‘First they came for the journalists…’
First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a socialist. /Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—because I was not a trade unionist. /Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—because I was not a Jew. /Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.”
This “most famous Holocaust poem of all time,” written by German pastor and Holocaust survivor Martin Niemöller, was recently given a 21st-century media-savvy spin by a protest sign that read: “First they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that.”
The line says a lot about the crucial role played by the media in today’s affairs, fueled by the quick exchange of information and the often-vicious trade of opinion and vilification thanks in large part to information technology. Today’s media environment has never been as open or free, at least in terms of access and availability where, with a few clicks, a user can open doors to entire libraries and archives, the world’s newspapers and magazines, and even a worldwide marketplace of personal views, experiences, trivia troves and even photos/videos ranging from vacation scenes to funny animal antics, from personal memories and family pictures to secret footage of police arrests and criminal activity.
And yet this luxury of choice amid such rich variety has received brutal blowback not just from trolls and contrarians but even governments. The retaliation ranges from bans on unfriendly websites to the outright closure of some, to the brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi, who wrote for the Washington Post and was widely suspected killed by Saudi Arabian agents inside the Saudi embassy in Turkey.
The Philippines is not exempt from this crackdown on free media. The most prominent example is Maria Ressa, CEO of the news website Rappler, who was arrested on Wednesday evening over a 7-year-old libel allegation that was revived, like a rotting zombie, by the National Bureau of Investigation, which had previously dismissed the case.
Elements of harassment and state vendetta are so patently obvious in this case. It is based on a complaint by a businessman who filed it five years after the original story was published in 2012, months before the cybercrime law was enacted. The NBI itself closed an investigation in early 2018 after finding, to quote a statement by Rappler, that “(there was) no basis to proceed, given that the one-year prescriptive period had lapsed.” But the case was exhumed eight days later when the NBI filed a case with the Department of Justice based on what it called the “multiple publication rule.”
Then there were the extra measures that amount in essence to malicious intent: arresting Ressa at the close of working hours so she couldn’t post bail in court, ensuring that she had to spend a night in NBI custody, even as supporters gathered outside to lend her moral support. As this is being written, Ressa has since successfully filed bail and is now free to leave the NBI premises. But the government is still not done with her; she still faces a tax evasion case.
Rappler, in its statement, says what happened to Ressa “is a dangerous precedent that puts anyone—not just the media—who publishes anything online perennially in danger of being charged with libel. It can be an effective tool of harassment and intimidation to silence critical reporting on the part of the media. No one is safe.”
Targeting journalists is tick box No. 1 in the authoritarian playbook, as the German philosopher Hannah Arendt warned in 1974: “The moment we no longer have a free press, anything can happen. What makes it possible for a totalitarian or any other dictatorship to rule is that people are not informed; how can you have an opinion if you are not informed? If everybody always lies to you, the consequence is not that you believe the lies, but rather that nobody believes anything any longer… And a people that no longer can believe anything cannot make up its mind. It is deprived not only of its capacity to act but also of its capacity to think and to judge. And with such a people you can then do what you please.”
So for journalists who think Ressa and Rappler “were asking for it,” and for ordinary folk who think only journalists and bloggers need be scared, remember the protest sign’s words: “First they came for the journalists…” And when they’re gone, without a free press, we won’t know what will hit us next.
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