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eBookstoreDestructive Discourse
The image of Hungarians in the Romanian press
Delia Dumitrica

Viewed as "traditional enemies," Hungarians in general are stereotypically portrayed in the Romanian press. Their image is cast in a negative light, despite changes in Romanian mass media and public discourse that have occurred since the fall of Ceausescu's regime. The old modus operandi of the press has undergone a transition from the manipulation and propaganda roles imposed by Communist policy to a free and democratic publishing system. Despite the transformation, however, hate speech and intolerance have not automatically disappeared from journalistic discourse.

Does the Romanian press encourage change, or does it reinforce the status quo? Examining the stereotypes about Hungarians and presenting them through a historical perspective reveals that the stereotypes are not a new phenomenon, but rather a carryover from the nineteenth century. The representation of Hungarians as portrayed by the Romanian press is laden with negative clichés and prejudices.

This is particularly troublesome because the type of speech communicated through the press not only influences, but to a great extent predetermines the general opinion about Hungarians, and it contributes to the attitudes of intolerance which characterise many layers of Romanian society—from politicians and intellectuals to everyday working-class citizens. In other words, the media impact and contribute to a societal acceptance of the resurgence of nationalism and xenophobic discourse and actions that is associated with present-day journalistic practices in Romania.

Speech acts in Romania are of considerable concern from the perspective of the country's desire to integrate within a greater Europe and take part in Euro-Atlantic institutions. Moreover, the issue of minority rights protection is a principal precondition for achieving this goal. With over 1.6 million inhabitants, the Magyars are the largest minority group in Romania. Not only is the Hungarian minority politically involved in the transition process, but with Hungary just next door, minority relations remain a hot-topic on the political agenda.

Their turbulent history has resulted in a tense relationship between Romania and its Magyar minority, one that has reverberated into Hungary, as well. Adding fuel to the fire of this political conflict between Romania's ethnic majority and minority is the realisation that a peaceful resolution must take place between them before integration and recognition as a legitimate European democracy can occur.

The issue of minority rights protection in Romania is perhaps better understood in the context of the nation's recent and past history. Insofar as the creation of a nation-state is concerned, nationalism as an ideology has been a constant trump card played by both politicians and intellectuals, whether as a reaction to foreign dominance, or to internal strife. After the collapse of the Communism, when Western leaders and scholars expected the death of nationalism, what in fact happened was the exact opposite; nationalism became the means to legitimise new ruling elites and to preserve their power, hence diverting attention from the real problems of a society in transition.

As reflected by contemporary media discourse, nationalistic propaganda often reinvigorates hate speech and xenophobic behaviours, thus resulting in a distorted image of the others—whether they are Hungarians, Roma or any perceived foreigner. This sort of media portrayal has perpetuated the role of minorities as scapegoats and "enemies" of Romanians, as if they are the only impediment to the "golden future in the new Romania."

Of course, the political landscape has improved since 1989. For instance, the political relationship with Hungary was finally normalised in a 1996 Treaty that provides for basic minority rights such as education (at all levels), usage of mother tongue, bilingual administration, and also for the right to establish political parties or organisations. Additionally, the Uniunea Democrata a Maghiarilor din Romania, (UDMR) the political organisation of the Romanian Magyars, became part of the Romanian government with the 1996 elections won by the Democratic Coalition.

Incrementally, the development of a modern civil society in Romania is taking place. A network of NGOs is actively involved in shaping public policy on minorities, and most significantly, mass media are no longer a monopolistic and corrupt voice serving the interests of one group but has evolved into a pluralistic forum making space for dissenting voices and opinions.

Despite these improvements, however, nationalism readily appeals to a large audience in Romania. Connected to fears of change and a reluctance to acknowledge the often competing demands and interests of multicultural societies, it is an easy sell. After all, it is easier to control the masses when their hatred and attention is directed towards imaginary enemies or personified abominations—serving only to perpetuate stereotypes and avoid the dissemination of information—than it is to establish a healthy socio-political climate where divergent ethnic groups can freely express their attitudes and concerns about the state and each other. Nonetheless, a socially responsible electorate and the creation of a democratic civil conscience is contingent upon Romania's media ridding themselves of their reliance on stereotypes and tendency to portray the Hungarian minority in a negative light.

From this perspective, deconstructing the Hungarian image as conveyed by the press is a significant undertaking. This is a pertinent task for the actual state of affairs in Southeast Europe, and a helpful starting point for Romania's aim of developing into a democratic country. As remnants of a past that brought with them suffering and backwardness, it is vital for Romania to overcome stereotypes and xenophobia so that a tolerant and democratic public conscience can be realised.

To read the full text of Destructive Discourse, go to the CER eBookshop and purchase the ebook. (to be published in October 2000)