Maria Ressa is in a highly politicised battle with president Rodrigo Duterte, a battle for the survival of her news website Rappler
Hannah Ellis-Petersen in Manila
The warning signs were all there. But Maria Ressa says “I never saw it coming.”
The founder and driving force behind the Philippines news organisation Rappler admits to surprise when President Rodrigo Duterte effectively declared war on her journalists and heralded with it the biggest threat to freedom of the press the country has seen in decades.
Rappler has only been in existence since 2012, beginning as an online news start-up with 12 reporters, established by Ressa, a former CNN Bureau chief. But over the past two months this small yet bullish group has been at the forefront of a battle against eroding press freedom in the Philippines. Duterte’s spokesperson – in language eerily evocative of Donald Trump’s White House – declared that “not only is Rappler’s news fake, it being Filipino is also fake.”
It is an assault which began in January when their license was revoked and has quickly intensified as the year has gone on, with Rappler’s political correspondent barred from the Presidential palace for briefings. Then, last week, the government announced they were investigating Rappler for evading $2.5m of tax – a complaint Ressa called “ludicrous”.
Ressa is now in a highly politicised David and Goliath fight for the survival of Rappler, which has reached the Supreme Court.
“We’re ready to fight it,” she said defiantly. “The end goal is to keep reporting, as long as we’re a democracy, and this, as far as I know, is still a democracy. And in a funny way it’s a backhanded compliment that the president sees us, a small start-up, as a threat.”
It was during Duterte’s second State of the Union speech in July that Ressa was first surprised to hear the President declare that Rappler was “fully owned” by Americans, and therefore in violation of the constitution. “It’s a ridiculous claim,” said Ressa, shaking her head. “We are owned 100% by Filipinos, the documents prove it.”
It followed months of critical reporting by Rappler on Duterte’s increasingly bloody and brutal war on drugs and government sanctioned extrajudicial killings, which has taken an estimated 8,000 lives. The ICC are now looking into evidence that Duterte committed crimes against humanity.
Duterte, angered by the coverage, decided to boycott, and then go after traditional media, determined to control the narrative. First of all he targeted the country’s biggest newspaper, the Philippine Inquirer, which had started a “kill list” documenting those who died in the drug war. Then he went after the biggest television station ABS-CBN, threatening not to renew their franchise. Finally, his attentions turned to Rappler.
In August 2016, the Securities and Exchange commission demanded document after document from Rappler, first to prove their Filipino ownership, and then for other unknown reasons. “It was clearly a fishing expedition,” said Ressa. “It was case of being guilty until proven innocent. There was never any formal charge given.”
In January, the government announced they had revoked Rappler’s licence. But while other news organisations kept their battle with the government quiet, Rappler did not. Ressa held an instant press conference outside their Manila offices, denouncing the attack on press freedom to the world.
“I’m banking on the fact that there are still good people in government who will prevent this. I’ve been a journalist for more than 33 years, and at Rappler we refuse to change, I refuse to be bullied,” she said.
The case is now in appeal in the Supreme Court, which has often been known to take over a decade to come to a decision. Duterte also has an authoritarian grip on the legislature, with the power to appoint his own choice of Supreme Court justices.
Rappler’s battles also exist in the digital world. It was in August 2016, following Duterte’s denouncement of the site, that Ressa first noticed that the social media campaign machine which had helped get him elected had “transformed and became weaponised.”
“The first targets were journalists,” said Ressa. “Any journalist who asked critical questions, anyone on social media who questioned about the extrajudicial killings was bombarded with abuse, threats of violence death threats from trolls and bots and these fake Facebook accounts. We had endless rape threats, death threats, very misogynistic attacks on women. The end goal of that was to batter hate, to use hate to silence any dissent or critical questions.”
It has been unrelenting ever since and as a result Ressa put in place extra security for her reporters and offered counselling. At one point Ressa found herself getting 90 death threats an hour though social media.
The hand of Duterte in this is not known and hard to prove. When Ressa asked the president in December 2016 whether he was aware of the vicious army of trolls championing his agenda online “he just said ‘you know that I’m not online’. And he might not know but it’s plausible deniability – it’s how you use terrorist tactics,” said Ressa.
The battering has taken its toll. “I used to be a war zone correspondent and I can tell you it’s easier than what we’ve been up against these two years – at least with conflict reporting you know your enemy and you know where it’s coming from. Right now we have no idea when we’re getting these exponential attacks,” Ressa said.
For many campaigners, the survival of Rappler has become inseparable from the survival of press freedom – and democracy itself – in the Philippines. While Ressa believes that the country is going through a “transformation that we need to keep a close watch on”, she said that Duterte had not rung the death knell for democracy in the Philippines just yet.
“I came of age in 1986 and I watched the people power evolve and watched the pendulum swing as every authoritarian, one man rule in southeast Asia gradually transformed to democracies,” said Ressa. “I would hate, as I end my career, to watch the pendulum swing right back.”