From Journalism to Activism

Many people are drawn to journalism because of their passion for social justice. They want to investigate wrongdoing. They want to expose corruption. They want to give voice to those who don’t have any other way to bring their stories to the public.

Journalism can be powerful. It can bring down the mighty and elevate the underdog. But it can’t by itself transform social mores. People, in the end, read what they want to read. Often, they don’t read newspapers at all.

Szilvia Varro worked as a journalist for 18 years. She won Hungary’s top journalism award for her investigative pieces on the extreme right and its approach toward Roma, the Pulitzer Prize (Joseph Pulitzer was born in Hungary). Her pieces were published in a prominent daily and weekly. If any journalist could have changed Hungarian attitudes about Roma, it would have been her.

But after 18 years, she quit. And started something new.

“When I got the Pulitzer Prize, I had to ask myself: what did I achieve?” she told me in her office in Budapest. “I had this feeling that I hadn’t reached anything in my journalistic work. What did it mean to get the Pulitzer Prize if nothing had changed? Because nothing changed with the Roma question, I started Communications Center X: to somehow democratically influence social issues through communication. It was just not satisfying for me to write articles over and over again when nothing was changing.”

Communications Center X (XKK) is a public relations firm with a purpose. It aims to mobilize young people in Hungary to transform their society. The Roma issue is one the agency’s priorities because of the urgency of the situation.

“A racially motivated series of attacks of a kind unprecedented since World War II occurred against the Roma in Hungary in 2008-2009, leaving six dead and many severely injured,” she explained. “XKK made four short films to commemorate this. The campaign was launched on July 22 with four short films disseminated on Facebook and in the Hungarian mainstream media. The campaign was carried out in three spheres: Hungarian and international media, Facebook, and offline events. We also launched a Virtual Commemoration Campaign. We asked companies, churches, and NGOs to take an active role in remembering the victims by posting and sharing our films on their pages and social media sites on the Internet.”

The campaign was a success. Not only did it win awards. “With the Their Skin Was Their Only Sin campaign we reached over 1.2 million people, and people reacted to what we did. We achieved more than I did in the previous 18 years.”

Journalism, Varro discovered, was not always part of the solution. “Several times when interethnic conflict broke out, I was among the first to arrive on the scene,” she recalled. “One of my mistakes was looking only at the Roma agenda. The Roma called me and that’s how I got there. So I entered the conflict through one door, and it was the door of the Roma. I never entered the door of the majority. On several occasions I didn’t reduce the conflict but rather exaggerated it. It was almost as if I was promoting the extreme right in my paper because, looking back, I was exaggerating the problem, making it worse.”

Now, with XKK, she offers a different strategy. “When we are working with the Roma and helping them with their communication, we advise them not to turn to the media,” she said. “We teach them to avoid the media. Don’t talk to them because it has consequences. Forget about the media. Try to solve the conflict by working together with the gadjo, the majority community. Find other NGOs, but don’t go to the media.”

We talked about how she managed to gain the trust of the extreme Right, how XKK hopes to reach young people in Hungary today, and her skepticism toward the current political choices on offer. I’ve also incorporated her updates on XKK activities since we originally talked last May.

 

The Interview

 

So, tell me about this organization.

 

Communications Center X (XKK) was founded in 2012 with help from Open Society Institute. Before this, I was a journalist for 18 years, writing for a Hungarian weekly Magyar Narancs and for the daily Népszabadság. I received the Pulitzer Prize for investigative journalism in 2010 for investigating the extreme right here in Hungary. I started that work in the early 1990s, when Istvan Csurka was in parliament and quite powerful. In the mid 2000s, I followed the extreme Right party Jobbik and their paramilitary wing, the Hungarian Guard as well. I was investigating the far right and Hungarian Roma and the serial killings of the Roma between 2008-2009.

A racially motivated series of attacks of a kind unprecedented since World War II occurred against the Roma in Hungary in 2008-2009, leaving six dead and many severely injured. XKK made four short films to commemorate this. The campaign was launched on July 22 with four short films disseminated on Facebook and in the Hungarian mainstream media. The campaign was carried out in three spheres: Hungarian and international media, Facebook, and offline events. We also launched a Virtual Commemoration Campaign. We asked companies, churches, and NGOs to take an active role in remembering the victims by posting and sharing our films on their pages and social media sites on the Internet. We succeeded in partnering with the Jesuit order, which initially organized memorial services on the memorial day of the Roma holocaust. This was followed up on several occasions when the XKK team appeared at a number of seminars at various Jesuit youth events. The Their Skin Was Their Only Sin campaign won in two categories of Prizma Kreatív (Project of the Year; CSR solutions), the most prestigious award in the Hungarian advertising industry.

