Around the world every day there are journalists putting their lives at risk in order to report the truth.
Often their families too face physical harm and intimidation.
These are the true heroes of our trade. Those for whom speaking truth to power comes with real consequences.
Everyone who believes in the importance of journalism owes a debt of gratitude to these reporters, photographers and broadcasters.
Today Women In Journalism begins a new series in which we tell the stories of female hero journalists working around the globe. We believe their words need to be heard. We believe their voices must never be silenced.
Award-winning journalist and ex-CNN bureau chief Maria Ressa knows a thing or two about reporting in war zones – how to plan, what to bring and how to prepare for the worst. It is a mindset she has had to apply to her own life after five years of relentless attacks from the Philippine government under the rule of populist president Rodrigo Duterte.
Now, as the capital Manila goes into another two-week Covid lockdown, she is fighting for her rights from her living room. Ressa faces over 100 years in prison for seven charges as the executive editor of the news website Rappler https://www.rappler.com, which she co-founded with three other women journalists in 2012. She is currently on bail after she was found guilty of “cyberlibel” last June alongside her former colleague Reynaldo Santos Jr. Ressa is appealing the charges, which have been condemned by the United Nations and human rights groups.
Over the last year, Ressa, 57, who has dual Philippine and US citizenship, has come to terms with the possibility, at any minute, of spending the rest of her life in prison. She copes by doing her job. “I don’t really dwell. I’m prepared for the worst and then I move forward with what I need to do now – there’s a lot!”
For Ressa, there is no time to lose. Independent journalism has never been as important as it is today. But it is under attack across the world by governments that want to silence criticism, aided by profit-driven tech giants in Silicon Valley. Social media is our “information ecosystem”, and here the old rules of reporting no longer apply. Ressa sees platforms like Facebook treat journalism as a “joke” and trivialise its role in guarding facts from lies. Without truth, she says, you have no “shared reality”. That is dangerous for democracy and society. “If you don’t have facts, you don’t have anything.”
Ressa knows this only too well as the target of an online disinformation offensive from government-run Facebook accounts. Rappler’s vital reporting on the government’s drug war from 2016 landed her squarely in the sights of President Duterte. “The number of people being killed was off the scale and the police were changing the numbers in front of our eyes,” she says. When Rappler started reporting the government’s use of Facebook to shut down dissent, the online attacks intensified. At one point in October 2016, she was receiving 90 hate messages an hour. Most were violent and misogynistic, and all were designed to undermine her credibility as a journalist.
In understanding how social media spreads emotion faster than fact, Ressa was ahead of the curve. In 2012, she published a book about how terrorists in the Philippines were connected to al-Qaeda-linked groups though Facebook following the kidnap of three journalists at ABS-CBN, the country’s largest media conglomerate where she led the news department, four years earlier. She saw how quickly “anger-laced lies” swept through social networks, sparking extremism and violence that seeped into the offline world.
She was determined to be part of the solution. From the start, Rappler’s DNA was harnessing technology to understand how readers respond to stories and connect readers with each other. They hired young reporters to build a civic engagement arm, called MovePH, to mobilise around social issues, from typhoon responses to voter registration. “We were smart enough to know that we needed to learn, and that was the beginning. It was incredible.”
It was one of Rappler’s own stories that alerted Ressa to the government’s online fake news operation. After a bombing in Davao city, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, she noticed that a six-month old Rappler article about the arrest of a bomber was the website’s most read article. Government-linked accounts were sharing the piece to justify the president’s imposition of a state of lawlessness. If people thought that a suspect had been captured, the government’s actions would look better. This was the start of network of state-run fake accounts, used to flood social media with propaganda. The Philippines, whose 109m citizens spend more time online than any other nation, was the “petri dish” in the disinformation experiment that was exported across the world. Ressa studied biology and theatre studies at Princeton University and uses her biology background to come up with an apt analogy. “I always joke that the Philippines is like drosophila, like fruit flies, and the bad guys experimented to see what worked.”
It is a dangerous time to be a journalist in the Philippines. In a speech in 2016, Duterte likened journalists to criminals and warned that they would not be exempt from punishment. The Asia-Pacific press freedom tracker of the Alliance for Journalists’ Freedom (AJF) shows that 11 journalists have been murdered in the Philippines since 2018. The government’s demonisation of journalism gives “carte-blanche” to those who wish to silence critical voices by any means, says Rebecca Vincent, director of International Campaigns at Reporters Without Borders. Ressa says governments in the west could do “a lot” more to show their support for press freedom.
Ressa was first arrested at the start of 2019 over “cyberlibel”. Police stormed Rappler’s offices and detained her overnight. But it was not until later in the year, when she visited United States for the launch of a Clooney Foundation initiative about unjust detainment that it dawned on her that she could actually go to prison. She immediately asked human rights barrister Amal Clooney to be her lawyer, alongside her legal team in the Philippines. Ressa now faces seven charges (originally nine, but one has been withdrawn and one dismissed in recent months) ranging from the spurious charge of “cyberlibel” to “securities fraud”, each charge, says Clooney “as baseless as the other”. Last summer’s “cyberlibel” conviction alone carries a sentence between six months and six years.
This “lawfare” against all journalists in the Philippines by the government has sparked the “#HoldTheLine” campaign, supported by an international coalition led by the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Center for Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, alongside 80 organisations world-wide.
The line between good and evil is being eroded, Ressa says. Holding the line means standing for what you know to be true and refusing to give in. It is a fight that is being replicated many times throughout the world, says Vincent, who jointly coordinates the campaign, and Ressa is at the forefront. “She’s fighting that fight for everyone.”
But Ressa never set out to become a figure of resistance. “I’m not anti-Duterte. I’m not really anti-anything,” she says. She was just reporting what she saw happening in her country. When she was detained, she saw it as a “blatant abuse of power”. She knew she had done nothing wrong. Freedom of the press is enshrined in the Philippine constitution. “I am a journalist. I know the Philippines’ constitution and I know my rights. So I will go to my rights. And I will not let you take it away from me. I will not voluntarily give up my rights.”
Despite the risk of detainment, she made the brave decision to return to the Philippines after visiting her family in the United States. Last December, she was blocked from leaving the country to visit her mother who was diagnosed with cancer. She was told the night before her flight. It is the “little cruelties” like this that make her angry. But she keeps moving forward. “It was so unjust. But others have had it worse. We have had people killed in their homes. It’s like climate change, it’s like having polluted air. You breathe in and then you just go and do what you need to do.”
What Ressa feels more than anything is “excitement” for the future of journalism. As the world emerges from the “rubble” of the pandemic, there is critical opportunity to rethink the rulebook. Independent journalism “must survive” but it will have to look very different. Reflecting on her time at CNN in Manila and Jakarta she says, “we just did the stories”. Now, in the “battle for facts”, journalism must become activism. Young reporters need to work towards achieving an “impact in the real world”, from combatting climate change to realising the sustainable development goals. Technology can become a positive force for connection and civic engagement, with Rappler paving the way.
“I became a journalist because I believed information is power,” she concludes. “I believed in fighting for justice. So, what will that mean for you?”
For more information about the #HoldTheLine campaign, go to https://rsf.org/en/news/mass-international-solidarity-campaign-launched-support-maria-ressa