Can journalism survive an authoritarian ruler?

Season 1 Episode 3

Can journalism survive an authoritarian ruler?

Maria Ressa

About The Episode

Within journalism circles, Maria Ressa is a hero. She is a veteran journalist, as well as the co-founder, executive editor and CEO of Rappler, a popular online news website in the Philippines. Ressa is celebrated for her critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte and for enduring legal challenges to her site’s reporting.

She has experienced first-hand how hard it is for journalists to hold the line against an authoritarian leader when press freedoms are threatened. In June, Ressa and her former Rappler colleague were found guilty of “cyber libel.” She is currently fighting the government’s move to revoke Rappler’s license and faces up to 100 years in prison for her work as a journalist.

Ressa is the subject of a recent PBS documentary, “A Thousand Cuts,” about the fight between the government and the press in the Philippines. She was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time’s Most Influential Women of the Century. She is the author of two books: From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism;  and Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center.

Our host spoke to Ressa about the rise of misinformation, the role of tech in misinformation and, of course, her battles with Duterte. The interview was edited for brevity and clarity.

Additional credit: Suzannah Gonzales provided producing assistance, Zoe Denckla provided research assistance and Miranda Shafer provided production assistance.

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Episode Transcript

Darragh Worland: Welcome back to Is that a fact?, the all-new podcast brought to you by the nonprofit News Literacy Project. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. Today, we talk to Maria Ressa, the founder and executive editor of the news website Rappler, one of the largest online sources for news in the Philippines. Within journalism circles, Ressa is a hero. She’s celebrated for her critical coverage of President Duterte and for enduring legal challenges to her site’s reporting, Duterte’s constant attacks on press freedom, and on her. Ressa was recently found guilty of cyber libel, but the charges are largely seen as politically motivated. Ressa spent much of her career at CNN, as bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta, and she led more than 1,000 journalists at ABSCBN, the largest multi-platform news operation in the Philippines. Then in 2012, she and three other women founded Rappler. Ressa was named one of Time’s most influential people in 2019, and she is the subject of a PBS documentary called “A Thousand Cuts.” She is currently fighting the government’s move to revoke Rappler’s license and faces up to 100 years in prison for her work as a journalist who holds the powerful to account. She has experienced firsthand how hard it is for journalists to hold the line against an authoritarian leader when press freedoms are threatened.

This has been a really challenging time for you and I just wanted to kind of check in and see how you’re doing.

Maria Ressa: I’m good. It’s been four years, so I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned is anger management. I have learned that democracy is incredibly fragile and that for better or worse, we live at this moment. A pandemic happens, what like once a century? I mean, here we are again, at a moment in time where we’re kind of standing on the rubble of the past and what we do matters significantly. What we do will determine whether democracy will survive. That is what every citizen has in front of them, and I guess the question that I’ve asked every Filipino is – it’s the same question I had to ask myself four years ago – which is, what are you willing to sacrifice for the truth? Because if we don’t have that, then we don’t have democracy.

Worland: Well, you’re unique I think, in that you are willing to sacrifice your freedom for democracy and for journalism. I don’t think all journalists are willing to do that. Most individuals are not necessarily willing to do that, or maybe they haven’t been faced with that question before.

