Maria Ressa Wants to Save Journalism

The Filipino American journalist and Nobel laureate explains what it’s like to be a government target—and how to safeguard a free press.

By , the editor in chief of Foreign Policy.
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There are many forces assaulting journalism around the world: misinformation, pressures on revenue models, and a growing trend of autocrats attacking press freedoms. One journalist who has faced up to all of these attacks in the most high-profile way imaginable is the Filipino American media executive and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa.

Ressa founded the digital media outlet Rappler in the Philippines in 2012. After Rodrigo Duterte was elected as Philippine president in 2016, she became the target of a series of attacks. Ressa has been arrested several times. This month, with the new administration of Bongbong Marcos in place, Rappler was ordered to shut down. Ressa plans to appeal.

Foreign Policy spoke with Ressa right as she was waiting in Manila for a decision about Rappler’s fate. That conversation was part of FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. You can watch the extended interview in the video box below. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript.

There are many forces assaulting journalism around the world: misinformation, pressures on revenue models, and a growing trend of autocrats attacking press freedoms. One journalist who has faced up to all of these attacks in the most high-profile way imaginable is the Filipino American media executive and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa.

Ressa founded the digital media outlet Rappler in the Philippines in 2012. After Rodrigo Duterte was elected as Philippine president in 2016, she became the target of a series of attacks. Ressa has been arrested several times. This month, with the new administration of Bongbong Marcos in place, Rappler was ordered to shut down. Ressa plans to appeal.

Foreign Policy spoke with Ressa right as she was waiting in Manila for a decision about Rappler’s fate. That conversation was part of FP Live, the magazine’s forum for live journalism. You can watch the extended interview in the video box below. What follows is a condensed and lightly edited transcript.

Foreign Policy: Maria, you have faced relentless attacks. Former President Rodrigo Duterte ordered your media company, Rappler, to be shut down for allegedly violating foreign ownership rules. The case is ongoing, but where do things stand right now?

Maria Ressa: Where do I begin? In less than two years, I’ve received 10 arrest warrants. That’s 10 criminal cases in less than two years. Two days before the end of the Duterte administration, the SEC [Securities and Exchange Commission] issued what is essentially a shutdown order. Two years earlier, in January 2018, the SEC tried to revoke our license to operate. We fought it in court and now we’re at the tail end of that process.

Authorities under the Marcos administration could shut Rappler down anyway—despite the fact that we have more legal recourse. It’s similar to the tactics that the Duterte administration took against more progressive, smaller websites where they essentially just blocked them. But here’s the good news: We survived the Duterte administration.

What we’re going through is asymmetrical warfare. We’re a very small group. Holding power to account has its costs, but we, as journalists, have held the line. We did what we were supposed to do. Now, we have asked the Marcos administration to restore the rule of law. The charges against us are political. It is the very first time in the history of the Philippines that the SEC has moved this way and this quickly against a news organization. Just as in the United States, journalists are protected under the Bill of Rights. The Philippine Constitution is patterned after the U.S., so we need to call out these attacks against press freedom.

FP: Why is the government trying to shut Rappler down?

MR: This is something that began in 2016. Duterte, in his first State of the Nation Address, attacked the largest newspaper in the country, which then said it was going to sell to a friend of the president. That sale didn’t eventually happen, but the incident is part of a trend of “death by a thousand cuts” for the media.

The country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, which I headed for six years, had its franchise taken away. Again, it was a weaponization of the law. The government was going after journalists through business. And this is exactly what’s happening again with Rappler. But the difference here is that we’re journalists, right? There’s actually a clause in our shareholder agreement that gives not just editorial decision-making power to journalists but also business decisions. So, we’ve really taken a hard-line position: You move against freedom of the press, and we will call you out every single time. Otherwise, it’s death by a thousand cuts for democracy.

FP: Sara Duterte, the new vice president, is the former president’s daughter. The new president, Bongbong Marcos, is the son of a former dictator. How different is this new administration from the Duterte administration?

