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No Minor Role

Despite their lack of visibility, minority-language newspapers in Romania serve a key function in maintaining the country’s multiethnic fabric.

by Peter Gross 14 June 2018

The ancient city of Cluj-Napoca in Romania has a long history of Hungarian-language newspapers, the first one going back to 1790. Sitting in the sparsely but comfortably appointed editorial offices of one of the more recent examples, the editors of Szabadsag (Freedom) made certain that I understood that their mission is not unlike those of editors worldwide. Yet they also emphasized that beyond supplying information and news for nearly 29 years, they have an added responsibility given the paper’s status as a minority-language publication serving the 50,000 Hungarians in the Transylvanian county of Cluj, and the approximately 65,000 in the nearby counties of Salaj, Alba, Sibiu, and Bistrita-Nasaud, all of them located in northern-central Romania.


Ildiko Ujvari, the editor in chief, pointed out that when their community “suffers an injustice,” or one of its “rights is not respected,” the newspaper campaigns for justice and to maintain the “dignity of the community.” Romania’s ethnic minorities enjoy a great deal of cultural and political autonomy, yet there are off-and-on tensions creatively concocted by both Romanian and Hungarian nationalists. Thus the extra bit of alertness on the part of a newspaper that covers everything from local culture, politics, education, sports, and other issues.


Szabadsag’s concatenation of self-assigned roles is not unusual for media outlets serving Central and Eastern European countries. These are places that are richly marbled by culturally distinct ethnic minorities, with their old and new disputes with the majority population or governments, mutual recriminations for real and imagined discrimination and insults, and territorial disputes that predate the 20th century.


The roughly 1.2 million ethnic Hungarians who make up around 6 percent of Romania’s population have four magazines and at least 30 newspapers – and possibly as many as 60 – available in their own language, according to Szabadsag’s editors. Because there is no legal requirement for them to be registered, there is no way to precisely ascertain the number of print media in any of the vernaculars of the co-inhabiting minorities.


The Hungarian minority – half of them belonging to the Szekler subgroup, which has a distinct 800-year-old history – is also served by four (Romanian) public and 17 private radio stations broadcasting in Hungarian or offering some programs in the language; there are also seven public, one private, and nine local stations televising Hungarian-language programs or broadcasting exclusively in Hungarian. In addition, there are 13 online publications, one of which is Szabadsag, the first Hungarian-language newspaper in the country to add an online edition in 1995. Hungarian-language media have their own professional organization, the Association of Hungarian Journalists in Romania, which is a member of The Convention of the Media Organization, an umbrella organization whose members include professional organizations and research, advocacy, and journalism training groups like the Center for Independent Journalism, and ActiveWatch—The Media Monitoring Agency.


Not unlike most of their Romanian counterparts, Hungarian-language publications struggle financially, despite the loyalties of their readers whose self-appointed “mission,” says Ujvari, is “to read the Hungarian press” out of ethnic solidarity and cultural affinity. Some publications receive minimal financial support from Hungarian political parties in Romania and other organizations – among them the Democratic Alliance of Hungarians in Romania, the Hungarian People’s Party of Transylvania, the Hungarian Civic Party, Szekler National Council, and the Hungarian National Council of Transylvania. Publications that specifically serve Szekler communities receive assistance in the form of revenues from (Romanian) state advertising.


Ultimately, the problem for the Hungarian-language press is the size of its potential readership. The Hungarian population can’t support that many media outlets, according to Szabadsag’s editors. Complicating their economic plight is an inadequate distribution system, particularly in rural areas.


Romania has more than 21 ethnic minorities – from Albanians to Ukrainians and including some more recent Chinese and Arabs immigrants – many of them had and still have their own media outlets. For example, the Roma, the second-largest ethnic group numbering around 620,000, have at least two newspapers, Satra Libera (Free Gypsy Camp) and Glasul Romilor (The Voice of the Romani). Whether some of the other publications that were launched in the 1990 still survive – Neo DromNicovalaAvena Mentza, Fruncea Tiganilor, and Citadela – is unclear.


The once-thriving German-language press serving German communities that settled in what is today Romania, starting in the Middle Ages, has diminished after significant emigration waves after 1979 and again after 1989. Karpatenrundschau, Banater Zeitung, Hermannstadter Zeitung, and the Allgemeine Deutsche Zeitung fur Rumanien survive to serve the remaining 36,000 Germans left in the country. Even the now tiny community of approximately 3,200 Jews has its own publication, Realitatea Evreiasca, which publishes in Romanian and Hebrew.


Szabadsag’s various roles and impact on its readers, along with that of other minority ethnic media, is seldom studied. The topic is adrift in the interstices of scholarly and journalistic interests that predominantly concentrate on issues of identity, rights, integration, treatment, aspirations, culture, and the demands of ethnic minority groups in the region.


Lost in this mix is, unfortunately, the shared significance of ethnic minority media. Elucidating the history and contemporary life, challenges, and roles of ethnic minorities in East and Central Europe cannot be fully accomplished without closely studying their content.


Scholars and journalists alike must do a much better job of shining a light on the nature, contributions, and consequence of these media. 

Peter Gross
, Ph.D., is a professor in the School of Journalism and Electronic Media at the University of Tennessee in the United States. He has written extensively on the subject of East European media and its evolution since 1989.
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