The Hungarian film “Just the Wind” recently won the Amnesty prize at the Berlin International Film Festival. I haven’t seen the film yet to be able to speak of its artistic merits, but it’s only a good thing to spread knowledge of the horrendous string of murders that took place several years ago in Hungary. It’s important to keep in mind, however, that extremists across the region have much more subtle ways of attacking the Roma, using sophisticated disinformation campaigns to generate negativity, perpetuate stereotypes, and contribute to a climate that can erupt into the kind of violence depicted in the film.
Over the past few weeks, for example, one Roma media website here in the Czech Republic built a convincing case that a journalist with far-right ties fabricated a story that indirectly ridiculed the Roma community. Romea.cz is one of the top Roma media outlets in Central Europe (disclosure: they are also a TOL partner in a current training project and some of their reporters have participated in our training programs). Earlier this month, the site became suspicious about a report on the Parlamentni listy (“Parliamentary News”) website that described the founding meeting of a “European Romani Party” in the north Bohemian town of Usti nad Labem. The author of the article, Vaclav Prokupek, reported that the new party’s treasurer had robbed the organization.
It was a catchy story with obvious racial undertones (i.e. “Romani organization can’t even get off the ground because its own treasurer has stolen party funds! How typical!”). Other media picked up the news, including some of the country’s most popular news sites, and spread it further. Thousands read the story, and many added racist, anti-Roma comments to the sites’ online discussion sections.
Yet do what they could, Romea’s reporters couldn’t find any evidence that such a party existed or that such a meeting had taken place; they couldn’t track down the people quoted in the report. Neither Parlamentni listy nor Prokupek have managed to come up so far with supposed audio and photographic proof that the gathering in Usti really happened. And, according to Romea, the local police have also failed to verify any of the article’s claims.
Now Romea has uncovered that the article’s article, Vaclav Prokupek, is the very same man who ran in the parliamentary elections of 2010 – as the top candidate in the Olomouc region for the extremist Workers’ Social Justice Party (DSSS). The xenophobic and anti-Roma DSSS is the successor to the Workers’ Party, which was banned for its views earlier in 2010.
Parliamentni listy’s managers stopped responding to Romea’s queries about the case, prompting the site’s journalists to ask:
We would like to ask him why a former candidate for an extremist party is writing articles attacking Romani people in Parliamentní listy. We would also like to ask why the editors of Parlamentní listy claimed, when previously asked, that the Prokupek who writes for them is not the same man who ran for the DSSS.
Finally after much prodding, the site issued an apology, having concluded that “this piece of material was mendacious and that the author had all but completely invented it.”
If Czechs took everything on that site with the healthy skepticism allotted to tabloids in this country, then some of the damage in supporting stereotypes of thieving gypsies might have been avoided. Yet that name Parliamentni listy has apparently confused many people (including me) into thinking that it’s some official or quasi-official publication, giving misplaced legitimacy to its content.
Worries over that potential mix-up have now made their way to the Czech parliament.
Motivated, at least in part, by the Prokupek article, Czech Senator Jaromir Stetina, a former journalist, has written to the chairmen of the upper and lower houses, asking them to consider publicly distancing parliament from the site that carries its name:
As you know, this news server has nothing to do with the Parliament of the Czech Republic, but it is considered an official publication of the Czech Republic by many other media outlets and readers both at home and abroad and is often even cited as such. The political tabloid form which Parlamentni listy has chosen as its main marketing effort evokes the idea among the public that the vulgarization of serious societal topics is coming from the Parliament of the Czech Republic.
In any case, the damage has already been done, as Patrik Banga, one of the journalists who uncovered the fake story, wrote on Romea.cz:
How many people might have read it? Thousands, hundreds of thousands, one million? How many people swallowed the bait…?
One thing is certain: Parlamentní listy served in this case as a so-called “useful idiot”. Through them, Prokůpek, once a leading candidate for the DSSS, got a unique chance to pour oil onto the fire of relations between the Czech and Romani populations. All it took was an invented news item.
…No one can change the damage done by this invented article. Every Romani effort to establish a serious political party here will be damaged by this in future, because the recipients of the invented news will connect any such efforts to that other (non-existent) party they once heard of.
Perhaps the greatest irony here, as Banga pointed out, is that Prokupek is evidently teaching mass communications at a university in Prague.