 

Why did you give up journalism?

 

When I got the Pulitzer Prize, I had to ask myself: what did I achieve? I had this feeling that I hadn’t reached anything in my journalistic work. What did it mean to get the Pulitzer Prize if nothing had changed? Because nothing changed with the Roma question, I started Communications Center X: to somehow democratically influence social issues through communication. It was just not satisfying for me to write articles over and over again when nothing was changing. With the Their Skin Was Their Only Sin campaign we reached over 1.2 million people, and people reacted to what we did. We achieved more than I did in the previous 18 years.

Education became a big issue in Hungary because we basically have the same system we had in the 1980s. Not much has changed. And the current conservative government has made it worse than it was. So, education became a central issue. I also chose this topic because, as maybe you know, many young people vote for Jobbik, especially those with a strong party identification. The student demonstration on the street was the first sign that a left-liberal minority was forming — that something was emerging not on the right side and especially not on the extreme right side. As a journalist I witnessed how Jobbik first emerged on the street, occupying the street, and that’s partly how they became cool. They began to use social media.  In the beginning of 2000s, they gradually became mainstream.

A new issue we are working on at the moment is how to mobilize young people, how to get them to vote. We know that Hungarian youth are allegedly disengaged from public affairs and invisible in the political arena. They do not read the news regularly and do not get informed about public affairs. Their news consumption rarely involves political articles. Watching the evening news is out, checking their Facebook feed is in. There is no medium in Hungarian mainstream media that would simultaneously supply entertaining, light content, and serious political content of interest to young people. That’s what we want to try: to establish a set of platforms (homepage, blog, Facebook, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter) in order to reach young people. We launched the Hello90 blog, where the content is generated by those born in the 1990s. It provides credibility, authenticity. Hello90 translates public affairs into the language of the young, while also sensitizing them to social problems. It should become a point of reference for the generation.

 

You said that you were frustrated by not seeing results. Do you think your articles contributed in any way to increasing knowledge about the extreme right and helping organizations that you see now emerging in their strategizing?

 

Yes, I think so. I was among the first to follow them. I was very intensively following what they were doing in eastern Hungary, the poorer part of the country. I went to their gatherings and meetings. Gradually it became cool to follow what they were doing, but I was among the first to examine and analyze their conflicts. Somehow, despite the fact that I was working for a left newspaper, Magyar Narancs, I gained their trust. They treated me like a kind of animal, but a useful animal. I wrote articles about their structure, their leading figures, their connections to other organizations in Hungary and outside the country. That was something. But I couldn’t change anything.

 

Do you feel like you could go back to those contacts and talk to them?

 

I could talk with Jobbik followers. We’re not friends, but I had a fair relationship with one of the leaders of Jobbik. His wife gave birth at home, and I’ve been connected with the home-birth issue. Home birth was a very interesting issue. It used to be illegal in Hungary. It has now been legal for only two years. The issue connected lots of different people working together.

There was a discussion on Friday on whether to talk with Jobbik. The conclusion was that we should talk to them and start a discussion. Well, I was following them for 18 years and I was talking with them and I don’t think it led anywhere. And I also think that I made a lot of mistakes that I won’t commit again. Several times when interethnic conflict broke out, I was among the first to arrive on the scene. One of my mistakes was looking only at the Roma agenda. The Roma called me and that’s how I got there. So I entered the conflict through one door, and it was the door of the Roma. I never entered the door of the majority. On several occasions I didn’t reduce the conflict but rather exaggerated it. It was almost as if I was promoting the extreme right in my paper because, looking back, I was exaggerating the problem, making it worse.

 

Provoking?

 

Maybe not provoking. But I don’t think it helped when I took a very local story and placed it on the national agenda. I don’t think it was good for those Roma. I realized that maybe they shouldn’t have turned to the media and instead tried to resolve the conflict themselves. Now, when we are working with the Roma and helping them with their communication, we advise them not to turn to the media. We teach them to avoid the media. Don’t talk to them because it has consequences. Forget about the media. Try to solve the conflict by working together with the gadjo, the majority community. Find other NGOs, but don’t go to the media.