Ressa: That’s what I think it is. I talk about democracy death by a thousand cuts. The way I got here was because I’d been a journalist for a very long time. I helped write the standards and ethics manual of the largest broadcaster that has just been shut down, and when the Duterte administration began to attack me and Rappler, there was no question what we needed to do, right? Because I’d been a journalist for a long time. You need to hold fast to the mission of journalism, which is to hold power to account. And then when all of the tactics of intimidation started coming in – the exponential attacks on social media, that propaganda tearing us down, you respond to it the way a journalist would. You respond in a very non-emotional way. And then the weaponization of the law. So 2016 was when social media was weaponized and then 2017, the same attacks on social media were replicated by the government top-down and President Duterte himself, in the State of the Nation address, targeted us. Essentially said, “You’re a criminal. Rappler is a criminal organization. You’re violating the law.” And I immediately said, “No, Mr. President.” I tweeted it. And then a year later, 2018, 11 cases and investigations were filed against me and Rappler. 2019, I was issued eight arrest warrants. I was arrested twice in a five-week period. And in order to stay free, I had the post bail eight times and then 2020, the cases all went ahead in 2019. There were weeks that I was in four different courts, four days of the week. It was like a war of attrition, both in terms of time, energy and money. And then 2020, the first verdict came in, and all of a sudden I’m a criminal. So, it wasn’t as if I sat there and I said, “I’m going to be doing this.” I just took a step in the right direction, and the only direction that journalists can take, which is you hold power to account.

Worland: “Were you afraid to continue reporting? Did their intimidation tactics work?”

Ressa: If you’re intimidated, you know you’re doing the right thing so you push back, you hold the line. I couldn’t act like I would normally, which would be like to attack back, right? Defend yourself by attacking back. I couldn’t do that because I’m a journalist. It’s like having a bulldozer, trying to take away our rights. After I was arrested in 2019, and they purposely arrested me at 5 p.m. and purposely made it so that I could not post bail, so they could keep me overnight in jail. So it was like, what’s the point of that, except to let me feel their power? And after I posted bail, I realized the handcuffs came off because my rights as a Filipino citizen were violated. It was abuse of power. I could see it firsthand. Thinking about this, how do I talk about it? I can’t talk about it like a third person.

I know this, you know what I mean? I know I did nothing wrong. I also know that press freedom is the foundation of every right that a Filipino has. Our constitution in the Philippines is patterned after the United States. We have a bill of rights and that’s kind of what I said when I got out. I was like, this is abuse of power. This is weaponization of the law. The law has been bent to the point that it’s broken. This is a long way of answering your question, which is, you know, you don’t wake up and you say, “I’m going to fight for press freedom.” I never did. I just did my job.

Worland: From everything you just said, it sounds like you’re saying I just kept following the same protocol that I would as a journalist and which is guaranteed right in our constitution, but the government started applying the laws differently to me.

Ressa: Absolutely. And I would say, it’s not just happening in the Philippines because you can see this all around the world, and I’ll call it the digital authoritarians, right? Because I think the biggest change globally is the rise of tech, propaganda used by power – leaders who are elected who want more power. These have been there through history, but the difference is that, and I would peg it to about 2014, which is when the Ukraine happened and you saw alternate reality smack in front, and Russia is saying one thing, and the Ukraine is saying another, and they’re almost complete opposites. And the world watched and was kind of a little bit deaf and dumb to it. Like we didn’t really react, but that was such an interesting moment because that’s where Russian disinformation both online and in the real world really took effect. And 2014 is the year I’d also tagged when people all around the world I think, began to think the world was too complex. They were yearning for someone to take the complexity of the world, make it simpler. People want someone to make things simpler and to make decisions for them. Just really strange for democracies, right? In the Philippines, I began to see the reinvention of Marcos, the family, the dictator who stole five to 10 billion – billion – dollars in the ’70s to ’80s, right?

Worland: I wonder if some of this longing for some sort of dictator is almost like wanting a parent figure with really rigid boundaries because there’s just too much freedom in democracy and too much responsibility. How do you account for that?

Ressa: So I think it was that change happened too fast, and the irony of course is now our information ecosystem has accelerated beyond our ability to comprehend it. But I think about what was happening around 2014, 2015, right? Black Lives Matter definitely identity was moving front and center, but gay marriage, that was a big thing because my parents live in Florida and they’re conservative, you know, and I saw how discombobulated they were. My father is an Italian. He grew up in Brooklyn and I think he watched his world turned upside down, right? So in that sense, it made people question their own values. I think in the physical world, our values, everything changed fast, things that were women’s rights, gay and lesbian, even things like pronouns that we use. These are things that if you were in your 60s, 70s, and you grew up at a different time, it can be difficult. Get used to it – race relations, racial identity, immigration, and then the fear of not getting what you’ve been promised.

