How Biden Can Aid Maria Ressa’s Fight for Justice

The Nobel Peace Prize winner’s cause is about more than just press freedom.

By , chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, a former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, and a member of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom, and , an international human rights lawyer and legal counsel at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.
Ressa holds up the Nobel Peace Prize diploma and medal.
Ressa holds up the Nobel Peace Prize diploma and medal.
Maria Ressa poses with her Nobel Peace Prize diploma and medal during the gala award ceremony for the prize in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10. Odd Andersen/AFP via Getty Images

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony was more than a recognition of courageous journalists defending a global press under siege. It also specifically directed urgent attention to an overlooked and deadly drug war by the Philippine government against its poor.

In recognizing the remarkable Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, who was awarded the 2021 prize along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, the Norwegian Nobel Committee cited Ressa’s investigative news outlet Rappler and its role in covering the mass atrocities of the drug war. Rappler has received international acclaim for its unrelenting coverage and its reporters who serve tirelessly in the trenches, investigating and documenting extrajudicial killings and exposing the Philippine government’s official fatality numbers as vastly underreported.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s government persistently harasses and targets Rappler and Ressa, including by making concerted attempts to prevent her from traveling to receive the prize. Ressa has been subjected to 10 arrest warrants in less than two years and faced a torrent of violent threats online. Last year, she was convicted of fabricated “cyber libel” charges for which she could face up to six years in prison, pending an appeal.

This year’s Nobel Peace Prize ceremony was more than a recognition of courageous journalists defending a global press under siege. It also specifically directed urgent attention to an overlooked and deadly drug war by the Philippine government against its poor.

In recognizing the remarkable Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, who was awarded the 2021 prize along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, the Norwegian Nobel Committee cited Ressa’s investigative news outlet Rappler and its role in covering the mass atrocities of the drug war. Rappler has received international acclaim for its unrelenting coverage and its reporters who serve tirelessly in the trenches, investigating and documenting extrajudicial killings and exposing the Philippine government’s official fatality numbers as vastly underreported.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s government persistently harasses and targets Rappler and Ressa, including by making concerted attempts to prevent her from traveling to receive the prize. Ressa has been subjected to 10 arrest warrants in less than two years and faced a torrent of violent threats online. Last year, she was convicted of fabricated “cyber libel” charges for which she could face up to six years in prison, pending an appeal.

In 2018, the Duterte administration tried to shut down Rappler altogether. Drawing on a common authoritarian refrain, Duterte labeled the site a “fake news outlet.” In 2020, the month before Ressa’s conviction, the government forced the Philippines’ largest television network, ABS-CBN, off the air—similarly for its critical reporting on the drug war—despite it serving as the only available news source in certain regions.

In September, the International Criminal Court (ICC) authorized an investigation into the crimes of the drug war, ruling there is a reasonable basis to believe Philippine security forces and vigilantes have committed crimes against humanity instigated by the drug war campaign and Duterte’s related statements. The ICC prosecutor estimates up to 30,000 people were killed between July 2016 and March 2019 alone. Victims are summarily shot and executed, often in their homes, in front of their children, and while pleading for their lives. The affected families are driven further into poverty and suffer life-long trauma.

The ICC Pre-Trial Chamber found the killings to be systematic, pursuant to official state policy. Government documents and high-level officials, including Duterte and the national police chief, have described the drug war’s purpose in no uncertain terms: Kill all “drug personalities,” including those suffering from drug addiction.

During Duterte’s bid for the presidency, he boasted of killing “around 1,700” people and promised to kill 100,000 criminals within six months of taking office. As president-elect, he stated, “If you are still into drugs, I am going to kill you.” He urged citizens to kill drug users, granted immunity to law enforcement for wrongdoing, and even compared himself to Adolf Hitler.

As long as this culture of impunity persists, so will the killings, which increased by more than half from April to July 2020, during the COVID-19 lockdown. During Duterte’s latest state of the nation address this summer, he doubled down on the brutal campaign.

