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The Journalist as Deterrent

The first thing to establish about Maria Ressa is that her accomplishments predate the rise of Rodrigo Duterte to the Philippine presidency.

She has been an investigative journalist, broadcaster, and editor for more than 30 years, including as the Jakarta bureau chief for CNN. She covered some of the most tumultuous periods in southeast Asia, including the rise of Islamist militancy in the region and its confluence with social media. Her journalism received awards well before the plaudits of the past few years.

In other words, Ressa has form. She need not have become a target for her work to be vindicated. Perhaps more to the point: that work was relatively unimpeded during previous administrations – when she was no less hard- hitting. She co-founded the online news platform Rappler in 2012, which became known early on for its pursuit of stories about official conflicts of interest.

Pen illustration of Maria Ressa by Kelly Fliedner

No self-respecting journalist seeks to become the story. The press ordinarily operates as background to democracy: an indicator and lever for transparency, restraint, and equality before the law. These may be taken as effects of holding power to account, even when imperfectly achieved.

In undemocratic conditions, where there is neither interest nor intent to secure such things, the protections around the role of reporters – which stem precisely from democratic values – fall away. Exposed, journalists find themselves the ones held to account. That is as true in the Philippines as it is in Australia, China, Egypt and everywhere else. 

Of course, journalists should not be above scrutiny. In the digital age, anyone can perform acts of journalism, and in many ways this has been for the better – democratising means of production and enabling marginalised groups to tell stories in their own voice.

On the other hand, there are those who only perform the role in order to simulate its claim to the truth. The gatekeeping in news that at least nominally set ethical standards, and held companies liable, does not exist on the internet – where millions of people get information, especially in the global south.

This leads to conditions where it becomes impossible for people to agree on facts, the standard currency of journalists. Journalists in turn increasingly find it difficult to gain purchase in the information economy.

The phenomenon has been indiscriminate. Whether in Myanmar or the United States, the instigator and the cost can be the same: an administration that is opaque, abusive, and unfair.

Over the three years since 2017, no fewer than 12 legal cases were levied against Maria Ressa. The issues considered in these cases range from foreign ownership of Rappler to tax- related violations and “cyberlibel”. Eight cases are still in the courts. They rest seemingly on novel legal interpretations; Rappler had otherwise been able to operate freely for five years under the same terms as other media organisations.

The cyberlibel charge has rightly been described as Kafkaesque, being a criminal matter that hinges on a typo. It was the first case brought against Ressa and her colleagues. It involves a story published in 2012, prior to the enactment of the cyberlibel law, about the use of a prominent businessman's car for official purposes by the then-Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

It took the businessman five years from publication to file a complaint – or three years from when the Supreme Court lifted the restraining order that had kept the law from being implemented.

The National Bureau of Investigation dismissed the case in 2018, then reversed the decision barely a fortnight later. The Department of Justice took up the charges on the basis that the online correction of a misspelled word in 2014 (made by a Rappler staff member going over the archives) constituted “continuous publication”.

Ressa was convicted in June 2020, along with Reynaldo Santos Jr, the reporter who had written the piece. They are out on bail pending appeal, as of this writing. If the appeal fails and the other cases deliver the same result, Ressa could be in prison for decades.

Journalist Maria Ressa speaking

Even on the surface, it feels like overkill. But there is reason for all this attention. In late 2016, after the election, Ressa’s news organisation Rappler investigated the use of so-called troll farms to influence voters. It was a strategy that had particularly boosted Rodrigo Duterte, whose campaign spent at least US$200,000 on fake social media accounts, bots and “influence networks” to defend him online and attack his rivals and critics.

Rappler built a track record in covering online propaganda: from the hostile campaign against senator Leila de Lima (whose arbitrary detention was determined by a UNHCR working group to be reprisal for her criticism of the Duterte administration), to historical revisionism regarding the Marcos dictatorship. The Marcos family are close associates of Duterte.

Apart from its investigations of disinformation campaigns on social media platforms, Rappler also reported on extrajudicial killings. More than 20,000 mostly poor Filipinos died in the first two years of the Duterte administration, collateral in the so-called war against drugs. The six-month Rappler investigation pointed to links between police officers and vigilantes who carried out assassination-style sprees.

In other words, this is not a lightweight company that happens to post things on the internet like everyone else. It is a news organisation that takes itself seriously. Having made a record of systematic political attacks online, its figurehead became a target of those same attacks.

Ressa has experienced harassment and countless threats; wherever she appears online, the comment threads end up turning vitriolic. It is a manufacturing of consent, designed to engineer permissions for the state.

The concept emerged from various analyses in the 20th century about the mass media and its relationship with power, including as a distributor of propaganda. This has extended online, where state-sponsored trolling and disinformation campaigns are deployed against critics, rivals, and minority groups.

In the Philippines, this occurs simultaneously with a weaponisation of the law against non- compliant public figures, and in the context of a government with barely any checks and balances, not in the legislature nor the judiciary.

In the month before Ressa was convicted of cyberlibel, the Philippine Congress refused to renew the franchise for ABS-CBN, the country's largest independent broadcaster. A senate public services panel found earlier that same year that the broadcaster complied with the terms of its franchise. The refusal to renew the franchise only makes sense against this statement from Duterte in December 2019, referring to ABS-CBN: “Your franchise will end next year. If you are expecting that it will be renewed, I'm sorry. You're out. I will see to it that you're out”.

It is apparent that the situation in the Philippines is as grim as it has ever been in the darkest days of the Marcos regime. While it is not as acute as the overnight detention of dozens of journalists and key opposition figures upon the declaration of martial law, the intent is the same – to quash dissent.

The only question remaining is this: who else is profiting off social media to undermine democratic norms?

Fatima Measham is a writer and speaker based in Wadawurrung country. She was formerly a consulting editor, columnist and podcast producer for Eureka Street, where she focused on issues of social justice, identity and politics. Her work has appeared in Meanjin, the Guardian, America magazine and other publications. She grew up on the traditional land of the Higaonon in the Philippine south. 

Kelly Fliedner is a Perth-based writer and curator. 

This article originally appeared in the Feb 2021 issue of PEN Sydney Magazine.

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