Worland (12:52): …Too much progress, too quickly…

Ressa: And then here comes tech, which changed every industry. Little did we know that technology would be the enabler of digital authoritarians. They used technology to get democratically elected, but then they use the tools of democracy to cave it in from inside. And they use us-against-them, that concept, and then what happens when you use us-against-them? It plays very well on social media, which is designed to use us-against-them. Think about the way social media platforms are designed. The goal of these social media platforms is growth. And one decision of a tech person, whether it’s the coder or the product manager, the decision of growth, which is to use ‘friends of friends.’ The recommendation to you is I will recommend you more friends of your friends.

Worland: That trusted bond, yeah.

Ressa: That is what built polarity and filter bubbles in our democracies and pulled democracies apart and made facts debatable. In the real world, there are six degrees of separation. In social media, you have less than six degrees in. On Facebook, it’s like 4.75 degrees, varying degrees for different social media platforms, but let me put it this way, right? If you’re pro-Duterte or anti-Duterte, at the beginning in 2016, we were all in the center because we had a shared set of facts. And I watched this happen in the Philippines, right? News organizations in the Philippines are in the center. We don’t have left and right. We don’t debate the facts. We didn’t have what happened to you in the U.S., right? We don’t have a CNN and Fox. In the Philippines, news groups were in the center. So here we were in 2016, and then what happened when ‘friends of friends’ happened? If you are pro-Duterte and Facebook recommends your friends of friends, you will move further right because you will grow your network with more friends of friends – people who were supportive of Duterte.

Worland: You’re expanding your filter bubble, right? All within the same belief system.

Ressa: But the other side is also moving away from you, right? So if you think about it, it’s like you move away from each other because if you’re pro-Duterte, then you tend to not have friends who are anti-Duterte, and what it literally does is it pulls apart the center. It leaves a gap in the center and the pro-Duterte won’t hear exactly what the anti-Duterte is saying, and so they debate the facts. This is how you create alternate realities. That’s the world we live in today. And it worries me so much because if you don’t have facts, what happens with this kind of system – and it’s important that we really understand that social media has changed the information ecosystem globally. What it’s done now is that it’s become part of the dictator’s playbook because a lie told a million times can become a fact.

And when you have influence operations, the lie changes the way real people think because that’s the target. And when people change the way they think they will then change the way they act. So this is the impact on our society. Look up the influence operations in 2016, and then the impact in 2020.And this hit me when, in the middle of COVID, we had 70 cities in the United States with protests over something that we thought many years ago was something that, race and identity that these are things that we were coming together, not pulling apart. Maybe that’s an illusion, right?

But I do think that when you’re actively being manipulated, when social media platforms have become behavioral modification systems that essentially take the data we put in. Machine learning and artificial intelligence make that platform know us better than we know ourselves. And with micro-targeting, it takes our most vulnerable moment to a message and sells it to the highest bidder, whether that is a government or whether that’s a company, anyone who pays for it, right? And that is alarming to me because journalists can’t even do our jobs if we all don’t agree on facts. If you don’t have facts, you can’t have truth. If you don’t have truth, you can’t have trust. Without any of these three things, you can’t have democracy.

Worland: I just want to get into what we can do about it because nearly all the population of the Philippines – I think 96% or something –

Ressa: More. It’s 100% now, 100% of Filipinos on the internet are on Facebook.

Worland: Are on Facebook. OK. And so you’ve said that social media companies are learning to be gatekeepers, but that they’re not doing enough. Can you elaborate on this? And what more can social media companies do? And I think you’ve given a fair account of what’s at stake.