MR: Milan Kundera has said the struggle of man against power is a struggle of memory against forgetting. So, what do we know about the Marcoses? In 1986, a people power revolt ousted Ferdinand Marcos, Bongbong’s father. Imelda and Ferdinand were accused of stealing $10 billion in 1986. The new government’s first act after that was to form a group that would get that money back for Manila. In the last 36 years, less than $4 billion of that $10 billion was returned.The best show of good governance for this new Marcos administration would be to return the rest of the $6 billion. Will that happen? Well, it would definitely be a show of good faith.

Having said that, we know that Bongbong Marcos ran his campaign excluding tough questions from journalists and avoiding debates where he must answer questions. He traveled with a coterie of bloggers and vloggers—people he can control. You can call it propaganda. That’s how he got elected.

I will say, however, that it’s still early days. Despite what is happening to us, I will give the benefit of doubt for concrete actions. Perhaps one of the first steps Marcos could take is to take us out of this limbo and realize that a free press is a government’s ally during times like these, where people need to know what the facts are.

FP: As the founder and editor of Rappler, I imagine you faced many challenges. Can you describe some of them?

MR: The challenges of a start-up are far different from those at a large corporate organization. We were far more agile. A large organization will take six months to go from idea to execution. We could execute similar things in a week—that’s a massive advantage.

So, how did we do it? We did it by experimentation. We knew what innovation meant. You want to put the television in the pocket of your viewers. You can see the change. You can see the impact. This is part of the reason we were also among the first to see what disinformation does and what information operations do at scale. And in 2016, that was when we raised the alarm. We came out with a three-part series on the weaponization of the internet. That’s what got us attacked online, and that’s when the first cases against us began.

FP: Were you scared?

MR: I don’t think scared is the right word. I think I felt disbelief. It’s always about the failure of imagination. I never expected to be arrested. I expected these ridiculous cases would be thrown away by the city prosecutor. But that didn’t happen.

In my case, journalism equals criminal. They get me, then they spread fear to all Filipino journalists. The United States is going through this, too. I worry about America. And when we map the United States on social media, it’s actually significantly worse than the Philippines.

FP: What advice do you have for journalists, editors, and publishers who are being attacked by their governments? You said you weren’t scared. But most people are scared—and that also is understandable. How do they fight back? How do they strengthen themselves?

MR: Embrace your fear. That’s the lesson I learned when I was really young.

Part of it is how you strengthen yourself. I look at everything from the framework of breaking news. When you don’t know where the threat is coming from, you prepare for the worst, right? Because if you’re ready for the worst, then you’ve already prepared both mentally and physically for anything else that leads you to the worst. So, the first step is make sure that you are mentally prepared. The second is building a team. Aside from Rapplers themselves, it’s also our community that allowed us to survive six years of Duterte. Courage spreads in the same way that fear spreads. It can be debilitating, but when you have your community with you, it’s significant. We don’t want to look back a decade from now and have regrets about what we’ve done. If the world moves to fascism, I will know we will have done everything we can, not just as journalists but as citizens of a democracy.

FP: How do you keep going?

MR: I really believe in this. I have first person experience of how your rights are torn away, how a democracy dies a death from a thousand cuts. But that also gives me a lot of courage. I can see the manipulation. The data shows it. And that brings me to the other advice I have for journalists: We need to embrace technology. We need to understand data. It’s transforming the world. There is no internet that protects facts or protects its users right now. How do you protect against the insidious manipulation of the mind?

Lastly, never give up. The old world we knew is gone. Embrace that. If you know that, then what is this new world we’re creating? Everyone today is creating that new world. How do we make it better despite everything? Do you really want to tear democracy apart? Do you really want to harm women and the most vulnerable of society? Because that is what’s happening on social media.

Listen to a condensed version of this interview with Maria Ressa, along with other top thinkers and policymakers on the greatest challenges of the day, on FP’s podcast Global Reboot.

Ravi Agrawal is the editor in chief of Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RaviReports

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