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Embattled Philippine journalist vows to fight for press freedom

Rappler chief Maria Ressa. File

MANILA – One recent Thursday afternoon, two men showed up at the entrance to Rappler, a Philippine online news site co-founded and headed by veteran journalist Maria Ressa.

Introducing themselves as “independent writers” to the guard on duty, the men sought to call out Ressa for “damaging” the country’s reputation with its news reports. The visit was live-streamed on Facebook, where, according to Rappler, some viewers left comments calling “for violence towards Ressa, Rappler, and its offices.”

Rappler, launched in January 2012, is among media outlets that have reported critically on the bloody drug war of President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration starting 2016. Its coverage earned it a number of nominations and citations, including the Human Rights Press Awards in 2017.

Ressa, the site’s chief executive officer and executive editor, is a former CNN bureau chief who is the recipient of numerous awards, including being named a “Person of the Year” by Time magazine last year.

Talking to Kyodo News shortly after the two men were asked to leave Rappler’s premises, Ressa, 55, said, “The media weren’t the first people under attack. Journalists are not the first people under attack. The first people under attack are Filipinos who were killed in the brutal drug war without due process.”

“I think two things happened simultaneously, and this is the impunity that we’re fighting: impunity in the drug war, and then, impunity on social media,” she noted.

On Feb. 13, Ressa was arrested and detained for a night on orders of a court handling a complaint of “cyber libel” against her and a former Rappler reporter. The charge stemmed from an article that cited a businessman’s alleged links to human trafficking and drug smuggling.

It was the first time for her to be taken into custody amid a string of legal predicaments she and Rappler have been entangled in since early last year.

“At the very least, you see intent…It’s the government using all of its forces to try to intimidate a journalist…And I don’t think that I’m alone, that I was the target necessarily. I think they mean to let every journalist know, ‘This could happen to you,'” Ressa lamented.

Rappler said it is currently facing 10 cases and investigations, including the revocation of its license to operate after it was found to have accommodated a foreign investor, allegedly in violation of Philippine regulations on media ownership.

“In 13 months, Rappler has had its licenses revoked. I’m facing a minimum of nine different cases. I’ve had to post bail six times in two months, since December. So, there’s something very, very wrong,” Ressa said, vowing to fight every case in the courts.

Asked if she sees Duterte’s direct hand in these cases, she replied, “Whether it’s the president himself or someone else, he certainly encourages attacks against journalists. He certainly hasn’t stood up for press freedom.”

Last year, Rapper’s reporter covering the presidential beat was also banned from the presidential palace and from anywhere Duterte has public engagements in.

“We’re seeing an erosion, not just of press freedom, but of democracy in the Philippines…The reason why press freedom is important, why our journalists are important (is) because, in the end, press freedom is the foundation of all our rights to the truth, so that we can hold the powerful to account,” explained Ressa, whose arrest elicited domestic and global condemnation, including from former U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.

Salvador Panelo, the presidential spokesman, has slammed Ressa for her “dramatics” and for “abusing” her “power as a journalist.” He brands her as an “outspoken Duterte critic.”

“The law does not discriminate. It is no respecter of social status. Everyone is equal before the law,” Panelo said, insisting that the complaint against her was handled in accordance with the law.

“The rule of law was observed because she has been charged, given the right to preliminary investigation, the president judge of the court determined the existence of probable cause and issued a warrant of arrest, and subsequently she was granted bail,” he added.

Panelo accused Ressa of “weaponizing or using the law or the constitutional guaranty of freedom of expression to attack the president and the administration and put them in a bad light before the eyes of the world.”

The cyber libel case, filed by a private individual, “is absolutely unrelated to the freedom of the press or the freedom of expression,” Panelo said.

“Rappler continues to publish its news articles. Rappler and Maria Ressa are walking examples of the observance of the freedom of expression and of the press in this country,” he added.

Veteran journalist and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa poses for photographs after her interview with Karen Davila for Headstart in Makati, February 15, 2019. George Calvelo, ABS-CBN News

Meanwhile, besides her battle against the sitting government, Ressa and her organization, as with journalists from other agencies, also have to deal with online attacks from social media users, both against them, and against true information.

“A lie told a million times becomes the truth…Journalists were attacked systematically. I just happened to be the most vocal…It’s alarming, and it’s a wave of populism that’s going through the world,” she said.

“We’re demanding accountability from the social media platforms, that they should not be allowing lies to spread faster than facts. The first casualty in the war for truth in the Philippines is how many people have actually been killed in the drug war,” she said.

Maria Ressa, the CEO of online news platform Rappler, speaks to the media after posting bail at a Manila Regional Trial Court in Manila City, Philippines, February 14, 2019. Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Maria Ressa, the CEO of online news platform Rappler, speaks to the media after posting bail at a Manila Regional Trial Court in Manila City, Philippines, February 14, 2019. Eloisa Lopez, Reuters

Technology, she said, has enabled authoritarian-styled leaders to corrupt institutions and to go directly to the people of any nation and manipulate them. “Journalists need to do a lot more.”

“If people don’t know what the truth is, every democracy is vulnerable. (The truth) is the foundation of the strength of a democracy,” Ressa said.

Amid the “crazy” yet “historic” times she’s living through now, where, she said, “I feel like Alice in Wonderland, and I fell into the rabbit hole and this is a different world, and the Mad Hatter is in charge,” she declares her spirit is unshaken.

“I’ll keep doing my job as a journalist…I’m not against the government, but I will hold the government accountable for its actions,” Ressa vowed, mindful of the support she has gained including from the international community.

==Kyodo