Ressa: So by next year I’ll have been a journalist for 35 years. Most of my career, journalist news organizations were the gatekeepers – gatekeepers to the public sphere. We protected the facts. If we published a lie, we could get sued, right? We’re accountable. But then around 2014, 2015, social media platforms took over the distribution of news, the gatekeeping role. Facebook became the world’s largest distributor of news, but it abdicated responsibility to protect the facts, to protect the public sphere. In fact, it’s left responsibility for protecting users to the users. It’s clear they couldn’t have dreamed of how the platform could be used by dictators, could be used by power in a way that destroys democracy, but they had enough evidence of that. We’re rolling back democracies all around the world. And in that year, they said in about 27 countries. The next year, Oxford University’s computational propaganda research project said that the number was double. And then the year after that, in 2019, it was at least 72 countries around the world. I mentioned some of them. There’s a great book by Anne Applebaum that is just out, like she wrote about the “Twilight of Democracy,” right? And again, it’s the Hungary, Poland, Brazil, Spain, the Philippines, the United States we are to include, right? Anyway, I am not gleeful about it, but there’s a part of me that is just fascinated with how the social media platforms abdicated responsibility and how they have slowly been pushed to do it, and the silver lining of COVID is that now they have started taking the gatekeeping power seriously. They are taking content down because in the age of COVID, lies kill.

Worland: You said in your Asian-American Journalists’ Association conference interview, which was of course online this year, that women journalists are attacked 10 times more in the Philippines and that journalist equals, and this is a quote, “journalist equals criminal” in your country. And then in the film you just referenced, “A Thousand Cuts,” there are several images of messages and sexualized threats and attacks against you. Do you think a man would face those same attacks that you were facing from the Duterte government and other critics?

Ressa: No, absolutely not. And I think what made Rappler unique is we have the database of our information ecosystem. We’re one of Facebook’s fact-checking partners. We can see the networks that feed the lies, that amplify the lies, that attack. And that’s solid ground for me to see, right? But it’s the difference of the attacks against women men in the Philippines and the men themselves who were working here say it – that they don’t get nearly the same amount, so our data shows that women are attacked at least 10 times more than men. For me it’s different, right? Like, sure, you’ll see some of them in the documentary — every murder threat, rape threat. I think there was a point in time when I was getting 90 — nine zero — hate messages per hour. You just have to like pull yourself away from it and learn how to deal with this new weapon. The sexualized stuff? They’re also kind of, they become easy to deal with. It’s more the vulnerable things, right? So I’ve learned that you have to take whatever it is that you are afraid of or insecure about and pound it until it doesn’t matter.

Worland: Some countries have laws on the books against hate speech. The United States does not. I think Germany, Canada, I’m sure there are many others. Is that what we need? Do we really want to put it in the hands of a company to be regulating hate speech when they ultimately have their own ulterior motive, which is profit, and you know, profit is ultimately why they exist.

Ressa: Yeah, so this is also the other thing, right? There’s no incentive for them to change what brings them the most money, but the reality is this — by not defining hate speech, which is already defined in the U.N Declaration of Human Rights, right – you are actually weaponizing hate because that is what is being deployed against the targets of these influence operations. That’s what I’m dealing with. See, I’ve watched the career I built over decades demolished by people who may not understand, by people who aren’t even people sometimes, right? They’re just, they’re fake accounts at the beginning, but then, again, if they hear a million times something hateful about me that pushes them to dehumanize me – which is the end goal of this – then any action is justifiable. That’s why it’s hate speech. It’s the dehumanization part that becomes critical and should not be allowed to happen. Some of the stuff I’m dealing with when I showed them to a professional, somebody who was actually German, right, and said that this kind of stuff, the propaganda that I was looking at, was similar to what they did against the Jews in Germany. It’s how you justify violence at scale, and I’m not saying that the United States should have laws, I’m saying the social media platform should, because this stuff isn’t allowed in the physical world. You’re not allowed to do this.

