Covert Defiance: An Interview with Former Dissident Jan Urban

Article excerpt

Prior to November 1989, individuals could be detained by the Czech Communist Party simply for holding a meeting. how did you, Vaclav Havel, and other members of the dissident movement manage to hold meetings and eventually organize a mass movement?

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?

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I don't know. It is still debated today. There was even a parliamentary commission put in place to investigate this. …