17 January 2018, Wednesday, 5:56

Andrzej Paczobut: “Don’t negotiate with hostage takers”


The Lukashenka regime has only one way – towards its collapse, the famous journalist believes.

After having served a two-year punishment for “slandering” about Lukashenka, the journalist of the Polish Gazeta Wyborcza and charter97.org’s regular contributor Andrzej Paczobut was able to leave Belarus and come to Warsaw. In an interview to charter97.org’s editor-in-chief Natalia Radzina Paczobut told about the current situation with the freedom of speech in Belarus and what new challenges journalists face.

- Andrzej what was that you did in Warsaw first of all?

- The term of my freedom limitation ended, I got a visa and decided to see: whether they would let me out of the country or not. You can never be completely sure in our country until the end. Thank god, I managed.

In Warsaw I first of all wanted to visit Gazeta Wyborcza’s editorial office. It was nice to see the people, with whom you had been communicating only on the internet for about two years, to walk around the office, see how much changed in the time of my absence. Two years is a large period of time.

Then I came to the editorial office of charter97.org. This is another address in Warsaw that I must visit.

- What do you feel after a two-year ban on leaving the country?

- When you are under constant supervision, it seems that you are permanently observed. Even if it is not the case, you get so accustomed to this that you suspect that there may be surveillance everywhere. When I crossed the border, it had all remained there, in Belarus. Here in Poland I am an ordinary person. Not in Belarus, I am unordinary there. If you have your own opinion, you immediately start conflicting with the authorities and fall in the scope of special attention.

On the other hand, all these stories that happened to me, did not influence me in any way. This is what I said in court: I am not guilty and have made no conclusions for myself. I will write like I wrote, I will use the words that I used. The readers of charter97.org may compare and see that these criminal cases influenced me in no way.

Of course, I remember as after the first prison term I sat at the computer. There was such a chill… But I overcame it soon.

- I too remember as I worked in the first days after prison under the recognizance not to leave. I had to overcome the fear before sitting at the computer in the morning, because I realized: I would have to be responsible for every word on charter97.org not by law but by lawlessness.

- Yes, I too experienced that in 2011. I published my prison diary in Gazeta Wyborcza. In fact I had done what I was punished for later. I had the following logic: everything bad had already happened, that is why there was nothing to be afraid of. Then this article was published on charter97.org. I perfectly understood that if they wanted, they would find dozens of reasons to condemn me.

And there would be a mean or cowardly “expert”, who would say that according to a linguistic expertise there was slander, insult or the defamation of the Republic of Belarus. This is enough for any journalist to be imprisoned in Belarus today.

Much is based on lies in Belarus. Many words- for example, elections or parliament – do not correspond to their meaning. Why was my trial secretive in 2011? Because it was all way too groundless, poorly disguised. Everything in my article was based on facts. Gazeta Wyborcza is a serious media, there is no possibility to publish some allegations there.

By the way, I telling as a journalist: if you write about Belarus, you cannot bypass Lukashenka – he is that total. Whatever you take – it all happened because he had taken such a decision.

But Lukashenka sincerely believes that everyone’s mouths can be shut. If Europe tells him something about human rights, he responds: “We know these human rights, we know these freedoms…” Lukashenka believes that if he makes an agreement with some media magnate, he will shut the mouth of Polish journalists too. He will not, because the media market works under the conditions of competition in Poland. No one owns the monopoly for truth, and the reader is well informed, because they receive different information. What we have is like that: an order comes – everyone goes silent.

- Recently I heard an opinion on the situation in Belarus at the Council of Europe’s General Secretariat: “The worst thing is that there is not only the censorship in the country, but self-censorship”.

- Everyone decides for themselves how to write. I do not put forward any requirements and do not assert claims to anyone. I have made my choice: I will picture the reality. We are living in the 21st century, all in all, not in the times of Stalin. If we agree to refuse from calling black, what is black, and white, what is white, it will only be worse. Then they will necessarily demand to refuse from something else. This is a spiral.

The goal of the Lukashenka regime is to constantly tighten the screws. This is exactly what has been taking place for all the 19 years. What was allowed in the 1990-ies was no longer allowed in the 2000-ies. Now it is not allowed what was allowed three years ago. If we agree to that or put up with that, the situation constantly deteriorates. There is a different question: how much more can people be oppressed in the 21st century in the center of Europe? Where is that border line, after which the limit is reached and the patience runs out? This is actually an interesting question for Belarusians and for the people, observing from the outside.

- Some editors of independent media covertly confess that they are under huge pressure on the part of special services.

- Let’s analyze the situation. It can be observed today how some media cover a conflict situation, start toadying. It is very noticeable. As a result the self-censorship leads to the media becoming insipid and of little interest, that is why those are not read.

People go on the internet to read uncensored information. The influence of the non-censored web-sites on Belarus is very significant.

- But it turns out that this topic is highly unpopular. Why does not anyone give the alarm?

- Everyone choses a behavior scenario for themselves. But I am sure that any attempts to come to an agreement with KGB are fraught with serious problems. It is impossible to come to an agreement with KGB. Sooner or later such a person will be in big troubles. If someone meets a KGB officer, knowing that it is a special service agent, this all gets documented.

By the way, there is the Institute for National Memory in Poland, which deals with studying the archives of Polish Communist special services. It turned out that all the meetings with agents were protocoled. Officers come to work from such meetings and write: “We met this one or that one, they said this or that…” This all is gathered, any relevant information is collected and then used by KGB for their purposes. We know what KGB’s purposes are.

