The attack on Rappler in the Philippines is an attack of free speech

Maria Ressa: "Courts are being used by Duterte's regime in a lawfare against free media"

(c) Rappler


The clash between media and power is brutal in the Philippines. The real target is free speech, but the symbolic head that has to hang belongs to Maria Ressa, journalist, entrepreneur and initiator of the successful newssite Rappler. MO* had an exclusive interview with her when the coronacrisis began. The verdict in one of the court cases against her was postponed then, but it came on June 15th with a devastating blow.

Rappler, the most prominent newssite in the Philippines, is a success story in digital media revolutions. But that success clashes head-on with the interests of an authoritarian president. What could have been a global example became a global warning. MO* had an exclusive conversation with Maria Ressa, journalist, entrepreneur and technician, and head of Jut of Filipino president Duterte.

“It’s not a local fight,” says Maria Ressa. “Our clash with authoritarian power is not exceptional. In 2017 Freedom House saw 27 countries in the world where democracy was under pressure from internet armies; by 2019 it counted already at least 70 countries. Idem with the fight against climate change and the fight against the coronary pandemic: local is global, and vice versa.”

Both the newssite and the way it is attacked by an internet army in the service of President Duterte important

However, there are many peculiarities in every local situation. The fact, for example, that the Philippines has been the country where the population spends the most time on social media for five consecutive years, makes both the newssite and the way it is attacked by an internet army in the service of President Duterte important. It makes the Flipino experience instructive for all other countries.

Maria Ressa: “Duterte’s strength was his ability, through social media, to sow discord and use that to grow more powerful. But that approach is precisely what is not needed at a time when a pandemic needs to be fought and society needs to be united behind one message and a clear approach. What we need today is more trust and less division.”

Rappler started in 2012, when some experienced journalists in Manila put their heads together. Together they made the leap from established media to a new and independent digital medium, and they called the site Rappler — a contraction of to rap and to ripple: discussing and creating waves. Rappler started with twelve employees and grew to 75 in the short timespan of one and a half years, making ito ne of the top five media in terms of editorial staff and becoming by far the largest of online-only newsrooms.

“Rappler wants to create communities of action based on journalistic principles combined with technological knowledge,” says Maria Ressa. The first theme around which Rappler became active was climate change. The starting point was the observation that the Philippines are hit by about twenty tropical storms every year, and that the strength of these is predicted to increase. “A month before Haiyan supertyphoon struck in 2013, we were able to announce a collaboration with the government to build a platform with our technology that could be used for collective action during a period of acute crisis or disaster.” Rappler made its mark immediately.

But that doesn’t explain why the next president, Rodrigo Duterte, would attack Rappler in 2016?

Maria Ressa: In 2016 we were known as the media channel followed by millennials, and Rodrigo Duterte was more aware of this than other candidates. He was therefore the only candidate who made use of four hours of debate that we organized online, on TV and for radio. He was also the first politician to make extensive use of social media to spread his message.

Duterte had a real social media army and started a real social media war after his election and the launch of his war on drugs

Duterte had a real social media army and started a real social media war after his election and the launch of his war on drugs. By the summer of 2016, anyone who asked questions about the death toll of that War on Drugs was attacked by social media groups. At that time, we already counted an average of 33 deaths per night, in Manila. It triggered us as journalists and we started a series called Impunity, and then a series called Propaganda, in which we showed how the newly elected president used social media to attack critics. We also documented, for the first time, how the Facebook algorithms resulted in undermining democracy. And we investigated how 23 fake accounts could spread a message to 3 million people.

That technological investigative journalism was not welcome?

Maria Ressa: The response was strong. I received up to ninety hate messages an hour. That doesn’t leave you unmoved. But what appeared to be a broad and spontaneous campaign from the bottom up in 2016 was conducted from the presidential palace in 2017, and the president himself made all kinds of accusations against me and Rappler during his annual State of the Nation speech. A week later, the first subpoena arrived.

By the end of 2018, there were already 11 lawsuits and investigations underway against Rappler and me, by order of the government. By 2019, I was arrested twice and bailed out eight times to stay out of jail. It shows that the court in the Philippines has become a weapon in the hands of the president against journalists — we call that lawfare instead of the classic warfare.

All trials began in 2018 and the first verdict, on a case of cyberlibel, that was first rejected by the government’s own lawyers, but was brought back before court, was expected on 3 April 2020. This has now been postponed due to coronary measures. [Update: the interview took place on March 20th; on June 15th the court condemned Maria Ressa and former Rappler contributor for libel. The decision involves 2 timed 200.000 pesos in damages and a jail sentence of at least 6 months plus one day, and maximum 6 years. Ressa will appeal.]

Four years of constant and increasing attacks, what does that do to a news medium?

The real purpose of all this intimidation is to cripple critical, independent journalism, and thus to curtail democracy

Maria Ressa: We continue to do our job. Because the real purpose of all this intimidation is to cripple critical, independent journalism, and thus to curtail democracy. They want journalists to start self-censorship, out of fear for the consequences if they do their work well. But to be honest: Duterte has chosen the wrong targets for this. I have 34 years of journalism behind me. As reporter and chief of bureau for CNN, I have covered all uprisings and conflicts in Southeast Asia, from the Filipino people’s revolt against Marcos in 1986 and the end of Suharto in Indonesia in 1999, to today.

