There are reasons for the authorities to be afraid of free people and free ideas.
Editor-in-chief of Charter97.org Natallia Radzina told about her attitude to the "Charter'97" civil initiative which celebrates its 20 years in November.
- Many people have something in common with the Charter. First, it associated with the first 100 subscribers, with the "Charter'97" document, then with people from the organizing committee, with Andrei Sannikov. Now the Charter is mostly associated with you. How does it feel to have an executive experience in Charter'97?
- It's not easy. First of all, it is the responsibility for the initiative itself, for the principles it was based on.
I've already been with the Charter'97 for 17 years. How should I put it, we have similar characters: no compromises with conscience, no betrayal, no lies, no surrender. It was not easy to live with it, but I feel no shame either for myself or things I do.
Many people, not me alone create the Charter. I came to work there in 2001, although I was one of the first signers of the document in 1997. I used to work then in Imya newspaper, I was in the beginning of my career, I was a sophemore, Department of Journalism, the Belarusian State University. Then I worked in other independent newspapers (Narodnaya Volya, Naviny, Nasha Svaboda) for several years, but the authorities closed independent newspapers in a row. I did not intend to work on television or radio which were already under control of the authority. And Aleh Bebenin who was a leader then offered me a job in Charter'97 and I agreed.
First of all, I agreed because of interesting people in the organizing committee of the Charter'97, such as: Andrei Sannikov, Aleh, Bebenin, Mikalai Khalezin, Zmitser Bandarenka, Lyudmila Hraznova, Viktar Ivashkevich, Yury Khashchevatski, Valery Shchukin, Aliaksandr Dabravolski, Ales Marochkin, Uladzimir Matskevich, Aliaksandr Dubravin. That was a "club" of professionals and intellectuals who really wanted to make a difference in the country.
After the release, all political prisoners first came to us to thank us for fighting for their release. Every person imprisoned for political reasons is the person with "helo", I immensely admire their courage and strength.
The bravest and the best youth of Zubr and the Young Front - Jauhen Afnahel, Aliaksei Shydlouski, Mikita Sasim, Ales Charkashyn, Anton Tsyalezhnikau, Yaraslau Stseshyk, Aliaksandr Atroshchankau, Leanid Navitski, Dzmitry Barodzka, Tsimafei Dranchuk, Paval Yukhnevich, Andrei Pyatrou, Iryna Tolstik and others - gathered there. We were friends with the best rock-musicians like Ihar Varashkevich, Lyavon Volski, Dzmitry Vaitsyushkevich, Kasei Kamotski, Rusei, and painters of the Pahonia association, writers, film directors, actors. In general, I was happy to be the part of such a company. In addition, the Charter takes permanent changers and moves forward. The spirit, the energy of the organization makes you step up.
- During arrests of 2010 you and your team found yourselves in prison. You personally were the defendant in several criminal cases and it can be said that you were imprisoned due to your professional activity as the editor-in-chief. Did not you ever regret that you once came here to work?
- No. For the first 10 years I did not tell anyone that I was a journalist of Charter97.org. That was done for security reasons, since it was more important to continue work. Special services, of course, knew who worked on the Charter website. In early 2010, the first criminal case was opened against the site. I was the main witness in that criminal case, I was repeatedly interrogated, and within the year four cases were opened.
All the long years of work in the Charter I imagined how it could end. There have always been repressions against independent journalists in Belarus. I understood how much the authorities were afraid of freedom of speech and morally prepared myself for the fact that sooner or later I would be jailed.
Here I must say thanks to our police. Repressions that lasted throughout 2010 (searches in the editorial office, confiscation of equipment, interrogations that lasted four hours with recording on a video camera) morally tempered and prepared for the fact that when I was in the KGB ward, I felt no panic or despair. I understood clearly that that was the challenge I had to be through.
The greatest hit was the death of the founder of the Charter'97 website Aleh Bebenin three months before 19 December 2010. I was extremely scared when he was killed, but I understood that I had no right to stop and should do my best to continue his activity.
- When people hear "Charter'97" many of them recall Vaclav Havel, now it is Natallia Radzina. Havel was a playwright. You are a journalist. Is there any thought of directly engaging in politics and social activities?
- This question has recently been addressed to me by a Belarusian businessman who came to Warsaw and I told him that I did not intend to do it. First of all, it seems to me, I just need to run my course. The situation with media in Belarus is a catastrophe, and people need to receive information about what is happening in their country.
That's why I decided to leave Belarus, although it was a difficult decision and a very tough call. My escape from Belarus lasted almost four months, I had to hide for a long time, it's hard to run abroad without a passport, and I believe that my main task is to save the site, do everything to keep it working, because we cannot work in Belarus now. We see what is going on, the way authorities destroy independent media, there is a mopping up of what remained after the 2000s. There is an increased control of the KGB and increased self-censorship among journalists working in the country.
It has become more difficult to work. Perhaps, some people think that the Charter flourishes abroad and receives huge funding, but they are wrong. We have big problems with financing and personnel, but nevertheless, people continue their work and I'm proud of every member of our team; every day these people make a feat, keep doing their work and do it honestly despite all risks.
But it is possible that I can somehow change the field in normal and free Belarus. In any case, amid the Belarusian realities an independent journalist is more than a journalist, since we need to defend the right to freedom of speech today, we need to tell the truth about what is happening in the country. If some politicians in Belarus are afraid of doing this, then I consider it my duty to talk about it.
- Did you meet in Vaclav Havel?
- No, I did not. But I received a letter of support from him when I was released from the KGB detention center under a recognizance not to leave. It was incredibly important and strengthened me in understanding that I was doing right things, that I was on the right track.
There was also a story in the KGB prison. When I was arrested there was a letter of Vaclav Havel in my pocket. He addressed it to the Belarusians who were on the Square on December 19, 2010. The translation of the letter was read Natallia Kalyada, the head of the Belarusian Free Theater, on the Square and I took it from her to publish it later on the website. This text remained in my jacket and I asked to leave this letter for me before I was sent to the KGB remand prison. It was almost morning, employees of the KGB prison worked non-stop, felt exhausted and left me the letter.
Havel's letter, where he expressed solidarity with the Belarusians who were fighting for their future and against the election fraud, remained with me for two months which I spent in the remand prison. It was under my pillow and I learned it by heart. When I was released under the recognizance not to leave, I was searched again and they found the letter. There was a great scandal. They asked me how I got that letter. It was already late, but the head of the prison Arlou came and demanded me to confess that it was the letter of arrested Andrei Sannikov, the presidential candidate.
Then I realized how jailers were afraid of free ideas and free people. And for good reason. History teaches everything can change at any moment.