It is a real problem today in Belarus. I remember as back in the early 2000-ies there was a head of KGB’s press-service in Hrodna, who liked a lot to meet journalists, talk to them, give press-releases. He never met he, I did not need that KGB information. This is how it was then, now the situation is even worse.

If you write something critical, you immediately fall out with officials. You will not get any information the next time. I remember as in 2004 the Ministry of Internal Affairs forbad to give press-releases to the newspaper Day, that I worked for. It was a problem then. In order not to quarrel with press-services, journalists would choose a certain line of behavior. We decided to take a different approach. In the end the information that we had was much better than all their press-releases. Great stories from the lives of policemen were published, which were shocking.

But I was also convinced that everything was under serious control. Phones were wiretapped, editorial offices were wiretapped in order to find out who was giving the journalists information. At first it was hard to believe, it seemed that no one would watch you… But they do watch.

- What tactic does Lukashenka have today towards media? The freedom of speech has been systematically destroyed during the whole time of his rule.

- I remember as in 2002, when there was a lawsuit against the journalists of the Pahonia newspaper, we were thinking: what is the purpose of that? Do they want for all newspapers to be like the Soviet Belorussia? A little time passed and it turned out to be true.

They want to emasculate the media. On the one hand – to get rid of the bravest media, on the other – to keep something mediocre. Lukashenka does allow something to exist, I do not know on what conditions. When it is necessary, he says: “Look, there is something oppositional on the newsstands”

In any case, one thing is obvious – if anything becomes influential in the Republic of Belarus, it immediately becomes the target for repressions. The most recent example is the Lohvinau publishing house.

Another example. Why there were such repressions against charter97.org? Because on the eve of that Lukashenka had claimed that the web-site’s attendance had been comparable to the circulation of the Soviet Belorussia. From that moment on it has become a serious problem. When the authorities see that a media is not controllable, becomes important, they turn repressions on in order to intimidate and restrict.

But the internet is good at being able to show the insolvency of the authorities. Viachaslau Jancheuski’s trolls are sordid. The regime is incapable of offering the society anything interesting and topical. Yes, they may publish the Soviet Belorussia in large circulations and be big bosses, but who reads that? If no one posts on the internet that they published something, no one will notice.

They may force to subscribe, but they cannot force to read. Even in prison I was the only one who leafed through the Soviet Belorussia, but only to look for a crossword puzzle.

- For all these two years Poland insistently demanded your release. How would you assess the Polish policy towards the Lukashenka regime in general?

- The strategic direction, chosen fairly long ago – the support of Belarusian independent media – is right. First Belarusian independent television Belsat was created in Poland, charter97.org’s editorial office is here today too, there are also Radio Racyja and Euroradio, a number of project supporting the civil society are being carried out. This influences the situation in Belarus. The decision on visas, taken by the Minister of Foreign Affairs Radoslaw Sikorski, is also right.

What seems especially good to me is that despite the public attention to Belarus coming in waves, there is a number of Polish politicians, who are the friends of the independent Belarus. I think, they are capable of supporting Belarusian democracy, which is in a difficult situation (it is especially difficult for us now). I am sure that the relations between Poland and Belarus will be most friendly in future, and there are no obstacles to that besides the Lukashenka regime.

Poland and the whole European Union should develop a strategy towards Belarus on the consensus basis. In this case the policy towards Belarus will be more productive. There are all the necessary instruments for developing such a strategy.

If the West had been more interested in Belarus, for example, back in the 1990-ies, everything could have been changed back then. Now the regime is consolidated. But at the same time, if we look at the economic situation, we will see that Lukashenka is unable to solve the problems, throwing the country to a greater dead-end. This all his ability to juggle, adroitly play on the relations with Russia and the West, in reality leads to a collapse. This collapse will come sooner or later.

- Independent experts warn the West against contacting with the Lukashenka regime, urging to keep on introducing sanctions against the dictatorship instead of the pointless dialogue attempts. What do you think: does it make sense to talk with Lukashenka?

- Lukashenka has been in power for 19 years. All these cycles repeated themselves more than once. There are less and less people, willing to go into talking with Lukashenka. It is obvious that he is incapable of keeping his word and fulfilling promises. The promises that Belarusian diplomats are giving today in the West will not be fulfilled either. Lukashenka does not respect his own co-citizens, why would he respect the citizens of other countries?

For example, the government has changed in Germany. I am sure that Belarusian diplomats will run to Germany’s MFA to try and convince the new leadership that a dialogue is possible with them, saying there were bad partners on the part of the West before. They did that many times.

- Don’t you think that the reconsideration of your verdict and the dismissal of the criminal case is, among others, the small coin that the Lukashenka regime is trying to palm off on Europe?

- Of course, I do not have the whole information, but it seems to me that the purpose of the second case was to make me emigrate. It was a bluff from the very beginning. I know that Poland made no concessions to the Lukashenka regime because of me. Other countries hardly many any either. Poland’s position was principled: they did not trade on me. This was also my position, I spoke about that also at the meeting with the Minister Sikorski: do not negotiate with hostage takers. This brings about new hostages.

I understand that for the relatives of political prisoners this sounds very tough, but actually the world goes like that: if you give in to blackmail, this only deteriorates your situation.