Covert defiance: an interview with former dissident Jan Urban.
We were never able to organize a mass movement. It simply happened through demonstrations on 17 November 1989. Remember this was before email. It was a time before mobile phones. If you needed to communicate, you did so by leaving messages and trying to meet as often as possible. On some occasions it worked. But often it did not.
Describe the media prior to the Velvet revolution in 1989 and why, despite censorship, it managed to play such an indispensable role in overthrowing the communist regime.
There were three categories of media. The first, official media, did not help at all. On the contrary it was a tool of the counterrevolution. It was the media of the regime. We had four or five different newspapers, but if you laid them all on a table, they would all cover the same topics. Sometimes they would even use the same headlines. All of them would go through censorship before being printed.
The second [category] was the unofficial independent media which had an extremely low circulation. According to secret police estimates, around 5,000 copies circulated but only about 1,000 people were able to read it each month. The foreign radio stations were the third and most powerful media that we used. Our collaboration with the Voice of America, Federal Radio Liberty, and the BBC was the most effective way of communicating our ideas and information to our citizens.
It was all about fear and security. If you were caught with an independent medium, you would get into trouble and face imprisonment. If you listened to foreign radio in the privacy of your own home, hopefully no one would report you and you'd be safe. Sometimes when I would lean out of my window, I would hear foreign broadcasting all around me. It was funny because half of my neighbors were army officers. It was less risky compared to any other means of finding independent information.
As a member of the dissident movement prior to November 1989, did you expect that the regime would collapse as it did, if at all?
No. I never believed I'd see the end. I didn't think about it because it seemed impossible. None of us were prepared for it.
On 17 November 1989, you and fellow dissidents partook in what you have described as a "huge tragic mistake" that would have lead to your arrest had the regime not fallen before they could catch you. You wrongly informed all of your media contacts, including foreign broadcasting stations, that a student named Tomas Smid was killed by police during a large demonstration; the student's death was later revealed to be a hoax. how much of a role do you think the event played in the ensuing days of the Velvet revolution?
It was a crucial moment because the whole regime was built on a social deal. The regime was to take care of decent living standards for most of the population, especially compared to other communist countries. In exchange you had to shut up. It worked beyond imagination. Then came this information [about the student's death] and the deal was off. If you humiliate people and teach them to humiliate themselves, it's one thing. If you start killing their kids then there is no deal. This misinformation, this professional blunder, electrified an entire population and made the change possible.
Despite confirmation of this hoax, there were several confirmed reports of a protestor lying on the ground in order to probe media coverage of the event. Yet it has been debated whether someone could lie and remain stationary on the ground for four hours in the cold. what do you believe actually happened?
I don't know. It is still debated today. There was even a parliamentary commission put in place to investigate this. There are layers of very contradictory information. Some people believe that as many as three people could have been killed because there are missing people from that time who have never been accounted for. My reading of the event is that it was a secret police provocation.
I don't know the goals of it. If it was a pro-Gorbachev style exchange of leadership, then it was so silly. You cannot unleash popular revolt thinking that you can control it. It was naive and irresponsible, and thank God for [the regime's] stupidity. Again, none of us expected it, and none of us could foresee that we would be going through a complete regime change, that instead of socialism, we would have capitalism and, more or less, a market economy and rule of law--that we would just change everything.
Do you believe that Vaclav Havel's ideas regarding non-violence, human rights, and post-totalitarian society were fundamental components of the Velvet revolution and its aftermath?
No. There were no ideas and there was total chaos. Havel came on top because there was nobody else. There was a general agreement that he should be the face of change. His group was best organized and best equipped to take power in office. Some of us thought it was a mistake and that it would be the end of change. At that time it was very unclear. This change or "revolution" was not programmatic. It was a hundred percent improvisation.
You have said that once Havel entered the presidency he "became a tenth of what he otherwise could have been" and "lost everything he touched." why do you think this?
In terms of domestic politics, yes. But he was extremely important to the outside world. He put Czechoslovakia back on the map, as we say. He sustained his position as a moral authority but in my opinion he failed to influence domestic policy, and he did not realize the importance of institution building. He behaved, especially at the beginning, more like a monarch. He thought that by simply staging a marketing event he could shake up people's minds and everything would move. This is not the way democracies work.
