Testing waters: Rappler files fundamental freedoms case before Philippine Supreme Court
By Marivir R. Montebon
New York – “This is my watch. I am not ducking on this. For as long as there is democracy, Rappler will continue reporting. Silence is the enemy of democracy,” journalist Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor of Rappler, made clear her resolve to do what she has to do in a soft, pristine voice.
In a press meeting organized by the FilAm Press Club of New York on April 26, 2019, Ressa said that Rappler has recently filed a press freedom case before the Philippine Supreme Court to hold the government accountable for the series of repressive measures against Rappler.
In an engagingly deep and brisk conversation on media repression at the Asian American Writers Workshop in downtown Manhattan, Ressa told writers and journalists here of the Rappler action, a day after Hollywood actor George Clooney and wife Amal threw in their support for her #defendpressfreedom campaign at the Time 100 dinner.
”We are doing this as a test for our judiciary if it stands by our bill of rights. It is time for us to stand up. For 14 months, Pia Ranada and our other reporters have been banned to cover Pres. Duterte. There’s a roving ban. I think this is a critical moment in our history. A moment where we decide to stand firm on our rights guaranteed by the Philippine Constitution. We demand the rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights. For me, I have no choice. I think that you are seeing a precipitous death by a thousand cuts of democracy. It is time for us to see that we want the Constiution protected. We demand accountability and an end to impunity.”
As power transitions loom largely in the Philippines, Ressa spent a week in the Big Apple to accept another award from Time Magazine, as one of its 100 Influencers for 2019. She was Time’s 2018 Person of the Year.
These citations came in the wake of Rappler’s 11 legal cases slapped by the Duterte administration, making Ressa, all of her five feet stature, a shaker of power who had to post bail 4 times in two months this year.
While the Philippine government said it simply wanted to take legal action on tax and ownership cases on Rappler, it also meant media repression, along with other Philippine media organizations, that have reported the unabated killings in the name of the drug war policy since Pres. Duterte took office.
Ressa emphasized that these are crucial times for the Philippines, a time of power shift, with a midterm elections and a likely constitutional change in the near future. “I am just a journalist. My work ethic had always been clear. Now, the government would not even take a question anymore. I feel like I am Alice in Wonderland and a mad hatter is in charge,” she said when asked of the latest spin that Rappler, along with Vera Files and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, is involved in a plot to oust Pres. Duterte.
Ressa smiled while touching on the ‘fantasyland matrix plot’ early in the conversation. “I am not even opposition. I am just a journalist. I ask questions for accountability. The government has just been reduced to insults or joke. This is not how I want my country to be seen in the international platform. We Filipinos have so much to offer. We were one of the first countries to sign the International Human Rights bill,” she said.
The community asked questions that led to a vigorous exchange of information and insights, and here is the excerpt of our conversation:
1. Don Tagala: At this time, who is doing checks and balance for the government? Is there an independent body who is doing checks and balance?
Maria: As of now, our institutions in the Philippines have crumbled in so many instances. I have 11 cases and I have posted bail 4 times. I paid more than convicted plunderers. For this, I would say Pres. Duterte is the most powerful man. Perhaps even more powerful than Pres. Marcos. He controls Congress, he controls the Executive. The one independent body that has been pushed back has been the Senate. The May elections is absolutely important, because if you lose, you will have no checks and balance of governance in the Philippines.
That could mean that without an independent Senate, we could see within the year, a new Constitution. I’d call it a new form of “democracy” in quotes. Perhaps extension of term limits. A transition committee will be made. All of them made by President Duterte. I believe this is a transformative moment. Do we want to maintain democracy imperfect as it may seem? Or do we want to usher in a new era, like a back to the future?
2. Don: If there is an investigating body, what should it be investigating right now? What issues would Pres. Duterte be made accountable for?
Maria: The drug war. I see impunity on two fronts. First, the drug war, that’s huge, and of course, what are our agreements with China. And also the information operation that is manipulating Filipinos, that is exponential lies. When you tell a lie a million times, it becomes truth. How can you have a democracy when you don’t have facts? You don’t have discourse or debates. We have not really talked policies since the social media campaign policy of Pres. Duterte in the election campaign which was weaponized in 2016.