It’s a pity, but I’ve seen the pendulum of insurrection swing back to authoritarian governance, thanks to digital technologies that I thought would make citizens and society more powerful. That made it all the more clear to me that journalists only have one weapon, and that is: not to stop telling the stories that matter. We have to shed light on things that are kept in the dark.

The danger of the confrontation in which Duterte forces you, is that you yourself start focusing too much on him, isn’t it?

Maria Ressa: Right from the start we’ve realised how difficult it is to be both a journalist and a target of political power. We immediately put in place rules and procedures to ensure that we wouldn’t lose our journalistic honesty, reliability and balance. We should not self-destroy the reliability we’ve been building up over the years by responding to the provocations of power. That also means that we refuse to bow. Regardless of the cost to Rappler, we continue to ask difficult questions and write relevant stories.

We have the data to understand how this power structure is built up on social media, and the attacks on Rappler provide us with that data and insight. That gives me the peace of mind we need in the real world to continue.

You sound determined. Doesn’t the whole attack affect you?

What’s really disturbing is the fact that the institutions that were supposed to guarantee democracy collapsed

Maria Ressa: What’s really disturbing is the fact that the institutions that were supposed to guarantee democracy collapsed less than six months after Duterte took office. Both citizens and institutions are apparently willing to voluntarily give up rights and rules. That has therefore become our focus: the human rights guaranteed by the constitution. Our battle cry is #holdtheline, till here and no further! And that’s completely in line with our overarching mission: a better future for all.

That’s a remarkable mission for a newssite. Classic missions for media are more like what the New York Times has been saying for over a century: all the news that is fit to print.

Maria Ressa: We have to get rid of the idea that media should be “objective” and only pass on the facts. We need to be reliable, but many of the choices you make are subjective. When I became desk chief for CNN in Jakarta, I replaced a big white westerner. He was in his late 40s, I was in my mid-20s. We both looked at the same reality, but from clearly different perspectives, and so we saw different things, in a different order of priority. We need to be clear about that perspective.

But the biggest challenge today is that journalism no longer determines what is read or seen, that role has been taken over by the algorithms of the big tech companies. They are responsible for ensuring that lies built on anger and hatred are spread across social media faster than facts and insights. It challenges us even more to tell those facts and events in such a way that they become interesting for readers.

Is that why the new authoritarian leaders focus their arrows on real news organizations, while they remain silent about the tech companies?

Tech platforms make no distinction in the algorithmic treatment of jokes, news items or family exchanges. That’s killing the facts.

Maria Ressa: The “old power”, as I call the world of politics, has for a very long time understood nothing of the “new power” that tech companies gradually and previously unintentionally built up. Those tech companies became more and more involved in behavioural change policies on a massive scale, just look at the targeted advertisements and the massive harvest of personal data that is constantly being collected to make us even more susceptible to commercial interests of all kinds. The tech platforms have also made no distinction in the algorithmic treatment of jokes, news items or family exchanges. That’s killing the facts.

What’s striking is that Rappler itself also stimulates readers to score an article emotionally — you can choose between happy, inspired, sad, frightened, angry, amused, indifferent, or bored.

Maria Ressa: Our mood meter was an idea from the very beginning, and is based on a study that showed that people make decisions based more on emotion than on reason: eighty percent depends on how we feel, twenty percent on what we think. We did something with that reality even before Facebook and others started using those emotions as weapons to dominate the market. But that mood meter has no impact on the place an article gets on the homepage or in our social media strategy. What we do offer, however, is the possibility to use the moods as navigation. If you’re done with threatening news, you can simply search the section that has been indicated as inspiring by the readers.

The attack on the media doesn’t stop with Rappler. The popular TV channel ABS-CBN is also in danger of losing its licence. [Update: the channel has been out of function since half May, for lack of renewal of it’s license.] Yet Duterte’s popularity does not suffer as a result. Is he perhaps taking advantage of a real dissatisfaction with the media and uses that to attack independent media?

Maria Ressa: Difficult question. I think there’s broad dissatisfaction with the way the media are treated. And the attack on ABS-CBN — also called the “star channel” of the Philippines — is not a good thing for Duterte. Even his supporters in the Senate did not succeed in blocking the handling of the case, because quite a few senators are former “stars” themselves.

After all the attacks and experiences, what three ground rules do you have for media that clash with authoritarian power?

Maria Ressa: One: embrace your fear. Take your worst fears seriously, plan your response based on what you think is the worst that the government can do to your medium. Make your emergency scenarios based on that, talk them through in the organization, and make sure everyone is prepared. Because all other scenarios will be easier to deal with from then on.

Two: be transparent, both about worst case and best case scenarios. This results in an organisation that knows what it is doing and why.

Three: make sure the community is involved. The community of supportive readers and the organisations that support your medium are crucial. We wouldn’t have survived the past four years without the ongoing support of the community around Rappler. And that goes beyond moral support. Today, a third of our budget goes to legal costs: we can only sustain that with the financial contributions of readers. Communities are the best defense against the fear and mistrust provoked by authoritarian leaders.

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