 

You’re like a recovering journalist!

 

Yes!

 

It’s true that journalists rarely think about the consequences of their reporting. They’re not supposed to.

 

When we set up Communication Center X, we wanted to talk about different issues and not place them in ghettos. We didn’t want to talk about the Roma issue just as part of a liberal or politically correct agenda. In Hungary, we rarely debate. We rarely talk with each other. I’ll give you an example. There was a film made two years ago by László Pesty, a right-wing journalist and Fidesz fan. He made a film about Roma that maybe you’ve heard about. It was a very bad film, and the Roma community was really outraged. We brought together Roma representatives and this filmmaker and tried to have a conversation about crime, about Roma, about inter-ethnic conflicts, etc. After one hour, it turned into almost a massacre. People were getting up and just shouting at each other. It was proof to us that we are not at the point yet in Hungary when we can talk about different issues.

This guy is not a Nazi, not extreme Right. He has just made a bad film, a prejudiced film. We asked him to make another movie. And he was ready to make it. We also offered him several opportunities to film Roma working together with the majority community. He was willing to shoot another film. He was very good intentioned. He even wrote a press release, saying that he was sorry and he didn’t mean to offend anyone. And what was the response of the Left community? We should stop talking to him. We should have nothing to do with him, because he’s a Nazi and a racist. He was immediately pushed against the wall, and we lost him.

This is one of the reasons why so many young people will vote for Jobbik — because we never have these debates in Hungary. Either it’s an extreme Right narrative about the fault of the Roma or the strongly indoctrinated Left narratives about Roma being victims. People really just want to beat each other up. Now, we have regular debates every month about controversial issues.

 

Are these public events?

 

Yes, they’re all public. We also have lots of media coverage.

 

You raise an interesting paradox. On the one hand, as you said, when you’re working with Roma, you tell them not to work with the media, to have this quiet engagement. On the other hand, to have a public debate on these topics is very important. The challenge is to figure out when public is appropriate and when private is appropriate. In a highly polarized situation, sometimes a private conversation is much more effective than a public one.

 

We have to have this private conversation in the community, on the ground, where the conflict has happened. There is nothing else that can help inter-ethnic conflict. But it’s something very different to raise questions and raise awareness. For example, at the university a couple months ago, this student’s organization published this list of people who were gay, Jewish, Gypsy and so on. They also published comments about who was “fuckable” and who was not.

The official student organization includes a lot of Jobbik guys actually. So, we had a debate at the university about sexism. We’re sponsoring discussions about a number of controversial issues and not just Roma issues. But the Roma issue, I’m really worried about it at the moment. People will say that I’m, well, maybe not a racist, but I’m a Fidesz fan or something. That’s how discussions usually end in Hungary.

 

And they said that because you were trying to have a conversation across the political divide?

 

Yes. I can send you a new video made by the youth group of Jobbik. It’s full of lies. But they know what they want to say. They have lots of fresh and young people. It’s got a lot of good music. Their leader Gábor Vona posing with dogs. They know they are sexy and they know what they want to say. On the other hand, we on the Left side don’t have anything to say. There’s no party and almost nothing going on. We have to realize that our mistakes partly led to the growth of Jobbik.

 

Their communication skills are very good.

 

Yes, they’re very good. Of course they also have a very simple message. Hate is very simple. They talk about “Gypsy criminality” in very simple ways. If we respond by talking about poor people living day to day in the Ghetto, it’s more difficult. We’re trying to work with Roma youth from the countryside, to help them develop effective answers to these questions. We simulate a situation where we put the Roma youth up against Hungarian Guard members. We teach theoretical and practical aspects of media appearances and how to deal with ethnic conflict in communication and in strategic terms. We try to find Roma communicators, to assist them with their media appearances and self-representation, and to connect them to the media. We train them on what to say and how to use arguments and how to communicate. But it’s much more difficult to get out our messages because they’re not as simple as theirs.

 

Everyone on the Left talks about the necessity at this point to form a coalition to fight against Fidesz in the next election and – . Ah, you have a very skeptical look on your face!

 

I don’t really like this kind of talk. I don’t want to indicate my party preferences, but I think what is going on the Left side is really nothing. I don’t see what these parties want to say about issues that are important to me, like Roma or gender or human rights or youth or the future of Hungary. I have no clue what they think.

