Human rights Ambassador Bahia Tahzib-Lie: The world needs courageous journalists like Titus Brandsma

Address by Bahia Tahzib-Lie, Dutch Human Rights Ambassador at the Titus Brandsma Symposium: the Challenges for Journalism in Troubled Times, organised by the International Association of Journalists Accredited to the Vatican (AIGAV) and the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the Holy See, 10 May 2022.

Eminences, Excellencies, members of the press, distinguished guests,

We are here today to honour Blessed Titus Brandsma. A Dutch priest who is soon to be proclaimed a saint by Pope Francis. Titus Brandsma was born in Friesland, a province in the north of the Netherlands where his mother and father, who were devout Catholics, ran a small dairy farm. He was born in 1881. One hundred and forty-one years ago.

From a very young age, Titus Brandsma felt a calling to the religious life. He joined the Carmelite Order, one of the Roman Catholic Church’s most ancient religious communities. The Order’s founders wished to devote their lives to reflective prayer. Spirituality. And philosophy. Yet Father Brandsma also had a strong calling to serve humanity in other ways. As a journalist and a teacher. And to devote attention to the suffering and the troubles of those he encountered.

People felt an instant connection with him. Unconventional people; Despised people; Poor people. They all felt at ease with him, revived by his kindness and inner wisdom. In one of his lectures, at the then newly established Catholic University of Nijmegen, he once explained: ‘We have to see God as the fundamental basis for our being. This basis is hidden in the inner depth of our nature. There we have to see him and to meditate on him. We then not only adore him in our own being, but also in everything that exists.’

Beautifully said. Father Brandsma saw God in every living creature and in everything that exists. And that’s why he also spoke out boldly, and at such an early stage, against the spread of Nazi ideology. And why he sharply criticised Nazi policies in his lectures and newspaper articles. He explained his actions by saying that 'he who wants to win the world for Christ must have the courage to come in conflict with it.’

He also emphasised, that love is stronger than an ideology that preaches hatred. ‘Even if a philosophy condemns, and rejects love, and calls it weakness,’ he wrote. ‘The living witness of love, will always renew its power to conquer and entrance the hearts of men.’

A courageous and hopeful thing to say. Especially in those very dark days. But his remarkable bravery to speak out brought him to the attention of the Nazi occupiers. Especially when they found out that he was travelling from city to city to deliver letters to the editors of Dutch Catholic newspapers. Letters in which the Bishops’ Conference of the Netherlands warned those editors not to abide by Nazi orders. And not to print the lies, and disinformation the Nazis were spreading about the Jewish people.

Father Brandsma managed to visit fourteen Catholic newspaper editors, before being arrested. He was condemned by the Nazi occupiers as an ‘enemy of the state’ and was held in several prisons in the Netherlands. After the war, some of his fellow prisoners spoke of his good spirits, his courage and his generosity. Father Brandsma, they said, ‘always remained cheerful’. While hearing their confessions; While visiting the sick and dying in the hospital; And while sharing his food with other hungry people. He even remained calm and gentle when he was transported to Dachau concentration camp, where more than forty thousand people, most of them Jewish, would die from hunger, disease, inhuman treatment, torture and murder.

It was said that Father Brandsma’s calm state of mind enraged his captors. They beat him viciously, with their fists and with clubs and boards. They kicked and punched him, drawing blood. Often leaving him in the mud, barely conscious. And yet Father Brandsma advised his fellow prisoners to be patient. And not to yield to hatred. ‘We are here in a dark tunnel’, he told them, ’but we have to go on. At the end, the eternal light is shining for us.’

Titus Brandsma passed away one afternoon in the summer of 1942. Eighty years ago. When he became too weak to work, he was injected with a deadly poisonous drug. One of the Nazis’ many incomprehensibly cruel and appalling practices. The nurse who was ordered to give him this lethal injection later testified to the cause of his death. And remembered Father Brandsma’s very last moments. He reached into his torn pocket to give her a personal possession, she said.

A crude rosary. Made and given to him by another Dutch prisoner, who had been executed. With this token, he encouraged the nurse to pray.

Distinguished guests, Blessed Titus Brandsma’s life and spirit inspire me. In so many ways. Even when he was deprived of his freedoms, he never gave up hope. He always stood up for his beliefs. And kept his inner strength and faith. This enabled him to serve righteously as a Dutch priest and as a crusading journalist, strongly advocating press freedom.

The Nazis may have tried to make him renounce his convictions and to dehumanise him, but he kept on defending the truth, freedom of expression, and above all, ‘humanity’. Until his dying breath. He sacrificed his life for humanity and freedom of expression. To me, that makes him an exemplary human rights defender who still inspires and influences people all over the world.

This is also why I am immensely honoured to be here today. To address you in my capacity as the Dutch Human Rights Ambassador. In this beautiful, inspiring, ancient city. To pay tribute to the life of a fellow countryman, who is soon to be canonised.

