Margaret Atwood: If We Lose the Free Press, We Cease to Be a Democracy
“How many fingers am I holding up?” says the Party torturer, O’Brian, to the hapless Winston Smith in George Orwell’s 1984. The right answer isn’t “four” or “five.” The right answer is whatever number O’Brian says it is. That is how totalitarians and warlords and authoritarians of all kinds have behaved throughout the ages. Truth is what these folks say it is, not what the facts proclaim. And if you persist in naming a factual number of fingers, then into prison with you, or off with your head. That’s if the totalitarian has already seized power: if he is only in the larval stage, you may simply be accused of spouting fake news.
We find ourselves living in a new age of O’Brians. How many journalists and truth-tellers around the world have been murdered, executed after a quasi-legal process, imprisoned, or exiled? When will we build a memorial wall to them, with all of their names inscribed?
And why do they matter? Because knowing what the power-holders are doing—in our name if it’s a democracy, or in the name of some abstract concept—fatherland, blood, soil, gods, virtue, kingship—is the only way the citizens of any society can begin to hold those power-holders to account. If a society has any pretense to being other than a serfdom, a free and independent press whose journalists have the right to dig into the factual subsoil of a story is the primary defense against encroaching winner-takes-all powercreep.
We’re living in the midst of a war being waged against this kind of journalism: the evidence-based, truth-telling kind. In the United States, the president has admitted that he spews out non-truths to keep the journos spinning. His aim is to confuse the public, so that the citizens—not knowing what to believe—will ultimately believe nothing. In a country with no ideals left, high-level lawbreakers and corruption will have free rein. Who can even object to those who sell out their country if there isn’t much of a country left?
The signals sent to the rest of the world by the United States have not been lost on authoritarians elsewhere. When it comes to pesky journalists who wash dirty political laundry in public, anything goes. But now there is at least some push-back. As its 2018 “Person of the Year,” TIME Magazine has named four journalists and one news organization who have suffered for speaking truth. Foremost among them is the murdered Jamal Al-Khashoggi, lately of the Washington Post. Maria Ressa has been charged and threatened with imprisonment in the Philippines for writing against that country’s president’s shoot-whoever-I-say policies. Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were just doing their Reuters job, but were imprisoned for talking about a massacre of Rohingya in Myanmar. And the Capital Gazette of Annapolis, Maryland, shot up by a gunman who killed five. TIME said of them in its essay, “They are representative of a broader fight by countless others around the world—as of December 10, at least 52 journalists have been murdered in 2018—who risk all to tell the story of our time.”
The suppression of writing and writers is naturally of central concern to writers themselves. Budding totalitarians always go after artists and writers early on, for two reasons: they are relatively undefended—there isn’t a huge armed posse of fellow writers acting as their bodyguards—and they have an unpleasant habit of not shutting up. I am among their number, so I have long taken an interest in attempts to censor writers’ work and deprive them of liberty and life.
My active involvement began in the 1970s, during the time of the Argentinian junta and the régime of Pinochet in Chile. Many journalists, writers and artists were killed at that time, including the major Chilean poet Pablo Neruda. In the 80s I helped found PEN Canada (English), which I headed during its first two years. I have watched as PEN America has expanded its scope, placing the defense of journalists and the free press at the center of its activities.
Gone are the days when all we had to defend was the right of novelists to say the F word in print. Now it appears that it is the right of independent-minded journalists to exist at all that is at issue. Democracies ignore this crisis at their peril: if we lose the free press, we will cease to be democracies.