And the first targets were normal people who questioned the killings in the drug war. And the second target were the reporters. The end goal of that is to tear down the credibility of institutions. We need to go back to a fact based information ecosystem so we can have rule of law.
And who is supposed to be doing that? The judiciary. I am appealing to the men and women of our judiciary to look at our cases which I call ludicrous. We Filipinos coined people power. What the heck (sorry) are we doing today?
3. Troi Santos: What can you say about the state of the nation?
Maria: I think that like the United States, we’re disjointed. We’re one of the countries where a cheap army of social media have rolled back democracy. We are confused. And add to that the algorithms of the social media which divide us and we have a leader who is very macho. At best he is sexist, at worst, he is misogynistic. I used these words at the Time Dinner to describe Pres. Duterte and Pres. Trump.
It took us so long to win back the rights of women. Let us not lose it in a blink.
4. Rachelle Ocampo: Does it surprise you that you are getting more support from foreign journalists than from the Philippines?
Maria: No it does not surprise me because we have to understand that we are afraid. Fear is part of our ecosystem as well. In July 2016, our reporters were coming home from the night beat and there would be an average of 8 dead bodies. And then you have a president…I mean what names does he call the media that threaten us. These threats, they can be dismissed as jokes.
But Pres. Duterte attacked Rappler in his state of the nation address, within a week, we had those cases. In 14 months, 11 cases have been filed against Rappler. That is almost 1 case per month. Gosh, I wish they spent that money to come with a great foreign policy that will retain our land.
Governance is not easy. There is a lot to be done. I wish they spent more time with real issues like climate change. We are the third most disaster prone country in the world. We don’t talk about that anymore. What we see are mundane insults on social media. We yell and scream at each other and I am not so sure what we accomplish with that. We are tearing our society apart. We will need to rebuild. What will replace what we have?
I think we have lots of support in the PHilippines, but I think that anyone who stands up has a lot to lose. There are consequences to exercising free speech.
5. Boyet Loverita: What do you like about President Duterte as president?
Maria: What do I like about him as president? Why don’t I tell you what I like about interviewing him in October of 2015, ‘cause that interview was also used by John Oliver. In that interview, he admitted to killing three people. The last time I interviewed him was in December 2016 and in 1989 when I was still with CNN, and it was about the Davao Death Squad. How interesting ‘though that DDS, almost overnight, went from a pejorative, a human rights violation, became Duterte Diehard Supporters. That’s Astro-turfing on social media.
What I found refreshing in Duterte is he was very clear in his campaign. He would go after corruption and crime. He spoke like a CEO. But power and arrogance go hand in hand. Without checks and balances, we’ve seen how power grow. Now, we’ve seen an inability to even take questions. Why exclude Pia Ranada from the press corps? Why? Does this little slip of a girl threaten?
President Duterte as a man, I find him an interesting interview. I am interested in the way leaders think. Normally, a leader will come in to unite a society, because probably he had the least number of votes because it was a field of five. So again, what happens to the rest? In 2016, there were 54 million voters. So how do we heal society? You can maintain power by pounding the fracture lines, making people hate. But this politics of hate cannot build a society and deal with the real problems of governance. That’s what I am looking for.
6. Boyet Loverita: Your award from Time being one of the 100 Influential Persons, do you think this is a victory on your part?
It’s hard to look at it like that. Let me look at it why I do what I do. I’m always known why I do what I do, right? I think this moment in time, I wish it wasn’t me. But Rappler came under attack, I almost felt that I spent my entire career to train for this moment. It’s not as if I went 20 years in CNN, I went to war zone training, and I know how to get my people in and out of difficult situations, I went through ABS CBN. My values and principles are very clear. I know what our role as journalists in society is.
When it was clear that it was coming at us and the cases were filed, I’m not a wilting violet. I’m not going to duck. I am not going to be silent. Silence, guys is consent. Silence is the enemy of democracy. So I always say, we shine the light. And if it is happening to me, I will tell you what is happening to me. So all I do is call a spade a spade.
