Philippine Journalist Maria Ressa: 'Journalism Is Activism'

Originally published on August 6, 2020 6:31 am

"In a battle for facts, in a battle for truth, journalism is activism," says Philippine journalist Maria Ressa.

Ressa, who is internationally known and lauded for standing up to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's escalating attacks on the press, tells NPR that circumstances in the Philippines have forced her to evolve as a journalist.

Her news organization's battles against online disinformation and Duterte's administration are the focus of A Thousand Cuts, a documentary that debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival and will be released virtually in the U.S. this Friday.

Though the film focuses on the Philippines, the issues it touches on aren't unique to that country. "Obviously this disinformation is happening everywhere," says filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz.

Ressa and Rappler, the Manila-based news site she runs, first drew the ire of the Duterte administration soon after he took office in 2016. Rappler started critically covering the president's brutal war against drugs and has remained in Duterte's crosshairs as his crackdown on the press has intensified.

Over the years, Ressa has seen her reporters expelled from the presidential palace, endured near-constant attacks by pro-Duterte trolls and navigated a slew of lawsuits.

She tells NPR it was her arrest on charges of cyber libel in February 2019 that changed her thinking about her role. Ressa realized her detention was an abuse of power. On posting bail, she says, "I just started speaking in a way that I would probably not have done," given her traditional journalistic training.

Almost immediately after her release, Ressa began to speak more openly against abuse of power and the "weaponization" of Philippine law against journalists and government critics, and appealed for others to do the same.

Becoming part of the story has been a "challenge," she tells NPR. But "When your own rights have been abused and you have evidence of that abuse of power, why should you not speak, especially if the data backs it?" she says.

Ressa, 56, was convicted in June. The verdict came against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic, another battlefield on which she and Rappler have combated the Duterte administration — over disinformation on the government's handling of the crisis as well as the right to criticize its response.

The Philippines has now crossed into its 20th week of strict lockdown, and virus cases continue to soar.

And while a lot has happened since A Thousand Cuts wrapped last year and Ressa still faces the possibility of jail, she says she won't be deterred from doing her job.

Highlights of NPR's interview with Ressa follow, edited and condensed for clarity.


INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS

On hearing the verdict in her cyber libel case

I didn't want to be physically in that court because we were still in the middle of a lockdown, but the court decided that we all had to show up. So there we were with our masks, with our shields. And I had to listen to the clerk of court read out the the verdict.

So I took out my notebook and I just started taking notes, and then within two minutes... I just shut my notebook and I stopped taking notes because I knew where it was headed.

On the demonization of journalists

Journalist equals criminal, which is the alternate reality.

This is how you transform a democracy. This is death by a thousand cuts.

The same thing is happening in the United States.

I think the goal of influence operations or information operations is to seed it, repeat it, incite hate and ... change the way real people think, and that impacts the real world. This is happening all around the world. That's what the research has shown us, that's what the data shows us.

On the role of social media in spreading disinformation

What we call social media is a behavioral modification system... And there are many [platforms] and they're all American, the ones that are here in the Philippines. That platform has your data, knows you better than you know yourselves. And to the highest bidder, with micro-targeting, will sell your most vulnerable moment to a message, whether it is to an advertiser or to a government.

And when you're given that, it will change, can change, the way you think and ultimately, the way you act. ... And the first step really is to demand accountability from the social media platforms. They've got to stop impunity of these information operations or these influence operations. They have to stop manipulation at mass scale.

On navigating the pandemic in addition to legal cases

You know what Nietzsche said about what doesn't kill you makes you stronger? That's precisely where I am and where Rappler is. We've been under attack for four years. The conviction shows me the runway to jail is shorter, but at the same time, I refuse to let it get in the way of doing our jobs.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Journalist Maria Ressa reports under truly extraordinary circumstances.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "A THOUSAND CUTS")

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: Just because you're a journalist, not are you exempted from assassination.

MARTIN: Just because you're a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination. That's Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte's message to members of the press, including Ressa. The moment is captured in the documentary "A Thousand Cuts," which details how Ressa and her online news outlet Rappler handle the escalating war between Duterte and the press. It'll be released virtually in the U.S. tomorrow. In June, Ressa and her former Rappler colleague were found guilty of cyber libel. The film documents their arrest.

