Peace is not the absence of war. Peace is the environment where there is no place for fear, where you can say what you want without having to think about what happens to you after you have spoken. Many writers and journalists exercise that freedom, expecting international laws and norms to protect their right. But citing spurious grounds such as national security, maintaining harmony, defaming powerful individuals or ideas, or falsely claiming that the speech spreads hate, governments – and others who wield power – seek to silence the gutsy journalists and writers, cartoonists and artists, musicians and poets who defy them.
Maria Ressa is one of them. She operates in the Philippines, which is arguably in a worse space today than it was under the dictatorship of Ferdinand Marcos. Marcos had imposed martial law and suspended provisions of constitution, which permitted him to act with impunity against his critics. Rodrigo Duterte has not declared an emergency, but he has used vituperative language against critics, encouraged his followers to harass and intimidate those who oppose him, made misogynistic remarks against women human rights defenders and reporters, and tacitly approved of a raft of extra-judicial executions.
As his presidency ends, he has decided to abide by the constitution, with his daughter, the mayor of Davao, keen to succeed him. She will have an opponent cut from similar cloth – Marcos’s son, known as Bong Bong.
The Philippine society is courageous. It rose as one and the EDSA Revolution in February 1986 saw the end of the Marcos regime. Corazon Aquino faced several coup attempts and survived. It has lived through other presidencies, some comical, some dangerous. And it has now lived through six years of leadership from a president who makes other strongmen strutting around the world seem slightly less unreasonable.
Civil society in the Philippines, which mushroomed after Marcos’s fall, has steadfastly defended democracy, and the media has played a crucial role. Journalists have died defending freedoms. When we met in Manila for the PEN International Congress, we published a report outlining PEN’s concerns in the Philippines. In my introduction to PEN’s report, A Carnival of Mirrors, I had said:
“Rulers in the Philippines have not had an amicable relationship with writers who speak truth to power. Think of José Rizal, a doctor by training, who turned to writing, challenging the Spanish colonial powers, demanding freedoms. For the crime of giving voice to the Philippine right of self-determination, he was arrested and later executed in 1896. His ideas – of civil disobedience and call for freedom – resonated across the archipelago; the Philippine Revolution followed. The Spanish defeat to Americans two years later rekindled hopes of the Revolution, but it would take nearly five more decades before the Philippines gained freedom from American control, and American military bases would leave only in the early 1990s.
“And yet, it is Rizal’s idealism and words that gave voice to freedom in the Philippines, inspiring dissidents challenging colonial rule elsewhere in Asia and beyond. Rizal had waged what often seemed to him to be a lonely battle. ‘I do not write for this generation,’ he wrote. ‘If they could read me, they would burn my books, the work of my whole life. On the other hand, the generation which interprets these writings will be an educated generation; they will understand me and say: not all were asleep in the nighttime of our grandparents.’ But the journalists and writers that followed him, carried on, walking that difficult path.
“The years since Philippine independence have shown that writers and journalists cannot take freedom for granted. Eternal vigilance is indeed the price of liberty. There is no guarantee that yesterday’s revolutionaries won’t become today’s authoritarian leaders. The Philippine saga is book-ended by two powerful men – Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986, and Rodrigo Duterte, the current president who came to power in 2016 and who can, by law, serve only one six-year term (a law introduced after the years of autocracy and martial law under Marcos) – who see journalists and writers as antagonists to be vanquished.
“Marcos closed down newspapers and jailed journalists and writers when he declared martial law in 1972; Duterte has cast journalists and dissenting critics as the enemies of the people. But while those two book-ends show how writers and journalists have fought courageously, asking uncomfortable questions, exposing instances of wrongdoing and corruption, and exposing state abuse, the problem is more systemic.
“One of the worst massacres of journalists took place in November 2009, in Maguindanao, when 34 journalists were killed or abducted, and only 25 identified, in an act of unprecedented brutality on the press, which the Committee to Protect Journalists has called ‘the single deadliest’ attack on journalists anywhere. Nearly a decade later, the victims’ families and survivors await justice.
“Such attacks are possible because governments – from Spanish colonial times – have believed that might is right. Leaders calculate that people prefer safety and stability over liberty. In Benito Mussolini’s Italy, it was claimed, trains ran on time. Successive Communist leaders in China have asserted that people’s rice bowls must be full first; freedom is a luxury. Many other leaders have argued that the greater collective good requires that freedoms should be curtailed. They define the greater collective good and they don’t want to take any questions. They have all the answers; the bamboo shoots that rise must be chopped off, to set an example, to prevent others from rising. Seeking the cover of populism, the rulers have argued that they are protecting safety by eliminating those committed to disruption and anarchy.
“But journalists and writers are a stubborn lot. They may sway in a hurricane, but they rise again; they continue to raise uncomfortable questions. As journalists challenge the authorities, they become frequent targets. The violence does not always have to be perpetrated by the state. Vigilantes act in the name of powerful aggrieved people. Laws suppress freedom of expression, and are used liberally by those with power or with access to power, to silence challengers: recall the culture of impunity that surrounds the Maguindanao massacre; witness the harassment of and arrest of Maria Ressa, whose investigative platform Rappler aims ‘to comfort the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable,’ in the words of the Indian writer Arundhati Roy; and remember the women who rose against Marcos, the journalists who caricatured the rulers, the novelists who used allegory and poetry to shame the leaders.”
Philippine writers and journalists have continued to wage the long battle, pointing out injustice, inequality, and abuses that the people have suffered. Their bravery emboldens a nation. As Rizal wrote, “There can be no tyrants where there are no slaves.”
Maria Ressa has been a courageous warrior, part of that brave tradition. She is a hero who inspires journalists and writers across the world. She has faced threats – misogynistic, vulgar, abusive threats – and spurious cases of cyber-libel. She has fought propaganda and lies, euphemistically known as “fake news”. A former student of biology and interested in theatre, she was taken in by the human drama, and has become an exemplary witness.
I met her first in Manila in late 1994 and then again in Jakarta in 1997-1998, that tumultuous year when the Suharto regime collapsed. She covered Suharto’s fall with distinction for CNN. I was reporting for Far Eastern Economic Review. I was inspired by her conviction and spirit, her energy and persistence. We last met in July 2019, at the global media freedom conference in London, at the panel on media freedom in Southeast Asia.
During my term as chair of PEN International’s Writers-in-Prison Committee, it was my duty to defend her when she was persecuted by the Philippine government under its draconian libel laws. It was a privilege to be by her side.
Journalists are not activists; they are no necessarily human rights defenders. But in exercising their freedoms, they expand the freedoms for others. By speaking out, they make others feel confident it is worth speaking out. And speech, words, and thoughts, are the best weapons against tyrannical governments. The fall of such governments is a precondition for peace.
The Nobel Peace Prize has gone to unsavoury characters. This year, it has redeemed itself.
Salil Tripathi, a member of PEN International’s board, was chair of its writers in prison committee (2015-2021). He is a writer based in New York.