Time was amazing because it gave a level of safety for me and for Rappler. They did not tell me I was one of the Guardians. I found out on Twitter at 6:30 at night. On the day that I posted bail 4 times in the morning. And then, we were trying to figure to what do we do, I saw it that night. I sent it to our social media head because I thought it was fake.
I think that we know that journalism is under attack globally. And the Mueller report shows you that the effort done by Russia in the United States. I am really grateful to international journalists who continue to shine the light on the Philippines. I think the Philippines matters because we are a democracy. And we are fighting to stay a democracy and we can win this battle. We are a cautionary tale for the US. If we don’t protect your rights, it can be taken away (just) like that.
7. Ledy Almadin: How do you keep objectivity in your reporting, given the way they treat you? I think Rappler needs to give information in an objective way. How do you balance that?
Maria: Thank for the question. I struggle with that all the time. First, objectivity does not exist. When I was in CNN, I used to say this. Don standing up has a very different of us than me sitting down looking at you. I replaced a white Anglo-Saxon Protestant male who was so much taller than I was. I was Filipino American, which meant that reports coming from the Philippines, had my (Filipino) lenses. Our lenses were there.
I find that when people talk about bias and non-bias, it often shows there own bias. There is also context in reporting. I think that we have to replace the word objectivity with transparency. Be transparent. My guiding light right now, I call a spade a spade.
I am just a reporter. I am just a journalist. And the fact that so many state resources are being thrown at me, makes me truly wonder. What I am supposed to be truly finding? What makes the state so afraid to have real critical questions?
8. Ninotchka Rosca: What is the impact of media repression on Rappler, on the staff?
Maria: If you look at the attacks on media, it is an attack on business. We were not the first attacked. Philippine Daily Inquirer, the largest newspaper, was attacked and law suits were filed. Quietly, there was a sale made to someone friendly to the president. ABS-CBN was attacked. In November, Pres. Duterte said he won’t renew the franchise of ABS-CBN. What he says has a chilling effect. There is a Damocles sword hanging over you.
Rappler was the third to be attacked. But the difference with Rappler is, the single largest owner of Rappler are the journalists, not the businessmen. We made the choice, that come hell or high water, we made sure our business model evolved. So what we’ve done is have actually evolved our business model.
What happened was, advertisers were scared. We lost as much as 45% of monthly advertising revenues. But what we did, we involved a new business model that pushed up our revenues 200% versus revenues last year.
Second, we cut our budgets. We cut our spend. We wanted to raise the salaries of our people. The senior guys, we volunteered our salaries as much as 20 percent.
Crisis is opportunity, right? One of the most wonderful things that, I’m emotional. When I get tired. I look at what our reporters are doing. And what you see is for our young reporters, our team, the mission is most important. What you do matters. What you write matters. We live the mission. The mission is critical. The team is stronger than it’s ever been, because the mission is just so clear.
9. Lara Gregory: What is the best case scenario for the Philippines with the elections coming up?
Maria: We will end with a note of hope. Guns, goons, and gold won’t win. The elections are an individual battle for integrity. Each Filipino must fight back. That is my best guess scenario. That Filipino values stand strong and we elect the government we deserve.
10. Luis Francia: I applaud your bravery in standing up to this madman. You were talking about the Catholic Church? What do you think it can do? What has it done?
Maria: We Filipino are very patient. Too patient at times. It took us a long time to reach 1986 (People Power). The Church plays a huge role. But I think what it has done is to step back. We don’t have a Cardinal Sin. No one has really demanded accountability.
The Church holds a lot of sway still. We are Asia’s largest Roman Catholic nation. I think we need leadership. But it is not just the church. I think we need political leadership.
The people in the opposition have not galvanized the people in a meaningful way. Part of that is, there is a middle ground. They don’t want to lose the support or challenge Pres. Duterte. Maybe that is foolish. I think we are looking for leaders. This is the time to lead. This is the time to say it is wrong to kill without due process. You go from a nation ruled by law to a criminal state. That is not where we want to be. The Philippines is one of the first countries to sign the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think our values as Filipinos, we need to go back to that. It is hard to say don’t be afraid. But the more we let that rule us, the more we let that create our reality.
(Photos by Troi Santos, Felix Manuel, Grace Labaguis, and Leani Auxilio)