writing in a “climate of fear”

Speech delivered by National Artist Nick Joaquin at the Philippine PEN Conference, July 1983.

Let me show you fear in a handful of dust—or rather of press releases.

A PEN (Poets, Playwrights, Essayists, Novelists) member took a handful of press releases to the newspaper offices. The press releases were about this conference we’re having today. But one look at the press releases and the editors froze. They had read the title of this conference.

Another look and the editors shuddered. They had read the list of speakers at this conference: names like professor Gonzales and Senator Diokno and Letty Magsanoc.

Needless to say, it was hard work distributing those press releases. They had generated fear in the offices of the principal newspapers of this country.

But why should such a fear be strongest and most prevalent among those who are, so to put it, on the side of the angels? Those on the opposite side, you would think, have more reasons to be afraid.

But it’s the oppositionists who display a most enjoyable recklessness. Ah, but even if they do not share that fear, they too must live in the climate of fear created by those who have to be oh so careful about what they write and what they publish.

Nervous is the word

This is the climate being created today by the press in the Philippines—not the press of the opposition but the conformist press. The conforming press is so powerful it should be fearless—and yet it doesn’t even sound comfortable.

Nervous would be the word for the principal newspapers today. They’re nervous about what they print and they’re nervous about what they don’t print. They’re nervous about what their columnists may say and they’re nervous about what their columnists don’t say.

And this general nervousness communicates itself to you when you try to visit any of the big newspaper offices: It’s like trying to break into an armed camp.

Now the so-called creative writer may ask what had he got to do with the conditions under which the newspaper writer must perform.

But if it’s the press that creates the cultural climate today, and that climate is one of fear, then even the creative writer, however independent he may think himself to be, is actually also suffering from the conditions that make the newspaper writer so nervous.

Neither safe nor free

The proposition that literature is automatically free, because written in the light of eternity, while journalism is necessarily enslaved to the concerns of the moment—that proposition is false. And even if not false, still indefensible.

No more than other republics can the Republic of Letters exist half-slave and half-free. While his brothers in journalism are in thrall, the creative writer is himself not whole, not safe and not free.