Worland: I want to get back to a little bit more about sort of how things used to be, how things are now and kind of how you’re hoping they would be. So in the documentary, “A Thousand Cuts,” after you posted bail for, I think it was the seventh time and after your second arrest, you told reporters and I’m quoting, “This is not the Philippines I knew. This is not the Philippines I voluntarily chose as my home country.” Can you describe how different was it? And how is it today? And what’s your hope for the future of the Philippines?

Ressa: So I became a reporter and came back to the Philippines in 1986. That was the year that people’s power happened. You know, a peaceful revolt that ended nearly 21 years of Ferdinand Marcos’ rule. And I joined CNN in 1987, and I spent my career with CNN covering the movement of most of the Southeast Asian countries from authoritarian, one-man rule to democracy, inspired by what happened in the Philippines in 1986, right? So there were all these global people-power movements that had happened. And then now, kind of like in the twilight of my career, to see the pendulum begin to swing back is depressing. It is true and it is a global swing-back, right? We do swing back through cycles of history, but this is a very fast swing-back. It shouldn’t have been this fast, because the generation that fought Marcos and enabled people power were still alive.

So what we’re seeing today, four years into the Duterte administration, is like back to the future. In 2020, we have a lockdown. President Duterte realized he couldn’t demonize a virus, right, which is the way authoritarian leaders do it. It’s us against them. They demonize a perceived enemy. They use social media, then they use the force of government against whatever the target is. Well, you can’t do that with the virus. And so that’s the silver lining is that the government must perform. And because it’s been quite incompetent at dealing with it, Filipinos are afraid – not because of Duterte, but are afraid of what the virus is doing.

And so for the first time on social media, on April 1, he came on a late-night rambling thing and talked about how Filipinos should stay at home. And that if they violate quarantine rules, he told the troops, this is their direct quote, “Shoot them dead.” And they did shoot a man the next day. But that night #OustDueterteNow trended for the first time, not just in the Philippines, but globally on Twitter. So the government must perform in the context of that.

Worland: What other things did the government do?

Ressa: Well, the anti-terror law passed our House of Representatives in about five days and was signed into law by President Duterte. It essentially will mean that anyone who’s critical can be declared a terrorist, and we can be arrested and thrown into jail for up to 24 days. This law is blatantly unconstitutional, and Filipinos know it. Today there are at least 25 different petitions against this law at the Supreme Court. We’ve signed, you know, I signed on one of those petitions, but I guess that shows you how far democracy has been rolled back here. Our government has used the pandemic as a way to consolidate power. I never would have thought Filipinos would be so nasty on social media. It isn’t their culture, but this also proves to you that differences in culture actually pale in comparison to what we all have in common that the social media platforms understand. Behaviorally, the way human beings are, we all are being manipulated on the same platforms.

Worland: What do you think the chances are that Rappler will be shut down?

Ressa: I don’t know. I mean, technically they could, right? They gave us a shutdown order, but we didn’t pay attention to it.

Worland: As I’m sure you know, every year the nonprofit Reporters Without Borders ranks countries around the world on their degree of press freedom, using a number of factors in their press freedom index. And the United States has been downgraded to 45th and now ranks as quote, “problematic” for journalists. And then meanwhile, the Philippines ranks 143rd on the same index, and Duterte’s government has, as we’ve been talking about, has clearly targeted you and your team at Rappler. How different is the situation in the Philippines than in the United States for a journalist?

Ressa: So the difference between us is that your institutions are stronger and they’re holding the line better. And what happened in the Philippines is within the first six months of President Duterte taking office, he essentially collapsed the checks and balances. He owns the legislature. He not only has the majority, and you know we have a captured legislature because a small committee denied the franchise of the largest broadcaster. That just happened in lockdown. He told the legislature to work on a death penalty. You know, it goes against all of our international agreements and they’re working on it. So there’s that. I think the checks and balances are largely gone because President Duterte uses fear and violence. And there’s three things I’d say that always stood out in the last four years. It’s he uses the three Cs – corrupt, coerce, co-op – because power has tremendous power. And if you don’t do any of those three Cs, then you become the cautionary tale. Early on, President Duterte mentioned his company. His stock crashed, and he was forced to sell it to a crony of President Duterte, right?

