Even during the revolutionary period, poems played a significant role in protest and revolution. Poetry is also a powerful answer to actions inimical to the public good. It can also serve as an amplifying strike that illuminates and purges the heart of anomalies. Peace resides in poetry, despite the traces of ambivalence the poem may hold.
The International PEN in the Philippines brought writers together across cultures in Asia to share their experiences and explore ideas with Filipino writers. The result was “Free the Word”—a forum and poetry reading at the Cultural Center of the Philippines (CCP) that opened conversations about how literature can transform, influence, and uphold press freedom and free expression.
The PEN organized the event as its contribution to the flow of literature around the world—through translation, and the promotion of it’s member-writers’ works. The PEN also provides opportunity for debate and dialogue among readers and writers.
“Free the Word! Manila” was held inside the Tirada Exhibit of the Main Gallery of the CCP, where National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose was the guest of honor.
Tale of empty chair
Before the Forum on Free Expression commenced, all the speakers took their seats, but an empty chair holding the printed black and white image of one writer sat before the audience.
“Since the 1980’s, PEN International has used the empty chair to symbolize a writer who could not be present because they were imprisoned, detained, disappeared, threatened, or killed. Today, our empty chair is for Mother Mushroom—Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh,” Karina Bolasco of the Ateneo de Manila Press said by way of explanation of the vacant seat.
Nguyen is on hunger strike in Vietnam. She was convicted of conducting propaganda against the Socialist Republic of Vietnam under the Article 88 of Vietnam’s Penal Code. She was sentenced of 10 years in prison after being found guilty of distorting government policies and defaming the communist regime in Facebook posts, and in interviews with foreign media.
“In our time today, all over the world, it is not, maybe, a time of war. But, metaphorically, it is. Our task, then, as writers and artists, is to help our communities learn and grow a radical kind of hope,” Bolasco said.
Suppression of freedom
During the forum, five foreign panelists talked about the situation of press freedom in their respective countries. They spoke of how they confront these challenges as members of the International PEN.
PEN International director Roman Cacchioli spoke of how journalists are threatened and how “truth is being obliterated.”
According to her, the International PEN recorded 219 attacks against writers, poets, and bloggers in 2017. Of that number, 74 journalists were murdered, including citizen journalists. Cacchioli also said attacks on journalists can take different forms: Disappearances, imprisonment, and solitary confinement while imprisoned.
“I think the biggest threat for journalists is writing about corruption.” Cacchioli stated.
The proliferation of lies, euphemistically called “fake news,” was also discussed at the forum. Cacchioli said the intimidation of journalists and minority writers is a cause of concern for the International PEN.
Four more writers addressed the audience, sharing their own experiences, including Danson Kahyana of Uganda, Tammy Lai Ming Ho of Hong Kong, Apoorvanand Jha of New Delhi, India and journalist Sangamesh Menasinakai from south India.
“Before training we are free,” Jha said. “We find campuses lacking. We saw public industries crumbling.” In the schools, he said, the suppression of academic freedom is very subtle, “very logical, if you listen to their arguments to do this. That’s scary: Just how logical they sound.”
Jha added that funding for education in culture and the arts, as well as the sciences, is cut to favor other educational courses that “simply prepare students for the workforce—for the factories and contact centers, not for leadership or, even so they can express themselves artistically, or ask questions—even queries of a scientific nature.”
“We see with sadness our public university systems crumbling before our eyes,” Jha said. “After a new nationalist government assumes power, it is now the Hindu nationalists who are trying to rule all sectors of society. If our students come out to protest this, they are told that the taxpayers are paying for their tuition and that protest is a waste of that tuition they owe the taxpayer.”
He also said that, “by asking universities to produce employable young men and women,” the Indian government is “undermining value of education.”
Rule of fear
Menasinakai, a journalist, said that he was unemployed until he found a job with a private company, but that now that he has a job, “I cannot express myself to protest social issues. I cannot be involved in street protests over killings in India.”
“In such context, what is the role of writers?” he asked the audience.
International PEN in Hong Kong vice president Tammy Lai Ming Ho said that “freedom of expression is being increasingly challenged” where she lives and works. “In Hong Kong, in various areas, including the academe, journalism, and even in the cultural sphere, freedom of expression is under threat.”
Even worse, she said, “some members of society have this resigned attitude to the situation. They even begin to exercise self-censorship.” Now, she said, the artists and writers second-guess themselves.
Ho stressed, however, that PEN Hong Kong refuses to accept the scenario that one day they will have to kowtow to threats against freedom of expression.
“The Hong Kong authorities tried to censor children’s books with Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) themes, acting on complaints by some people who were offended by the content of these books. They were trying to remove them from shelves, and we denounced these acts by the government,” she said.
The poetry reading that followed the forum included performances by singer Gary Granada, poet Michael Corroza and other poets from the Linagan ng Imahen, Retorika at Anyo (LIRA)—with almost all of the performances soundly protesting the loss of freedom under dictatorial rule, or through incompetence of government. Not a few poems tackled the killings under the policy of tokhang. ~ with Alma Anonas-Carpio