Human Rights Defenders
Maria Ressa: "What I want is Action"

Interview with the Journalist and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate
Maria Ressa

Maria Ressa

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Maria Ressa has been working on promoting freedom of press in the Philippines her whole career. She returned to the Philippines in 1986 after her education abroad and started her work as a journalist after the People Power Revolution, eventually holding leadership positions in several local and international news organizations. In 2012, she established Rappler, a digital-only news site, dedicated to promoting truth and democracy in journalism. She became the target of lawfare and political harassment by the Duterte government for Rappler’s work in revealing the truth about his so-called “war on drugs,” killing thousands in the process.

The elections last year have brought in a new administration, with a president at the helm whose rhetoric is more refined, less polarizing, and less violent. What has changed for free media organizations and journalists?

Ostensibly, the environment of fear has lifted but we've run into situations where people are still afraid, because it's hard. I have 34 years of possible jail time disappearing with four criminal charges when I was acquitted along with Rappler. I think people looked at the three justices of the Court of Tax Appeals to see if there were any repercussions, there were none. In V-Dem (Varieties of Democracy), one of the things I liked is that when they are saying that if a country is recovering, it is moving back towards democracy. 

The first thing that you will look at is the recovery of an independent judiciary.

For free media, the outlook is uncertain, but slightly better. I’ve had ten arrest warrants beginning in 2019 and seven of them are gone. Therefore, I have three left. That would have been over a hundred years in prison and now we are down to a few decades. We have more faith. The Philippines is not North Korea, we are not Russia, and we are not China. Therefore, I hope that the rule of law becomes stronger.

In his speech at the 50th anniversary of the KBP (Association of Broadcasters of the Philippines), the President emphasized how freedom of press is very important to the administration. The Philippines also climbed the RSF (Reporters without Borders) World Press Freedom Index from 147 in 2022 to 132 in 2023. What do you think about this?

It’s true in a sense. I have had 10 arrest warrants. I could have been convicted, but I wasn’t. The world finally turned upside down. Duterte was probably the most powerful leader this country has ever had that never had to declare martial law, which the first father, Marcos, had to do. Duterte never had to, because of COVID-19. So, I think it’s correct that we did rise up. I feel it personally. This is a personal experience. But I think where RSF was off is that we are not vibrant. The chilling effect was real and there were stories that weren’t being done. There were costs to do to those stories and we had nothing left to lose, frankly. We kept doing the stories. It would be worse to say I gave up what I was doing, because I was afraid.

You are still threatened by three court cases. Can you elaborate on this?

There is a case in the SEC, the Securities and Exchange Commission, for a shutdown order on Rappler. The criminal counterpart of that is the violation of the anti-dummy law (Commonwealth Act 108). There is the cyber libel case that is all the way at the Supreme Court. In order to travel, I have to ask for permission from the Supreme Court.

In your book, “How to Stand Up to a Dictator”, you describe the manipulative power: social media platforms and what big data mining corporations do. What are the next steps free media advocates should take?

It is impossible to govern when your people, people who are in your country, are insidiously manipulated with fear, anger, and hate. What would you do? Would you use the same tools in order to fight back? How do you fight back? 

The question really is, do you have the same values? Will you lie? Will you incite hate to get power? I hope that we say no.

How do you deal with this? You look at the law regulatory frameworks; you look at protecting your citizens. A toaster in any of our countries has more safety tests to go through by regulation than what you carry in your pocket. Moreover,this is tremendously far more powerful than anything we've ever touched, right?

Is there any hope?

Of course, there is hope. But you know what it requires? It requires everything. Yeah sure, it requires 100 percent of people who love democracy. But I think you can pull it out of the fire, but that doesn't mean the problem is gone. We are still here, but I don't want a fake hold. What I want is action. Hope comes from action; and if you do not act, you are going to lose. 

It came at a great personal cost for the people on the frontlines and that shouldn't be that way. Frankly speaking, we came out of it talking about big tech. Big tech should not be getting away with this. I mean, the book is about how to stand up to a dictator. Who is the bigger dictator? Duterte or Mark Zuckerberg? Who controls more people? And in terms of impunity, we're talking about the number of people killed in the drug war in the Philippines, which we have no idea how it ranges from what the police claim is thousands to tens of thousands of Human Rights activists. However, how many people have been killed because of the software on their cell phones? We know Myanmar. We know Sri Lanka. We know India. It drives me crazy. It continues to happen and we are, you know, the political dominoes fell in 2016. It is 2023, but there hasn't been much progress.

So, if you look. My life has gotten crazier, because I am trying to hit every touchpoint of the people who have the power. We need to understand that we have data. We have run Rappler. Most often, the politicians may not move until they feel pressure from the people. Because in the end, every politician also wants to get elected. So it's a race against time. I really believe this. We will run at breakneck speed until the end of 2024. And then hopefully I'll sleep for a while. However, I think, if we don't, some people will say we're being alarmist. Yeah, we will take it from experience. We were not alarmist enough before.

Read more in our publication Human Rights Defenders: Journalists.