Award-winning journalist Maria Ressa was recently convicted of “cyber libel” under a controversial law that attempts to restrict press freedom.
Ressa’s arrest “might seem like an obscure problem in a distant land, but it is a symptom of a disease that puts every democracy at risk.” That disease, the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace warns, is the “the use of influence operations to manipulate the information space in the Philippines.”
Ressa’s reporting duties included investigating President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. President Duterte has continuously suppressed press freedom and is responsible for countless human right violations.
For over four years, Ressa and her publication, Rappler, have attempted to expose the actions of Duterte in an effort, as she describes, to protect global democracy. In a time where journalism is under major fire in the Philippines, Ressa’s persecution is the result of an administration that egregiously disregards basic human rights.
Her work has made her into an international symbol for freedom of the press. Ressa states that her arrest is an example of how the law is being “weaponized” against those who criticize Duterte’s administration.
“The message that the government is sending is very clear: Be silent or you’re next. So I’m saying, and I’m appealing to you, not to be silent.”
The Case Against Maria Ressa
Ressa was charged for a story published by Rappler in 2012 which exposed businessman Wilfredo Keng. The story claimed that Keng had connections to illegal drug trade and human trafficking. Importantly, the story was published two years before new cyber libel laws were instituted in the Philippines. Prosecutors in Ressa’s case have claimed that a later update on the story after the law came into effect represented a “republication,” and therefore was subject to the “cyber libel” regulation.
Ressa and fellow Rappler journalist Reynaldo Santos Jr., who authored the article, were convicted on Monday, June 15, and face up to six years in prison.
In January, the National Bureau of Investigation originally ruled that Ressa could not be convicted because the story was published prior to the law. However, that ruling was overturned by the Department of Justice under the pretense that the story was updated in 2014.
JJ Disini, one of Ressa’s lawyers, stated the charges were “politically motivated,” as any update to the story in 2014 was “merely a punctuation change.”
Ressa explained, “I’m being set up as an example so that others will stop asking tough questions, and I think that puts responsibility on me to continue asking tough questions.”
Ressa has faced multiple libel and tax evasion indictments, each charge an attempt to suppress independent journalism. Amal Clooney, another one of Ressa’s lawyers, stated the charge was “an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines.” Ressa has posted bail eight times in total.
Ressa and her publication Rappler bring public attention to the major happenings under President Duterte. In exposing major scandals, both Rappler and its journalists have been under fierce attack. Ressa compared the danger of suppressing journalists to the danger of a war zone.
“At least when you’re in a war zone, the gunfire’s coming from one side and you know how to protect yourself.”
Ressa acknowledges that the rights for which she is fiercely advocating extends far beyond herself. “Press freedom is not just about journalists, right? It’s not just about us, it’s not just about me, it’s not just about Rappler. Press freedom is … the foundation of every single right of every single Filipino to the truth, so that we can hold the powerful to account.”
Ressa’s arrest is a cautionary tale for nations led by populist leaders who accuse reporters of writing “fake news.”
Ressa’s Early History
Maria Ressa was born in the Philippines, but lived in the U.S. as a child. Her family left the Philippines in the 1970s when President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. Ressa studied at Princeton University. She later returned to the Philippines during the 1986 People Power Revolution, a long standing attempt by Filipinos to overthrow Marcos.
Ressa returned to the Philippines and began her work as a journalist to reconnect with her roots from which she had grown distant.
She worked in senior media positions as bureau chief for CNN in the Philippines and head of news division of Filipino TV channel ABS-CBN. Since then, her work has gained global recognition. Ressa was named one of the Time People of the Year in 2018 for her work driving Rappler “through a superstorm of the two most formidable forces in the information universe: social media and a populist president with authoritarian inclinations.”
Ressa co-founded Rappler, along with three other female journalists, as one of few local news outlets to be openly critical of Duterte’s policies and administration. Rappler has predominantly exposed Duterte’s brutal war on drugs. The publication also reports extensively on use of government propaganda, issues of corruption and misogyny, and violations of human rights.
Rappler now reaches over four million people and is widely known for its in-depth coverage and uncompromising investigation. It is increasingly popular—in part, due to its prominence on social media and focus on young readers.
Duterte’s History of Threats to News Media
Rodrigo Duterte was elected president in 2016 after running on a platform of dismantling crime and a crackdown on drugs. Official figures note more than 8,000 people killed in the war on drugs since Duterte took the presidency; some estimate that the figure may be up to three times higher.
Duterte’s war on drugs has been characterized by militant rhetoric that a UN report says can be seen as “permission to kill.”
The report found “the human rights situation in the Philippines is marked by an overarching focus on public order and national security, including countering terrorism and illegal drugs” and that this was “often at the expense of human rights, due process rights, the rule of law and accountability.”
Duterte has ordered citizens and police officers to engage in extra-judicial killings of drug suspects. He argues there are millions of drug addicts in the Philippines and says he would be “happy to slaughter them.”
Duterte’s actions have received international condemnation as human rights abuses. He has also been criticized for making offensive and sexist remarks. Notably, Duterte referred to former U.S. President Barack Obama as a “son of a whore.”Nevertheless, he remains popular among his constituents.
Press freedom in the Philippines has been severely limited under Duterte. Ressa stated, “I think what you’re seeing is death by a thousand cuts—not just of press freedom but of democracy.”
The Philippines ranks 136 out of 180 on the Reporters Without Borders (RSF) 2020 Press Freedom Index, where “private militias, often hired by local politicians, silence journalists with complete impunity.”
And the legal threats just keep coming: Section 9 of the recently proposed Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020 criminalizes incitement to commit terrorism “by means of speeches, proclamations, writings, emblems, banners or other representations tending to the same end.”
Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) senior Southeast Asia representative Shawn Crispin stated, “President Duterte should come down on the side of press freedom and scrap the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, or at least modify the act to ensure that the media cannot be hit with bogus incitement charges. The legislation as written is a direct threat to journalists, and should be rejected.”
Press freedom is granted under the constitution and government censorship is not a major problem in the Philippines. However, the Philippines remains an extremely dangerous place to work as a journalist.
The case against Ressa occurs at a crucial time for journalistic freedom. Obstruction to news media is an international problem. The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said Ressa’s arrest was “clearly a desperate move of the government to suppress the media.”
Further, Steven Butler, the Asia program coordinator for the CPJ said, “Initially, the Philippine government decided they were not going to press charges, and then they changed their mind. The whole thing just frankly smells. It just looks like a political hack job to intimidate the press.”
Philippines senator Antonio Trillanes tweeted her condemnation of Ressa’s arrest.
Journalists across the globe are using the hashtags: #DefendPressFreedom, #IStandWithRappler and #HoldTheLine to stand in solidarity with Ressa, who recognized that her verdict “just joined the kind of messaging that was pushed out on social media in 2016: Journalist equals criminal.”
How to Take Action
- Review and share the timeline of cyber libel cases against Rappler and Maria Ressa and continue to read about international press freedom such as the 2020 World Press Freedom Index.
- Support Rappler by reading their reports and signing their crowdfunding initiative. Check out the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility information on the Philippines.
- Functioning civil society builds the very roots of a functioning democracy. Dissent is critical and suppression in journalism poses a major threat. Engage in community organizing and collaboration through organizations such as the International Federation of Journalists, Committee to Protect Journalists and The Coalition for Women in Journalism.