Describe the transition that occurred for media professionals once censorship was lifted. were a great many of them forced to leave their jobs?
There were no media professionals. There were media employees who became useless under new circumstances because they would write anything and everything that they were told to. They say that you can't teach an old dog new tricks. This was much more complicated. These people were, as a generation, unable to learn how to be independent. This entire generation [of state media employees] was changed and replaced by youngsters with no experience at all but who had a lot of enthusiasm.
[The younger generation] had to learn by doing and by making many mistakes, mostly derived from their attempt to help the revolution, which was not their job. I made mistakes myself and exactly for the same reason, but I learned. But I think we failed. It's a gradual process, and it is important that there is a debate about what is happening. Now we are facing, like any other media in the West, a disinterest in serious news.
In what way did you fail?
It was this naive dream that because of what we'd been through that we should come out as better people, as journalists who could get audiences interested in serious news and analysis. We were hurt to see that the tabloid press became more popular like anywhere else. It took time to realize that this is the way people react and that the majority of people prefer to read about scandals than about facts. People want to read what they know. They don't want to be surprised by what they don't know.
When you were growing up, the Czech border was barricaded and heavily guarded. how difficult was it for you to travel? what did it feel like to have that freedom?
It was beautiful, hysterical even. Before 1968, my parents could only take us to communist countries. My first official trip to the West was London. At that time I was kind of a VIP. It took an hour and 20 minutes to fly from here to London. I remember being shocked and thinking, "how come it's taken me 20 years."
In the four months before "the change" I was constantly on the run. I even had everything prepared by the bed and a rope by the window. I didn't want to take the chance of landing in prison. I never slept well so when I traveled I thought I would be cut off from everything and expected to sleep like a log. I remember being in my room in this fancy hotel and spending the night walking back and forth in the room wondering why I couldn't sleep. The next time I left for the West was in 1990. For 19 years prior to that I didn't even have a passport. By then I was intoxicated with the freedom to travel.
What is your take on the Czech republic today?
I have mixed feelings. On the one hand, I am enjoying every day. On the other hand, I was born Czechoslovak and educated Czechoslovak. To people like myself, the Czech Republic was an entirely different concept. I did not like being defined by my language. I think that I am much more complicated. I want to be much more complicated. I believe that if you are looking for the most tragic mistake in European history, it is the acceptance of language-based nationalism.
Just yesterday I was giving a lecture in Vienna and said a hundred years ago Vienna was my capital. We only had one political system, one parliament, one currency, one transportation system. After two world wars and the expulsion of millions, are we any wiser? ?
Revolutionary Road: Jan Urban
Prior to the fall of communism in what was then Czechoslovakia, Jan Urban assisted in the creation of the Eastern European Information Agency. As a member of the dissident network, he experienced harassment by the secret police and his phone lines were constantly tapped. After numerous instances of detainment, Urban became a prevalent figure in the 1989 Velvet Revolution that led to the end of the regime. He developed the Civic Forum, and was appointed the primary speaker of the group a year later.
On 10 December 1989, he decided to leave politics and devote himself to journalism. He maintains "you cannot be halfway in politics in the same way that you cannot be halfway pregnant." Urban is proof that you must pay a price when you stand against the majority. In Urban's words, "[one] should know the price [of going against something] or not go against it."
It was not until after the 1989 Revolution subsided that he was able to piece together the remnants of his former life. He has stated that "you lose the ability to talk to people around you because you cannot trust anybody." For instance, after a personal notebook of his was stolen by the secret police, he vowed never to write a single word on paper for nine years.
During this time Urban worked closely with Vaclav Havel and can recall the future president as having "a hint of genius." Urban believes that Havel's success stems from his position as "a mouthpiece for people's dreams and fears." Though he was irreplaceable as a dreamer and icon, Urban believes Havel was capable of much more when the Revolution was in its infancy than when he became president, stating that Havel "did not need power, he needed influence. He just didn't know how to use it."
Urban and Havel have continued to work together and recently appeared at the Prague conference Politics in Asia with the Dalai Lama. Urban taught at Charles University prior to 1989 and continues to do so. He also conducts lectures at New York University in Prague.
Justine A. Costanza studies Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University.
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|Author:||Costanza, Justine A.|
|Publication:||The New Presence: The Prague Journal of Central European Affairs|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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