Diokno’s timeless advice to writers | Inquirer Opinion
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Diokno’s timeless advice to writers

For today’s column I was choosing from four topics. As my deadline drew near I chose Sen. Jose “Pepe” Wright Diokno (1922-1987), lawyer, nationalist and human rights defender, not only because it was his 30th death anniversary four days ago but also because he had much to say to writers. As we are witnessing nowadays, the writing profession, journalism in particular, is in misty territory.

There is the so-called “fake news” proliferating, being presented as truth in various media platforms and, worse, being believed by the gullible, the stupid and those with tunnel vision. There are the paid trolls, bashers and hackers whose daily preoccupation is to diminish or kill what is true in order to boost the evil agenda of their despotic employers.


What these trolls and bashers do not know is that they help increase reader traffic in online news sites and thus raise the site’s stock worth, so to speak, and ad revenues. As an online news executive told me, bashers are actually misguided fans. So come, be my guest.

And there is the continuous killing of writers here and in various parts of the world, writers who stand for the truth they know and experience and proceed to bravely write about them.


On July 2, 1983, Diokno delivered the Jose Rizal Lecture at the Philippine PEN Conference where the theme was “The Writer in a Climate of Fear.” That was about three weeks before the assassination of Ninoy Aquino, the watershed moment that would explode into nationwide rage.

Diokno’s lecture is included in “The Philippine Press Under Siege” (1985) to be republished soon by the University of the Philippines Press as “Press Freedom Under Siege: Reportage that Challenged the Marcos Dictatorship.” I am the editor of this new volume.

Diokno’s main source was Rizal’s own writings, the “Noli” and the “Fili.” Meticulously referenced, his long lecture was directed at writers who, as he quoted Rizal, “feel their wings but find themselves in chains, choking for want of the air of freedom.”
He freely translated poet Cecilio Apostol on Rizal: “But if a bullet destroyed your cranium/ Your ideas in turn destroyed an imperium.”

Diokno’s lament: “Rizal’s writings did destroy an empire. But, to our sorrow, they failed to change society.

“The late Leon Ma. Guerrero, perhaps the best English translator of Rizal, has stressed Rizal’s ‘timelessness, or more precisely, [his] timeliness in another world and another age.’

“So our tasks as Filipinos remain the same as they were in Rizal’s days: regain our freedom as individuals, assert our sovereignty as a people, and use our freedom and our sovereignty to create a just society. And your tasks as writers also remain the same. For as Rizal said, ‘The struggle must commence in the field of ideas before it can descend into the arena of action.’

“I do not ask you to lead, or to teach, and much less to agitate our people for this or that cause or credo. What I ask of you is much simpler: to be great writers. Great in the sense in which Rizal spoke of the greatness of man: ‘A man is great, not because he goes ahead of his generation, which is in any case impossible, but because he discerns what it wants. That, ultimately, is your job; to discern what our people want and say it clearly so that they themselves will see it, and seeing, gather their strength to achieve it.


“It is a dangerous and difficult task you must undertake. You face the same risks Rizal did: harassment by interrogation and libel suits which some of you have already experienced, arrest and detention which others among you have undergone, torture perhaps, even disappearance and extra-legal execution…

“In today’s climate of fear, how can we afford to face those dangers? It is precisely because of the climate of fear that we cannot afford not to face those dangers. We must damn the risks… say what must be said, and suffer the consequences. Writers can lay down their pens and tear up their manuscripts—but I know of no human—and writers are nothing if they are not human—who can completely silence his conscience.”

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