When your job makes you a target: Maria Ressa on freedom of the Press in the Philippines

Chris Rama

Contributing Writer

In America, the last four years have been a war waged between the polarized political halves of a nation. Despite journalists’ best efforts to fact-check, expose, and condemn Donald Trump for his spread of misinformation and manipulation of narratives, Trump’s supporters remained loyal. At its best, social media can act as a tool for journalists who want to get their message across quickly and efficiently. At its worst, social media can be utilized by governments as a weapon against democracy; a problem that is not exclusive to the United States. 

Frontline and the Human Rights festival hosted journalist Maria Ressa (middle, right), documentarian Ramona Díaz (bottom), lawyer Nani Jansen Reventlow, Carlos Conde from the organization Human Rights Watch (middle, left), and host Simon Kilmurry (top, left) in a conversation on press freedom in the Philippines. SCREENSHOT BY CHRIS RAMA

Maria Ressa, Filipina journalist and CEO of the Manila-based independent news organization Rappler, is deeply concerned about the direction the Philippine government is heading in. “An atom bomb has gone off in our information ecosystem and if we want to stop the pendulum towards fascism we have to… come together like the world did after World War 2… and do something now,” she said at a Jan. 3 discussion hosted by Frontline, a division of KQED focusing on investigative news documentaries, and the Human Rights Film Festival. 

The conversation, titled “Democracy, Human Rights, and the Freedom of Expression,” highlighted clips from the award-winning documentary directed by Ramona S. Díaz titled A Thousand Cuts, which follows Ressa and Rappler’s conflicts with the Philippine government. The event also featured Nani Jansen Reventlow, a human rights lawyer specializing in freedom of expression, and Carlos Conde, a researcher at Human Rights Watch, a non-governmental organization that conducts research and advocacy for human rights. 

Ressa, who has been under fire from the Philippine government for her journalism, spoke about the dangers of social media. “You have to stop the virus of lies from infecting more people because, when that happens, it changes the worldview,” she said. “We have been insidiously manipulated by technology.” 

Rappler became a target of President Rodrigo Duterte for the news organization’s critique of his violent and corrupt methods of fighting what he calls “the war on drugs.” While the use and distribution of illegal drugs is rampant in the Philippines, the government— rather than addressing the problem at its source and condemning prominent drug lords— carries out their ‘war’ by arresting or killing drug addicts and pushers. These people, who often live in poverty, are the very same citizens Duterte claims to want to protect from violence by waging his ‘war.’ 

Ressa interviewed Duterte at the start of his term as president of the Philippines. In this interview, he said, “Violence is my greatest strength.” Senator Ronald “Bato” dela Rosa, an ex-Chief of Police and Duterte’s right-hand man, shares this viewpoint. He encourages and amplifies the use of violence to combat drugs, and is responsible for the death of an estimated 27,000 Filipinos, according to the prominent Filipino news outlet ABS-CBN. Duterte successfully shut down ABS-CBN in 2020 when, after 13 hearings, the broadcasting network’s franchise renewal application was denied by a committee in the Filipino House of Representatives. 

Despite all the violence, or rather because of it, Duterte and his team continue to be unwaveringly supported by millions of Filipinos. Much of this support is, according to Ressa, due to the role that social media has played in strengthening Duterte’s message. Considering the Philippines ranks at the top of global in social media usage— according to the American advertising firm We Are Social, which compiles its statistics from multiple data partners— it is no shock that the government uses it to push their views on the public, whether they are factual or not. Pro-Duterte internet personalities, such as entertainer and political blogger Mocha Uson, help spread government misinformation over social media platforms.

Conversely, Ressa and her team at Rappler have also made use of social media platforms to broadcast their stories, using platforms like Facebook livestream to report events as they happen, such as the 2019 midterm elections.   

Ressa and other journalists have received threatening messages on social media for their work, which has become vilified by Duterte’s public denial of the importance and validity of having a free press. In a national broadcast, Duterte attacked Pia Ranada, a journalist at Rappler, “You are a Filipino who was allowed to abuse our country. And you are an active participant of that…In the name of the holy grail of press freedom,” Duterte said. 

Duterte’s determination to shut Rappler down does not stop at social media efforts. Ressa has accumulated 10 different charges against her in two years, including three for online defamation or “cyber libel.” This law puts journalists at risk of arrest for publishing anything Duterte deems slanderous. Duterte’s abuse of this law has been displayed time and time again, most evidently in Ressa’s first charge, which was based on an article that was published four months before the cyber libel law was enacted. 

Though Ressa has made it her mission to call out Duterte, the arrest warrants have brought pain to her personal life. When asked by an attendee about how free she was to travel to and from the Philippines, Ressa said, “I am fighting for my right to travel,” having been denied travel three times by the ten courts she’s required to ask before leaving the country. Her requests were even denied when requesting to visit her mother in the Philippines who was being treated for breast cancer. 

At the end of her discussion with Frontline and the Human Rights Film Festival, Ressa warned other journalists that “This present moment of the past will determine the future.” Ressa also said she believes that the only way for us to prevent the destruction of democracy at the hands of propaganda is to “know how much power you have. Know that silence is complicity and … stand up for the values and principles … that is inclusive and that protects democracy.”

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