But we cannot honour Titus Brandsma’s legacy and person without reminding ourselves that with his life, views and actions he set an empowering example for dealing with the world’s current challenges. Like our struggle against the venom of disinformation, lies and fake news. There are still people in the world – in my own country, too – who’d prefer wrongdoing to be covered up; Stories to go unpublished; And secrets to remain buried.

We hear about authoritarian regimes that are tightening their grip on the media. Obstructing journalists, so that they work under tremendous pressure. We hear about journalists who are censored; Journalists who receive death threats; Journalists who are physically attacked; Or murdered, because of their work.

Last year, the number of journalists behind bars reached a global high, according to the non-profit Committee to Protect Journalists. In a statement Joel Simon, the Committee’s Executive Director, said the following: ‘The number reflects two inextricable challenges: governments are determined to control and manage information and they are increasingly brazen in their efforts to do so.’

In other words: repression has an immense impact. And these attacks on journalists are designed to have a chilling and deterring effect on others. And yet many journalists continue to show strength and courage like Titus Brandsma. They carry on with their work. And they retain their faith in humanity. And so they show all of us that human freedom is something that can never be permanently repressed, controlled or restrained.

Take Ali Arkady. He is a photojournalist from Iraq, whom I met three years ago when he was in the Netherlands to receive the Free Press Unlimited Most Resilient Journalist Award. In 2016, Mr Arkady was embedded with Iraq’s special forces, to document their deployment. When some of these special forces began torturing and murdering innocent civilians, he reached for the only tool he had: his camera. And took over four hundred videos and photos.

But his actions came at a price. He had to flee Iraq with his wife and four-year-old daughter, knowing that the publication of his work – documenting war crimes – could make it unsafe for him ever to return. Yet Mr Arkady told the world this story, because we all needed to know.

I also remember Jessikka Aro, an investigative reporter from Finland. I had the honour of talking to her in Warsaw, at a meeting of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Ms Aro once lived, studied and worked as a journalist in Russia, where she identified a Russian online troll farm in St Petersburg. Later, she wrote a book about the Kremlin’s information warfare, called Putin’s Trolls. But she, too, had to pay a price for her investigative journalism. When she reported her findings on a Finnish broadcasting network, she was severely attacked by the same Russian trolls. They claimed that Ms Aro was ‘in the pay of the CIA’, and a ‘threat to Finnish national security’.She was also denounced as a ‘drug user’, a ‘drug dealer’, a ‘brain-damaged prostitute’ – or a combination of all three.

In fact, the trolls managed to incite hatred in so many people, who believed all the lies, that the Finnish police warned her that she faced the threat of ‘impulsive violence’, if she found herself in the wrong place at the wrong time. These threats were the reason Ms Aro left her home in Helsinki, and moved abroad. Where she continues her work. Because she too believes in exposing inconvenient truths, and in holding people in power to account.

And what’s so important is not only that Ms Aro, Mr Arkady, and all those other truth-tellers around the world have a fundamental right to express themselves, and speak out. But that we also need them to provide us with reliable and independent information. To help us understand the challenges we face. And to know what’s going on in our societies and around the world. We, the public, also have a right to know.

That’s also why freedom of expression – both online and offline – and the safety of journalists, are priorities of Dutch human rights policy. All over the world, we’re taking action to make a difference for press freedom. Let me share some examples with you:

  • We took the initiative to found the Freedom Online Coalition:

A group of thirty-four countries, working together to advance internet freedom and human rights online. Including freedom of expression. Because if a country decides to curb human rights, the internet is where it will strike first. So a joint response is crucial.

  • The Netherlands also co-chairs the Media Freedom Coalition;

A partnership of over fifty countries. All working together to promote media freedom, and ensure information as a public good.

  • Two years ago, in collaboration with UNESCO, we hosted the World Press Freedom Conference.

Our aim was to foster political will, support initiatives and action, and counter the negative narratives that seek to undermine the crucial work of journalists. Because we understand that if violence against journalists triumphs media cannot be free, and democracy cannot function.

  • The Netherlands has also released twenty million euros to support organisations that work to promote human rights worldwide.
  • And ten years ago we launched the Shelter City Programme, which is now active in thirteen Dutch cities, and eight cities in other countries.

The programme gives at-risk journalists and human rights defenders from around the world, the opportunity to take a break from their demanding work back home, and to recuperate. It also provides them with new skills and security training, so that they can be more effective when they return to their own country.

These are just a few examples of how the Netherlands is trying to enable and empower journalists at risk worldwide. So that – like Titus Brandsma – they can continue to seek the truth, to report the facts, and to supply the fuel we so desperately need for free, well-functioning and informed societies.

That is also why I urge all the journalists and reporters present here today to keep on showing your remarkable resilience. By doing your important work: seeking, reporting and revealing the truth. So that, like Blessed Titus Brandsma, you can continue to share reliable information with people and societies, stand up for human rights and continue to be a source of hope and inspiration, to people all over the world.

Thank you.