MANILA – One recent afternoon, two men showed up at the entrance to Rappler, a Philippine online news site co-founded and headed by veteran journalist Maria Ressa.
Introducing themselves to the guard as “independent writers,” the men sought to call out Ressa for “damaging” the country’s reputation with the site’s news reports. The visit was live-streamed on Facebook; Rappler said some viewers left comments calling “for violence towards Ressa, Rappler, and its offices.”
Rappler, launched in January 2012, is among the media outlets that have reported critically on President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody war on drugs, starting in 2016. Its coverage earned it a number of nominations and citations, including the Human Rights Press Awards in 2017.
Ressa, the site’s chief executive officer and executive editor, is a former CNN bureau chief who is the recipient of numerous awards, including being named a person of the year by Time magazine last year.
Shortly after the two men were asked to leave Rappler’s premises, Ressa told Kyodo News: “The media weren’t the first people under attack. Journalists are not the first people under attack. The first people under attack are Filipinos who were killed in the brutal drug war without due process.”
“I think two things happened simultaneously — and this is the impunity that we’re fighting: impunity in the drug war and then impunity on social media,” she said.
On Feb. 13, Ressa was arrested and detained for a night on orders of a court handling a complaint of “cyber libel” against her and a former Rappler reporter. The charge stemmed from an article that cited a businessman’s alleged links to human trafficking and drug smuggling.
It was the first time for her to be taken into custody amid a string of legal predicaments she and Rappler have been entangled in since early last year.
“At the very least, you see intent. … It’s the government using all of its forces to try to intimidate a journalist. … And I don’t think that I’m alone, that I was the target necessarily. I think they mean to let every journalist know, ‘This could happen to you,'” Ressa lamented.
Rappler said it is facing 10 cases and investigations, including the revocation of its license to operate after it was found to have accommodated a foreign investor, allegedly in violation of regulations on media ownership.
“In 13 months, Rappler has had its licenses revoked. I’m facing a minimum of nine different cases,” Ressa said, vowing to fight every case in the courts. “I’ve had to post bail six times in two months since December. So, there’s something very, very wrong.”
Asked if she sees Duterte’s direct hand in these cases, she replied, “Whether it’s the president himself or someone else, he certainly encourages attacks against journalists. He certainly hasn’t stood up for press freedom.”
Last year, Rappler’s reporter covering the presidential beat was also banned from the presidential palace and from anywhere Duterte has public engagements in.
“We’re seeing an erosion, not just of press freedom, but of democracy in the Philippines. … The reason why press freedom is important, why our journalists are important (is) because, in the end, press freedom is the foundation of all our rights to the truth, so that we can hold the powerful to account,” she explained. Her arrest elicited domestic and global condemnation, including from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo has slammed Ressa for her “dramatics” and for “abusing” her “power as a journalist.” He brands her an “outspoken Duterte critic.”
“The law does not discriminate. It is no respecter of social status. Everyone is equal before the law,” Panelo said, insisting that the complaint against her was handled in accordance with the law. “The rule of law was observed because she has been charged, given the right to preliminary investigation, the president judge of the court determined the existence of probable cause and issued a warrant of arrest, and subsequently she was granted bail.”
Panelo accused Ressa of “weaponizing or using the law or the constitutional guarantee of freedom of expression to attack the president and the administration and put them in a bad light before the eyes of the world.”
The libel case, filed by a private individual, “is absolutely unrelated to the freedom of the press or the freedom of expression,” Panelo said. “Rappler continues to publish its news articles. Rappler and Maria Ressa are walking examples of the observance of the freedom of expression and of the press in this country.”
Besides her battle against the sitting government, Ressa and her organization — as with journalists from other agencies — also have to deal with attacks from social media users against them and true information.
“A lie told a million times becomes the truth. … Journalists were attacked systematically. I just happened to be the most vocal. … It’s alarming, and it’s a wave of populism that’s going through the world,” she said.
“We’re demanding accountability from the social media platforms, that they should not be allowing lies to spread faster than facts. The first casualty in the war for truth in the Philippines is how many people have actually been killed in the drug war,” she said.
Technology, she said, has enabled authoritarian leaders to corrupt institutions and to go directly to the people and manipulate them.
“Journalists need to do a lot more. If people don’t know what the truth is, every democracy is vulnerable,” she said. Truth “is the foundation of the strength of a democracy.”
Amid the “crazy” yet “historic” times she is living through now — she said, “I feel like Alice in Wonderland, and I fell into the rabbit hole and this is a different world, and the Mad Hatter is in charge” — she declares her spirit is unshaken.
“I’ll keep doing my job as a journalist. ‘ I’m not against the government, but I will hold the government accountable for its actions,” Ressa vowed, mindful of the support she has gained including from the international community.