Global Cooperation

'Are we going to swing to fascism?' Meet the journalist fighting for press freedom in the Philippines

Maria Ressa

Maria Ressa, Executive Editor and CEO of Rappler, is on bail after being found guilty of cyber-libel in the Philippines. Image: Flickr

Kate Whiting
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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Philippines

  • Journalist Maria Ressa is on bail after being found guilty of cyber-libel in the Philippines.
  • She spoke to the World Economic Forum about press freedom and the threat misinformation on social media poses to democracy.

On 15 June, journalist Maria Ressa was found guilty of cyber-libel in the Philippines, which could carry a jail sentence of up to seven years.

In 2012 – the year she founded her news website Rappler – she published a story that alleged a businessman had links to illegal drugs and human trafficking. This was two years before cyber-libel laws were passed in the country. A correction made to the article after the law came in was seen by law enforcers as amounting to a republication, and she and the writer were arrested.

Have you read?

Ressa is appealing her conviction, which her lawyer Amal Clooney described as "an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines."

But there are still seven other cases against her.

In another blow to press freedom in the country, on 30 June, its top broadcaster ABS-CBN Corp was ordered to stop transmitting satellite and digital television weeks after its free TV and radio operations were stopped.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s International Media Council, Ressa, the Executive Editor and CEO of Rappler, and former CNN bureau chief, said press freedom is under attack increasingly as social media is weaponized by state actors.

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“In 2016, this narrative that Maria Ressa is not a journalist, she's a criminal was seeded [on social media]. And the first time, people can laugh it off because it's so ludicrous. But on a social media platform, a lie told a million times becomes a fact, and facts are debatable.”

“Now more people began to believe this. And then, in 2017, the government began saying the same thing.”

‘Lies spread faster than facts’

Ressa’s case has drawn international condemnation for its attempt to silence Rappler, which scrutinizes the Filipino government.

The way misinformation on social media – and harassment and trolling – has worked against her is by no means exclusive to the Philippines. Disinformation and misinformation campaigns are surging globally, and they pose a rising threat to democracy.

“[On] every social media platform that we are using globally, we journalists have given up our gatekeeping powers to tech, and tech has taken it. On all social media platforms, lies laced with anger and hate spread faster than facts. [It means] you can't have trust. You can't have democracy. You can't have integrity of elections.”

But in lockdown, Filipinos are beginning to wake up, she said.

“We've lived under an atmosphere of violence and fear in the last few years. And now Filipinos are at home, there's a lot more introspection. They're realizing their rights are being taken away.”

Rappler’s reporters have inspired her to fight for what’s right. Of the 100 members of staff, 63% are women and their median age is 23.

“Our youngest reporters are the ones really on the frontline. And they inspire me. We are forged in fire. What's pushing us through is knowing that we're holding the line, where our constitution defines our rights.

“It feels like the government is trying to bulldoze us off of it and we're just holding firm. And I hope that as we hold firm, the Filipino people will wake up and join us.

“I'm absolutely certain that we are on the right side of history. All I am doing by going through the legal process is to make sure every chop, every gash has a signature attached to it because there will be accountability, I hope soon enough, to prevent me from going to jail.”

‘Speak out and step up’

She urged journalists to speak out about press freedom and the mission of journalism to help her cause.

“I don't think enough of us are talking about the values. There's a phrase in Indonesia, that the nail that stands up gets the hammer. Well, I'm already standing up and the hammer has already come down, and I'm just hoping that’s enough.

“In the end this is still a democracy and Filipinos will be the ones to determine where this democracy goes. Are we going to swing to fascism? Or are we going to stop and say no?

“We need moral guidance again. I think every generation creates its own democracy and our generation needs to step up.”

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