Jose Rizal: The Foremost #DefendPressFreedom Campaigner

Today, we commemorate the 159th birth anniversary of José Rizal—the Filipino polymath, thinker, nationalist, and writer, who was born in Calamba, Laguna.

He would be executed by firing squad in 1896. His writings united the Filipinos to revolt against the Spanish colonial rule.

He arose in our reckoning as a writer, and as with many of the Filipino propagandists in Spain at the time, press freedom was very close to his heart.

José Rizal was 7th of 11 children of Francisco Mercado and Teodora Alonso, and the youngest of the two boys among the siblings. Paciano was the eldest. As the eldest, Paciano took charge of the management of land, while José was sent to Europe to study.

Having been the unseen influence in Jose’s life, Paciano, who used to be a friend of Jose Burgos, one of the three Filipino secular priests unjustly executed in 1872, he would bring the notion of justice and fairness to Jose.

As a man of the pen, his mind had a thirst for ideas and imagination. His first travel outside the Philippines going to Spain opened him to a world colonized by the West, even writing a short ode to Aden, as his ship passed by it through the Suez Canal.

Jose Rizal’s sketch of Aden (now located in Yemen) as seen aboard his ship D’jennah on its way to Spain. Circa 1882.

“Greetings, inhospitable land but famous, alas, at the cost of the blood of your sons! Until now your name has been associated in my mind with terror and horrible carnage. How many conquerors had invaded your land!” (26 May 1882)

His travels were not only an unraveling of strange and diverse cultures. It was also an awakening of curiosity and rediscovery of identity, a journey that would be seen in all his writings, towards a pursuit for equality and justice.

Photo of Rizal as a young painter at Casa Tomasina, dated 1879.

In Spain, exposed in the ideas of the Enlightenment and modernity, of the ideals of liberty & equality, Rizal and his colleagues promoted press freedom. Rizal joined the campaign for Filipino representation in the Spanish cortes (legislature) and joined hands with like-minded Filipinos who used their voice to broadcast the issues of the Philippines, Spain’s farthest colony.

Through Rizal’s articles in La Solidaridad, he persistently argued that free press can even be an aid to government because it “is on the ground, because it has eyes and ears, and because it directly observes what [the government] rules and administers.”

He pointed out, as if anticipating a rebuttal, that “Some will answer that… with a free press, the rulers’ prestige… are greatly imperiled. We answer that we prefer the nation’s prestige to that of the few.

“A nation gets respect, not by abetting and concealing abuses, but by rebuking and punishing them…

“A nation gets respect, not by abetting and concealing abuses, but by rebuking and punishing them… If the great Napoleon had not tyrannized the Press over, perhaps it would have warned him of the peril into which he was hurled into and have made him understand that the people were weary and the earth wanted peace.”

Not content with just articles, or even just researching on the history of the country prior to Spanish colonization, Rizal attempted a daunting task for any writer—to write novels.

In 1887, not sparing his pocket, that almost drove him to spend his entire savings, he published his first novel Noli Me Tangere (1887). It would be followed by El Filibusterismo (1891).

The prevailing theme on the two novels was that while Spanish oppression was real, the only path to true freedom is love for one’s own people, and an allegiance to truth & justice. “Why independence, if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow?”

In El filibusterismo, he said, through the character of Padre Florentino: “As long as the Filipino people do not have sufficient vigour to proclaim, head held high and chest bared, their right to life of their own in human society, and to guarantee it with their sacrifices, with their very blood; as long as we see our countrymen feel privately ashamed, hearing the growl of their rebelling and protesting conscience, while in public they keep silent and even join the oppressor in mocking the oppressed; as long as we see them wrapping themselves up in their selfishness and praising with forced smiles the most despicable acts, begging with their eyes for the share of the booty, why give them independence?

“With or without Spain they would be the same, and perhaps, perhaps worse. What is the use of independence if the slaves of today will be the tyrants of tomorrow? And no doubt they will, because whoever submits to tyranny, loves it!

“…as long as our people are not prepared, and enter the struggle deceived and compelled, without a clear idea of what they are to do, the best planned movements will fail and it is better that they should fail, for why give the bride to the groom if he does not love her enough and is not ready to die for her?”

The pen he used, and the ideals he fought for with his pen, would eventually cost Rizal his life.

He would be exiled in Dapitan from 1892 to 1896, and executed thereafter at Luneta for alleged sedition. But the pen, used with such a sacrifice, had succeeded in birthing a nation into existence.

Even in his last wielding of his pen, Rizal would leave us with one of the most poignant and powerful lines that would evoke such emotion, that even at the sharing of the poem of Rizal’s sisters to American journalists, they would all sob tears:

“My dream…

Were to see you one day, jewel of the sea of the Orient,

Dry those eyes of black, that forehead high,

Without frown, without wrinkles, without stains of shame.


…Oh how beautiful to fall to give you flight,

To die to give you life, to die under your sky,

And in your enchanted land eternally sleep.”

Photo by Manuel Arias Rodriguez – Museo del Ejército, 1896.

[Entry 325, The SubSelfie Blog]

About the Author:

Kristoffer Pasion the resident historian of Team He is a public historian working for the National Historical Commission of the Philippines. He has been serving in government for almost a decade, having worked as cultural officer for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts (2011-2013), and as history researcher for the Official Gazette of the Republic of the Philippines (2013-2016).

He runs the blog Indiohistorian, and does active history writing on social media. He is finishing his masteral studies in History at the University of the Philippines in Diliman, pursuing research on the history of government institutions.

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