On the day of the Nobel Peace Prize announcement, Leila de Lima, a Philippine senator (of whose international legal team we are members), filed for reelection from prison, where she has spent nearly five years on entirely trumped-up charges for seeking official investigations into the drug war.

For over two decades, De Lima has pursued justice for the victims of state atrocities at different governmental levels. In 2009, as chair of the Philippine National Human Rights Commission, she investigated Duterte’s role in the extrajudicial killings committed under his mayorship of Davao City, and in 2016, as chair of the Senate’s Justice and Human Rights Committee, she initiated a Senate probe into the drug war.

In retaliation, Duterte and his political accomplices orchestrated her unjust detention, vowing that she would “rot in jail.” They launched regular misogynistic attacks against her, including assigning a staffer to smear De Lima’s reputation on social media—part of a larger disinformation campaign to silence discussion of the mass atrocities. Duterte went so far as to suggest De Lima hang herself.

The U.N. Working Group on Arbitrary Detention concluded in 2018 that De Lima was imprisoned purely for her “personal conviction and public statements regarding extrajudicial killings” and that her detention is in standing violation of international law. The working group and other U.N. experts have repeatedly called on the Duterte government to immediately release, compensate, and reinstate her to the positions from which she was ousted.

Undeterred by her persecutors, De Lima continues to seek justice, running on a platform that includes establishing a truth commission for the mass atrocities. Despite her imprisonment, she may also be the country’s most active legislator, having written or co-written over 300 bills and resolutions focused on human rights and rule of law.

Since De Lima’s arrest, the government has escalated its attacks on political opponents, members of the legal profession, and the press. More than 60 lawyers and at least 20 journalists have been killed during Duterte’s tenure as president, including Jesus Malabanan, a journalist who contributed to Reuters’s Pulitzer Prize-winning series on Duterte’s drug war.

Duterte has publicly declared journalists as legitimate targets of assassination in a country that ranks 138 out of 180 on Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index. According to the International Federation of Journalists, the Philippines ranks third among the world’s deadliest countries for journalists. Since Duterte assumed office, the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism has documented more than 200 attacks and threats targeting the press in the country.

This escalating repression represents, in the words of Maria Ressa, “death by a thousand cuts— not just of press freedom but of democracy.” But it’s not hopeless. The United States can take a number of practical measures to support the heroes fighting to save democracy in the Philippines and to end impunity for the Duterte government’s ongoing crimes against humanity.

First, the Biden administration should respond to the unanimous U.S. Senate resolution from January 2020 calling on the president to impose Magnitsky sanctions on the responsible Philippine officials in the form of asset freezes and visa bans.

Second, as the United States and the Philippines recalibrate their defense alliance, the administration should condition the relationship on meaningful reforms, investigations, and justice mechanisms for the mass atrocities.

Third, the U.S. House of Representatives should pass the Philippine Human Rights Act, which suspends security assistance until effective human rights protections are in place, particularly in light of the recent approval of billions of dollars in arms sales to the Philippines, and introduce a companion Senate bill.

Fourth, the administration and members of the U.S. Congress should continue drawing attention to the persecution of Filipino human rights defenders, including De Lima, seek their unconditional release through resolutions and public hearings, and rally U.S. allies and civil society to do the same.

Fifth, the United States should complement these efforts with an active push and support for immediate, and long overdue, full investigations into the mass killings and atrocities of the drug war at international forums including the U.N. General Assembly, Human Rights Council, and ICC.

Lastly, the United States should rein in the social media corporations within its borders, which enable authoritarianism and international crimes abroad, particularly as the May 2022 Philippine presidential election approaches.

The Biden administration can demonstrate a meaningful commitment to the affirmative agenda of its inaugural Summit for Democracy by taking these concrete steps to support the causes embodied by this year’s Nobel Peace Prize laureates.

Irwin Cotler is chair of the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights, a former minister of justice and attorney general of Canada, and a member of the High Level Panel of Legal Experts on Media Freedom.

Yonah Diamond is an international human rights lawyer and legal counsel at the Raoul Wallenberg Centre for Human Rights.

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