So the other difference is that the culture is different, but don’t be complacent because democracy is extremely fragile. And this is what I’ve learned now: Essentially now in the Philippines, President Duterte says he is so powerful that he didn’t even have to declare martial law to shut down ABSCBN. He essentially said that, and then look at my thesis, right? Look at what’s happening with our judiciary. I don’t think I’m the only one on trial, I think our entire judiciary is on trial. So what we essentially have now is a dictatorship, a dictatorship that is masquerading as a democracy with rule of law. The United States still has strong institutions. You know, I have so many friends, my family is there and people are torn apart, but you still have power in a way that we don’t in the Philippines. The first power you have is Silicon Valley. It’s actually the decisions of American companies that have caved in the principles of democracy. That’s within your purview. If you know you’re being manipulated, you have elections. It goes back down to the one man/one vote, one woman/one vote, because it’s the question I’ve asked all the time. What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth? What are you willing to sacrifice for democracy? Because it’s now at risk. It is truly at risk.

Worland: So, you and your sister, Mary Jane, were both born in the Philippines, right? And then you ended up making different choices about where to make your home as adults, and Mary Jane chose New York and you ultimately chose the Philippines. After everything you’ve been through, what keeps drawing you back to a country where you could essentially end up in prison for up to a hundred years?

Ressa: That’s a complex question. I came under attack because the demographic audience of Rappler is what the government wants. You know, our largest demographic is 18 to 34 years old. President Duterte, he broke into national attention on a debate in January 2016 that was pulled together by Rappler, right? He actually used to like Rappler because we didn’t have a political agenda, so he got as much airtime with Rappler as each one of the five candidates. So why do I keep coming back? Because I run an organization. The baton was passed to me as a news leader at an extremely trying time. And I unfortunately am the one holding it now, right? And this is my choice. If I drop the baton and I don’t carry it to the finish line, we lose. I can’t drop it. That’s why I keep making the choice over and over, right? Because if I don’t, when I travel there, stay here, they say, I’m not going to stay, because I am going to face these judges in court. I am going to face this government. And if I don’t get justice now, I know I will get justice later, and there will be a signature on every single charge. That’s the best I can do, right? But I know that what we do matters right now. And I think Filipinos care about democracy. We fought for it not so long ago, and I think we’ll fight for it again.

Worland: You’ve endured a lot, just to keep doing your job as a journalist. What keeps you going?

Ressa: I don’t think I’m doing anything special. When you’re caught in a battle for facts, who protects the facts? That’s what our mission is, right? That is why we became journalists. So it’s true. So in a battle for facts, journalism is activism. Journalists are the keeper of the facts. I’ve struggled with it all my life. I’m not so sure normal people really understand journalists because I was having this discussion with my sister, right? She said that every time people are trying to leave a city because of a typhoon or an erupting volcano or some kind of conflict, my team would be trying to get in. That’s what journalists do. We go in at these fragile moments and capture it. And we are accountable for the facts in these moments, right? Journalists are critical to democracy. When we come under attack, democracy is under attack.

Worland: Thanks for listening. In our next episode, we’ll talk to Kara Swisher, one of the premier tech columnists in the country, who writes and hosts a podcast for The New York Times and is a co-founder of the website Recode. We’ll pick up on Ressa’s critique of social media and we’ll take a deeper dive into how it is affecting democracy in the U.S., and what Swisher thinks should be done about it.

Is that a fact? is a production of the News Literacy Project, a non-partisan education nonprofit, helping educators, students and the general public become news literate so they can be active consumers of news and information, and equal and engaged participants in a democracy. Alan Miller is our founder and CEO. I’m your host, Darragh Worland. Our executive producer is Mike Webb. Our editor is Timothy Kramer and our theme music is by Eryn Busch. To learn more about the News Literacy Project, go to


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