.
Ivan is a Romani himself and his life and career cannot be understood without his personal experiences. His first encounter with the media was in 1991 when Ivan was physically attacked and robbed by a group of right-wing extremists. Afterwards, he decided to publish a magazine that would provide both the Roma and wider public with true information about the subject. Although not meant as a continuous source of information, the success of the first issue was an important moment and led him to pursue activities in realm of media.Ivan’s experience in producing some of the first Romani programs for Czech TV or as a Romani representative to various governmental committees made him aware that CO activism and high level politics are insufficient without real Romani representation.His knowledge of media is thorough. He wrote one of the first articles analyzing the portrayal of the Romani by the Czech press, which was published in Romano Džaniben in 1994. In addition, he produced 64 issues of Romale, a television magazine in cooperation with Czech TV until 1999. Ivan is a perfectionist and disciplined worker. Between 1996 and 2000 he decided to pursue further education in the field of sociology and Romani studies. Today Ivan is respected as one of the most remarkable Romani advocates and spokesmen for the Romani community in the Czech Republic and in Central and Eastern Europe. For 7 years he was a member of the board of directors of the Open Society Foundation in Prague and for 4 years he held an honorary office at the Roma advisory board at the Open Society Institute, in Budapest. His dedication to representation, democracy and human rights is further illustrated by his work as an election observer at Official OSCE missions in Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia, Ukraine, and Belarus.