Journalism wasn’t always a life-threatening field of study. Times have changed, however, and some journalists have become activists who risk life and limb—even their freedom—to publish the truth. According to a New York Times article, 2018 was the most dangerous year on record for journalists; this trend has not shown any sign of waning.
No one knows this better than Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa. She was Time Magazine’s Person of the Year 2018, part of this year’s Bloomberg 50 List, former bureau chief of CNN Philippines and Indonesia, and founder of Manila-based news outlet Rappler. In June of this year, in the middle of a global pandemic, she was convicted of cyber-libel.
Who is Maria Ressa?
Maria Ressa was born in the Philippines and moved to the United States with her family as a young child. She spent her early years living in New Jersey and studied English and Theater at Princeton University. In the 1980s, after the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos came to an end, Ressa decided to return to the Philippines. Back to her roots, she discovered journalism and spent the next 30 years as a television and broadcast journalist working around Southeast Asia. While working as a journalist, she had her first interview with Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte, who would later become president of the Philippines in 2016.
She is the Chief Executive Officer of Rappler, which she founded in January 2012 along with three other female founders and 12 journalists. With the ultimate goal of building communities while using social media to do good, Rappler has grown into a well-respected independent news outlet known for its investigative journalism.
Before founding Rappler, Maria Ressa spent six years as the news division leader of ABS-CBN, formerly the Philippines’ largest TV network. Earlier this year, ABS-CBN was shut down due to legal issues, although many believe President Duterte had a direct hand in closing the networking giant down. This closure is just another example of the kind of political climate Ressa and other Filipino journalists face.
Covering Duterte’s “War on Drugs”
In 2016, under Ressa’s guidance, Rappler first started to cover President Duterte’s “army of trolls” who were seeding and spreading fake news to millions of his followers online during the Philippine presidential campaign. When he eventually won the election and became President, Rappler began to write stories on the administration’s “War on Drugs,” which killed over 7,000 people between July 2016 and July 2017.
During this dark time, President Duterte ordered the Philippine police to kill anyone they suspected of drug connections. Unsurprisingly, only small-time and usually lower-class drug users and street-side pushers were caught and killed in this brutal war. It left international syndicates and influential drug dealers who control the drug trade unscathed. Reporting on this is what put Rappler and Ressa in the spotlight and right in front of President Duterte’s line of fire. That would be the beginning of Ressa’s legal battles.
Her Legal Battles
Maria Ressa’s current legal battles stem from an 8-year old story that Rappler published alleging a Filipino business person had links to illegal drugs and human trafficking. The story was published in 2012, four months after the “cyber-libel law” was passed. In 2014, the story was re-published due to a typo, and the courts declared that it fell under the jurisdiction of the said law.
During the proceedings, the judge stated that Rappler did not offer proof of their allegations and convicted Maria Ressa with cyber-libel. She now faces the possibility of serving six years in jail. According to Ressa and Rappler, the case was politically motivated. Since 2018, there have been 11 cases filed against Rappler, including tax evasion and foreign ownership violations.
As her legal battles grew, so did her profile, both locally and internationally. She has become known worldwide as a symbol of standing up for the truth and battling an authoritarian president and would-be dictator. As Maria Ressa has said in an interview, “In a battle for facts, in a battle for truth, journalism is activism.”
An Inspiring Voice
The 2020 documentary “A Thousand Cuts,” produced by fellow Filipino-American Ramona S. Diaz, features Ressa. The film covers Maria Ressa and Rappler as they put up a fight against President Duterte’s attack on them and, inevitably, on freedom of the press. Throughout the film, Maria Ressa is a beacon of hope and strength-showing her humanity by voicing out her fears, yet never giving up on what she believes is right.
She has become an inspiring voice around the world. When Ressa talks about the attacks on freedom of speech, the truth, and facts, she is not just talking about the state of the Philippine press and politics but the state of the world. In this day and age, where people can get the news with a click of the button, they can also get fake news and lies at just the same speed. It has become Maria’s advocacy to stand up for facts and not give in to political pressure.
Currently, Maria Ressa is out on bail and still publishing. Rappler continues to cover the Philippines’ daily news, together with fearless views on the current Philippine administration. Ressa continues to stand for what she believes in and to fight the legal cases piling up against her and Rappler. It is interesting to note that in “A Thousand Cuts,” she asks the lawyer what the worst case can be filed against her. Her lawyer answered that it didn’t matter because the government would find the opportunity to file any claim against her, even child abuse, in their attempt to silence her.
From journalist to activist, Maria Ressa inspires journalists and women around the world with her strength and poise. She is an excellent example of the power of an individual who refuses to give up on facts and continues to fight for the truth.