I get very angry when I hear them talking about banding together against Fidesz. Fidesz is really bad, but I don’t see any alternative on the other side that I can support. If there was an election on Sunday, I’m not sure if I’d even vote. I’m really sorry that Fidesz won because I believe that it has destroyed some basic democratic rules. It will probably take six more years to recover and start again. If I look at the Socialists, it’s just the same people as before, and I get so angry. They haven’t expressed any regrets for anything that their Party has done. I’d rather wait five more years and build up something slowly. But nobody can wait. Everybody wants to be in power, and I don’t know why.

 

If you look at the Slovak example, and the response to Vladimir Meciar’s right-wing populism, there were certainly parties, but the movement focused on voter registration, transparency questions. They looked at the issues that would be most effective in mobilizing people to go to the polls and vote — against Meciar. These options were very popular among young people.

 

But in Slovakia, there was lustration. The relationship to the Communist past is a relevant issue even though it was long ago. In Hungary we never had this lustration. In Slovakia, there was a line between the past and the present. Something is missing here. The Socialist Party in Hungary are almost the same guys as before, or young guys with the same methods. And don’t forget about the eight years of the Socialist-Liberal ruling coalition here in Hungary, which was full of corruption and lies and human rights problems. I was listening yesterday to the radio. Some Socialist woman was talking about domestic violence and criticizing Fidesz.  I was like, “And what did you do? You were in power for eight years, so what are you taking about?” The issues relevant for me were only a little bit better under the Socialist/Liberals.

 

They don’t have any credibility because they screwed up just as badly.

 

Not just as badly, because there is a difference in their attitude toward democracy, of course. I’m not saying that there’s no difference. But I don’t like all these Left-liberal politicians suddenly talking about human rights issues. Or the censorship in Left-liberal media.

 

Self-censorship?

 

Not only self-censorship. When we had a Left-liberal government, in the Left-liberal media lots of journalists were happy to run stories that were pro-government.

 

Putting the political parties and the elections aside, when you look at the next two or three years, what’s your vision for the near future in terms of your effectiveness?

 

We’ve launched a campaign targeting youth and trying to get them to vote and to draw their attention to public affairs, sensitize them to social problems, and mobilize the currently passive generation. We launched the blog Hello90, which is written by those born in the 1990s for members of their age group mostly about public affairs. Team members had to apply and were chosen in a selection process that ensured they would have diverse backgrounds, qualifications, and skills so that they could produce suitably diverse content. We launched the blog in January, and it has already become a point of reference in the generation.

I can already talk about our achievements. On our first day our slang map had reached 130,000 readers, and we had 160,000 visits on the blog in the first two weeks Our weekly Facebook reach is above 260,000. We also have our offline activities. We will, for example, launch a get-out-to-vote campaign in March. Advertisers had already showed interest in Hello90, recognizing its ability to reach a newly addressed audience: young people.

It’s our job to persuade youth that parties are not bad, that civil activism is not bad. If you look at the elections of 2010, you can see that young people participated very actively — it was the fourth highest participation rate in Europe. So, young people are political. They go out and vote. But they’re not active, and they don’t get involved in issues. They stay at home and don’t get involved in democracy. So the turning point is the youth and the youth vote, and whether they will leave Hungary or stay here.

 

Do you think the current student movement can overcome the division between intellectuals in Budapest and the rest of the country?

 

We just finished a project called Likesuli it’s on the Internet. It was kind of a pilot for Hello90. We tried to get to those living in the countryside and going to vocational schools. We asked them to set up their dream school on Facebook. They could win a ticket to go the big festival on Sziget Island. This was sexy stuff. We had a jury with well-known celebrities. So, it combined Facebook, music, and celebrities. Through this, we managed to get in touch with a lot of schools in the countryside from towns I’d never heard of. It was interesting to get them active, hear them talk about a policy issue like education, see how creative they are. We very consciously went to the countryside and worked with Szeged and Pecs and other places.

 

It’s important to get to youth in vocational schools but also young people in general who are not identified with school.

 

Yes. This is the biggest question for us around this campaign — how to reach young people who are just staying at home with their family and don’t have any jobs. With Hello90, we are on a good track to reach them.

 

One of those tactics should work!

 

Budapest, May 13, 2013

 


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