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The Independent Culture
To the peasant societies of Europe, a people without roots in the soil was an insult to the natural order of things. Many modern Europeans seem equally offended at the idea that Roma, or Gypsies, should still want to move around the continent. There are no migration controls on the Net, though, and Romani sites have sprung up on servers from Hungary to Brazil. Some represent Romani organisations; others are the work of non-Roma, or gadje. In the second group is a contribution from Radio Prague, whose Internet team created a site by way of acknowledging that 1997 is the European Year Against Racism. As well as providing information about Roma, it sheds an indirect light on Czech attitudes to the people whom opinion polls confirm to be Central Europe's most disliked ethnic minority.

The photo on the front page (top) shows Romani children with police officers in the background. Some viewers will see the human spirit defiantly asserting itself over state racism. Others will see symbols of overbreeding and crime. Roma are perceived both as a race, and as an underclass in the Western sense. That makes for a particularly toxic brew of prejudices.

Radio Prague's texts are presented in Czech and English. They are intended primarily for domestic consumption, though, by readers unwilling to accept all the blame for the situation of Roma in the Czech Republic. Romani children are ill-served by schools, they agree, while also suggesting that adult Roma fail to recognise the importance of education. Welfare dependency is laid at the communists' door. The old regime is said to have provided benefits to secure the consent of the populace in general, while using the Roma as a mobile unskilled labour force. Demand for such labour collapsed along with the command economy, and demand for benefits correspondingly rose.

The site's main intent is to depict Roma as a people rather than as a social problem, countering "superficial and distorted" journalism. "The Czech public may perhaps be quite surprised ... to see any information about the history, language, craftsmanship and culture of the Roma at all," it observes. Its pages profile Romani personalities, outline the dialects of the Romani language, and discuss the Romani life from childhood to old age. Above all, Romani society emphasises the family, in which children should be numerous and elders respected.

Radio Prague's family values make it a good background against which to appreciate another site, The Patrin, whose proprietor originally creat- ed it as a tribute to his late grandfather Jose, known as Galuchon. A wartime snapshot shows Jose and his wife Carmen; young, tense, deter- mined. He spent the war in a series of intern- ment camps, escaping twice and fighting with the French Resistance. The Patrin commemorates not just Jose, but all those persecuted "solely for the fact of being Roma".

In the process, it has developed into the premier Romani Web resource, and a model Web site in every respect. There are commentaries on Romani history and traditions, reports from different countries by an impressive array of scholars and activists, news reports, including one from the European Roma Rights Center on the recent attempts by Roma to seek asylum in Britain; and to round it off, a Romani glossary. Elegant but economical in its presentation, The Patrin should be a compulsory port of call for Web design students. And even if some people are still not interested in Gypsies after their visit, they might appreciate the page carrying links to a selection of sophisticated Internet search tools.

The Patrin flies the flag. The resemblance to that of India, where the Roma originated, is not coincidental. Adopted as the international Romani symbol in 1971, the chakra wheel symbol represents "movement and the original Creation".