Former dissident publishes list, rush of visitors crashes web server
Intense public interest saw a server collapse when databases kept by the Czechoslovak communist secret police (StB) were put online by former dissident Stanislav Penc.
Within an hour of the data going online around 11 a.m. July 7, the server collapsed. Over the next three days, the Web site, Svazky.cz, registered 140,000 hits. It has since crashed again several times and was down as of press time.
Penc has publicly attacked the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes (ÚSTR), which was created to sift through and organize documents relating to the communist past. He said the ÚSTR had a monopoly on information, while the ÚSTR described what Penc had done as an “amateur attempt.”
Penc’s Web site allows users to search two databases that were kept by the StB before 1989. They contain names of people who had any connection with the StB, ranging from collaborators and confidants to agents and people who were considered critics of the regime and monitored by the StB.
The entirety of the StB material was not compiled in one place until February 2008, when the ÚSTR was founded with the goal of organizing the myriads of documents.
Penc blames the ÚSTR for what he considers improper handling of the archival material.
“They have still not published an index of all the files. Nobody, except for a few chosen ones who work for them, knows what information they have,” Penc said.
He added that the ÚSTR had a monopoly on historic information and documents that should be publicly accessible.
Penc said he published the databases, which he claims to have received in e-form from Ján Langoš, the first head of the Slovak National Memory Institute who died in a road accident in 2006, in protest against the way the ÚSTR and the subordinate Archive of Security Forces handled StB documents.
Penc maintained that putting these databases online reduces the risk of blackmail against people who hold powerful positions now but were formerly involved with the StB.
He cited the case of Pavol Mihál, former head of Czech Interpol, who had to step down after former Czech Police Vice President Oldřich Martin revealed Mihál had worked for the StB for several years.
“How do we know there aren’t dozens of similar cases that just haven’t gone public yet?” Penc asked.
The Web site allows users to type in the names of the people they are seeking information about, and the database will give them the numbers of all relevant files.
Penc explained that the Web site does not divulge details about the connection the person they look up had to the StB. “You merely get numbers of files where their names are mentioned.”
Previously, it was possible for the public to search the archive for files on a specific person after submitting a written request and presenting ID, but no cross-search of files was possible.
Penc said his Web site makes it possible for users to search independently and puts them in a position where they are no longer at the mercy of the ÚSTR.
“Without an index, it is impossible to find out if they are hiding something,” Penc said.
In March, Penc had asked the Archive of Security Forces to publish an index of all of its files. The archive refused his demand, saying it was unlawful to publish such an index.
On July 10, three days after Penc’s Web site went live, ÚSTR revealed a pilot project that went live July 13. It allows researchers to look up and search 4 million documents that have been digitized – a small fraction of the ÚSTR’s total files, which consist of 280 million pages and 400,000 negatives of microfilm, an overwhelming 20 kilometers (12 miles) of material. Perusing these materials, however, can only be done at ÚSTR’s archive library, after obtaining a username and password.
Penc said the pilot project was made public in reaction to his Web site, but the ÚSTR denied any connection at a July 10 press conference.
“He cannot seriously think we could digitize these documents within four days of his Web site’s going live,” ÚSTR Director Pavel Žáček said. “We wouldn’t have to react to his amateur attempts by giving a press conference.”
He added that the ÚSTR was founded so that institutions that may seek to abuse information documented by the StB would not have sole access to these files.
This is not the first time the publication of communist files and information collected by the StB has been the subject of heated public debate. In 1993, dissident Petr Cibulka published an incomplete index of former StB collaborators, and, in 2007, former Interior Minister Ivan Langer launched the project Open Past (Otevřená minulost) and revealed that some 700 employees of the Interior Ministry had been connected to the StB in some form.
Despite the lack of open public discussion about the totalitarian era, the public’s interest in the past remains strong, as is testified by the 140,000 hits on Penc’s site in three days and 1,526 visits to the physical archive of the ÚSTR from February to December 2008.