From case to praise: Maria Ressa’s enduring battle for press freedom

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa and her online news website Rappler have been subject to lawsuit after lawsuit over the last two years. In spite of a recent cyber libel case dismissal, she stands to face decades in prison due to her relentless fight for both local and global media freedom. 

“Of the four covers, I was the only one at that point in time who was both alive and free – and that was shocking to realize,” Ressa shares in conversation with ‘A Thousand Cuts’ film director Ramona S. Diaz and IndieWire Editor at Large Anne Thompson, during an International Documentary Association (IDA) screening series that premiered on Youtube on 4th December 2020.
If we had to put a face to the straining pursuit of a free press — as TIME Magazine did in 2018 — it would be Maria Ressa’s. With the magazine honoring her amongst ‘The Guardians,’ a collection of journalists committed to reporting the truth, her reflections ring ominous for the future of independent journalism.

Media freedom in the Philippines has taken a turn for the worse; with its Reporters Without Borders (RSF) World Press Freedom rank down from 136 in 2020 to 138 in 2021, several media outlets and reporters have been targeted and lambasted under the Duterte administration. As Columbia University’s Toni Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism Director Sheila Coronel shares in an email interview, “since Rodrigo Duterte became president, the spaces for press freedom have become narrower. There is a lot of fear in the face of overt threats and insults from the president, not to mention harassment by troll armies.” 

It is no secret that Maria Ressa and her outspoken news website Rappler have emerged prime targets in the Duterte era, subject to several charges by the Philippine authorities. As Keith Richburg, Director of the Journalism and Media Studies Centre of the University of Hong Kong notes, “the Philippines has always had one of the freest, most lively media landscapes in Asia, but all of a sudden we see that space being shrunk because of pressure by the government.”

“They’re using their licensing power, they’re using these fake news laws to go after places like Rappler and courageous journalists like Maria Ressa, but also they’re using the ability of the Internet to allow people to anonymously go after an attack and harass journalists, and particularly female journalists – and that’s what’s happened in many of these authoritarian regimes.”

Judge Andres Soriano dismissed businessman Wilfredo Keng’s second cyberlibel case filed against Ressa on 1st June, sparked by a tweet she shared in 2019. It contained screenshots of an article posted by another media outlet, connecting Keng with allegedly illegal activities. He has since withdrawn this case, citing the pandemic’s effects for this shift in focus.

Ressa, however, remains convicted (yet, free on bail) in Keng’s earlier cyberlibel case, which is currently on appeal. Lodged in 2017, it was set off by a story Rappler published six years prior that associated Keng with allegedly criminal activities. A Poynter article states that “according to Rappler’s reporting, Keng had links to illegal drugs and human trafficking and had also lent a car to a top judge.” The later adjustment of a typo in 2014 culminated in Ressa and Rappler being charged under the Philippine cybercrime law, even though the story was originally published before its creation.

Fast forward to 2021, and recent case dismissal could be seen as a turning point in Ressa’s long-drawn battle. Having worked as CNN’s bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta before 2005, her journalism career stretches over 30 years. As CNN’s lead investigative reporter in Asia, she reported several key events of the era. In 2012, she established Rappler with a small team of journalists. The online news website has started to become a target for the Duterte administration since 2017, and a series of investigations and allegations against her and Rappler have ensued. 

However, solidarity for Ressa’s cause has ramped up in recent months, with networks mobilizing across different mediums. Several international organizations, (CPJ, ICFJ, RSF, amongst 80 others) journalists and members of the public are taking on initiatives to pressure the Duterte government. This includes the RSF and #HoldTheLine coalition’s joint campaign, that streams video clips sent in by public supporters until the administration drops all charges against Ressa – and their burgeoning petition with 14660 current signatories. Contemplating her TIME Magazine feature in IDA the screening series, Ressa herself reflects that she expected it to make her “more of a target, but ironically, it became a shield.”  

In addition, Ressa’s own ‘Hold The Line’ interview series features prominent guests such as Myanmar Frontier’s Sonny Swe and former Secretary Hilary Clinton in their own pursuit of “truth-telling”; this support could “provide her with vital protection as she faces the escalating threat of a possible lifetime in prison,” says RSF Secretary-General Christophe Deloire in an article by the organization. As Coronel pointed out, the initiatives “have been effective in publicizing Maria’s case and showing the support of the global press freedom community. Arguably, without such support, the threats and harassment would have been even more unrestrained.”

Yet, the Philippine media landscape remains polarized. According to Reuters’ 2021 Digital News Report, although Rappler has one of the highest weekly use patterns, reaching 32% of online users – it was second to last in brand trust scores, with only 45% of Philippine internet users trusting the news site. This is striking, pointing to a split in how local media and international groups are responding to Ressa’s activities. 

One possible explanation for this may be the socio-political atmosphere created by Duterte’s government, often observed to be divisive in nature. The leader’s online trolls and proliferation of disinformation by his allies reflect a thinly veiled attempt at manipulating mainstream media over the years. This not only affects reporting in the region, but also has a direct impact on public perception and judgment of news online. 

“In the old days, governments controlled the media through either direct censorship or threats so that journalists exercise self-censorship. Today, there is a new repertoire of other ways to control the flow of information in the public sphere, and this includes fake news, disinformation and propaganda,” Coronel notes. 

Richburg also discusses the impact of this media interference, sharing that “the internet has opened the floodgates to this sort of tsunami of misinformation and disinformation, and what I call real fake news that’s kind of floating around out there…and so governments do have a legitimate concern about some of this.” Yet, he notes this interest is not without its pitfalls: “inevitably, the authoritarian regimes, and sometimes not even authoritarians – they’re going to use those laws to crush anything they don’t like.”

What does this mean for press freedom in the region? With journalism’s tenets of independent reporting and objective information under risk, a post-truth era under political control looms ahead. As Coronel states, “these trends are likely to continue. But there are also valiant and commendable efforts by the news media to face up to the threats and to reframe the narrative about the media.” The recognition of media interference in itself highlights a potential for outspoken journalists like Ressa to push the envelope past anything that came before, in fighting against biases and systems of power.

Ryan Macasero, Lead Reporter of Rappler’s Visayas Bureau and multimedia journalist based in Cebu City contemplates this idea, sharing that “Maria Ressa talks often about her reconciling being an activist and a journalist, and it’s one I think we’ve all had to deal with lately.”

“When your right to report is under attack, when your freedom, when your safety and security is under attack…I think it’s a different time.”
Just as TIME’s honored ‘Guardians’ (the late Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi, previously convicted Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, and targeted American newspaper ‘The Capital Gazette’) have fearlessly done – the fight for press freedom remains within the courage to champion change, and the tenacity to stand for the truth.