A look back at alleged racism in Czech Pop Idol

26-06-2004

For the second time this year, my Letter from Prague is going to be about the Czech version of the hit reality show Pop Idol, the televised search for new singing talents.

Three months ago I wrote about my secret hope that the contest would bring new life to Czech pop-music. That still remains to be seen even though the show has ended now and we know the name of the winner, 17-year old Aneta Langerova from a small town near Prague.

Today I'm going to take a different angle. A month ago, when Martina Balogova, a 25-year-old woman with a powerful voice was knocked out of the final, several Czech newspapers wrote she was ousted because of her ethnic origin. Martina is a Romany.

Many critics and musicians have agreed that she was a better singer than most of the finalists. But a good voice is not all that counts in Pop Idol, I believe. Martina had made it among the best five before TV viewers gave her the least votes. Did they find her less likeable than the others, not good looking enough or just too ostentatious and stage savvy? Or did people simply think she was a clear favourite and therefore sent their votes to the underdog? We will never know. But I dare say Czechs did not vote her out on racial grounds.

Martina was not the only "non-Czech" among the forty semi-finalists or the ten finalists. There were three other Romanies, an Austrian, a Kazakh, a Greek, an Angolan and a Syrian. A percentage that by far exceeds the proportion of ethic minorities in the Czech population. Two people with a different origin than Czech made it to the final. One came fifth, the other third.

All these figures, I believe, speak against the sweeping "all-Czechs-are-racists" theory, perpetuated by the media both in the Czech Republic and abroad. I think if anything was worth pointing out, it was the fact that in a society often considered xenophobic so many contestants of a different ethnic origin did so well.

But as they say, "good news is not news". And I wonder whether the papers anxiously waited until Martina Balogova was knocked out to be able to come up with a catchy story.

The - I believe - contrived issue of racism in the Czech version of Pop Idol is a classic example of seeing the glass half empty or half full. In my view it is the latter.

And one last thing: before I sat down to write this Letter from Prague, I browsed through a few on-line forums discussing the contestants' talent, intelligence and looks. And I must say that whenever a racist voice appeared, safely hidden under the veil of anonymity, it was swiftly countered by the other participants.

26-06-2004