Press: Minority languages getting their voices heard

14 June 2012 – Hufvudstadsbladet (Helsinki)

On a continent where linguistic issues can still cause national strife, minority media play an under-publicised but important role.

In recent years, the name of Hedvig Malina has often appeared in the columns of the Slovak press. In 2006, this student in the Slovak town of Horné Mýto was attacked by two skinheads for speaking Hungarian in a public place. Hungarian is a minority language, spoken by about 9% of Slovakia's population.

But it was after her release from hospital that her tribulations really started. None of the authorities would believe her story. She began long legal proceedings against her aggressors, but came up against strong resistance from the Slovak government which did all it could to stifle the case.

Then the Slovak, Hungarian-language newspaper Új Szóbegan its investigation. Thanks to the determination of its journalists, it was able to force the authorities to listen to reason. At the end of May, the paper was awarded the Midas Prize for Journalism in Minority Protection and Cultural Diversity in Europe due to its coverage of this case.

But Slovakia is not the only country in which a foul wind blows on linguistic minorities. They are also in the hot seat in many other East European countries and local minority newspapers are not lacking in material. Lithuania is thus attempting to pressure its large Polish minority into assimilation. Polish names are translated into Lithuanian, teaching in Polish is waning and minority newspapers are having trouble finding financial backing.

But all is not doom and gloom for Europe's minority media. Making the papers available on the Internet now allows small linguistic groups across the globe to be in contact. An interesting story comes from German’s small Sorb minority [a Western Slavic people of Central Europe speaking a language closely related to Polish and Czech].

There are only 50,000 speakers of Sorbian, most of whom live in the border region between Germany and the Czech Republic. The only Sorbian daily Serbske Nowiny, has just launched a digital version and, in this way, can be seen by a large number of Sorb expatriates throughout the world. The newspaper also offers a summary of its content in German, the country's majority language.

The editorial line of most of the minority papers in Europe, such as that of the Hufvudstadsbladet [Swedish-language Finnish daily], is to be appealing without ignoring burning issues. The main aim is to provide well-written, quality journalism, and, a close second, to offer quality journalism about the language itself.

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