MARIA RESSA: I didn't want to be physically in that court because we were still in the middle of a lockdown, right? But the court decided that we all had to show up. So there we were with our masks, with our shields. And I had to listen to the clerk of court read out the verdict. So I took out my notebook. And I just started taking notes. And then, like, within two minutes of this - because the whole thing lasted about an hour. Within two minutes, I just shut my notebook. And I stopped taking notes because I knew where it was headed.

MARTIN: Her legal team has appealed the decision. But Ressa could be sentenced to six years in prison. She faces other charges as well, all aimed at silencing the press, she says. Still, Ressa remains focused on her work, even as her country suffers one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the region.

RESSA: You know, what Nietzsche said about, you know, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger - that's precisely where I am and where Rappler is. We've been under attack for four years. You know, the conviction shows me the runway to jail is shorter. But at the same time, I refuse to let it get in the way of doing our jobs. And we've had now - we're entering our 20th week of lockdown. We've had the longest and perhaps among the most militaristic approach to a lockdown globally.

And now, we have a pseudo government official actually saying that, you know, tomorrow, if you violate quarantine, we're going to shoot you. These are not the ways you deal with a pandemic. And what the pandemic did was it allowed the Philippine government to shut down ABS-CBN, the largest broadcaster in the Philippines.

MARTIN: This is like CNN in America.

RESSA: Like CNN in America, like BBC in Britain. You know...

MARTIN: Yeah.

RESSA: ...It is the No. 1 broadcaster. It has 11,000 employees. This is really killing press freedom.

MARTIN: I mean, there are some distinct parallels between the rhetoric that Duterte is using in the Philippines - promoting false treatments for COVID-19 and the misinformation coming out of the government there - with what has been happening in the U.S. Obviously, the response is not as extreme. In the U.S., it's easier to speak out against the government. And no one's going to throw you in jail at this point for violating a quarantine. But can you talk a little bit more about how you have seen the parallels emerge?

RESSA: I mean, if you look at, first, disinformation networks, right? So let's talk about from my experience, which is this idea of journalist as a criminal. So I watched, in 2016, seeded in social media - and 100% of Filipinos on the Internet are on Facebook, so Facebook is really our Internet. So I watched that message seeded in the ecosystem. And I watched it spread. And I thought at that point, oh, well, my track record is there. So very clear, I'm not a criminal. That was 2016. You repeat a lie a million times. You lace it with anger and hate, and it spreads. 2018 - the law is weaponized. And I have to face 11 cases and investigations in about a year.

In 2019, I have eight arrest warrants. I'm arrested twice and detained overnight. I've - also, all the court cases start moving at that point. And there are weeks when I go to four different courtrooms, right? And then 2020, June 15, I get - along with my colleague - convicted. Journalist equals criminal, which is the alternate reality. This is how you transform a democracy. The same thing is happening in the United States. I think the goal of information operations is to seed it, repeat it, incite hate and affect. Change the way real people think, and that impacts the real world.

MARTIN: How have you seen that affect your own role as a journalist, as the head of this important media organization in the Philippines? I mean, as you have said, you've been at war with the Duterte administration. You have been the target. It is your credibility that has been undermined. I mean, what's the tangible effect on your ability to report the facts and have people believe you there?

RESSA: So the first thing is you realize that in a battle for facts, in a battle for truth, journalism is activism. And for me, the handcuffs came off when I got arrested. That was really - you know, when the government arrested me, the agents of the National Bureau Investigation - our version of the FBI - they came to the office right around 5 p.m., which is when the courts closed. I, though, knew that there was one court that would be open until 9 p.m., so I was prepared to post bail. They delayed everything to make sure that I was detained overnight.

And that was when I realized this is an abuse of power. They wanted me to feel their power. And I didn't have to go interview someone else. I lived it. So when I came out the next day and posted bail February 14, by the way - this was my government's Valentine's Day gift to me. When I posted bail, I just started speaking in a way that I would probably not have done given the way we're trained as journalists. It's been a challenge in the last few years to write about how journalists and news organizations are under attack because you're...

MARTIN: Yeah, you become the story.

RESSA: But when your own rights have been abused and you have evidence of that abuse of power, why should you not speak, especially if the data backs it? So I think it's something that, I think, Western organizations are grappling with because our tradition isn't this. But now in a battle for truth, journalism is activism. I do believe that now.

(SOUNDBITE OF PORTICO QUARTET'S "GRADIENT")

MARTIN: Maria Ressa is the CEO of the digital news outlet Rappler in the Philippines and the subject of the documentary "A Thousand Cuts" out nationwide here in the U.S. on Friday. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.