Maria Ressa is one of the two journalists who won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for her defense of media freedom – but she now faces years in a prison in the Philippines. His conviction for criminal defamation has been confirmed by that country’s Court of Appeal and is awaiting a hearing in the Supreme Court. Going down the tracks, there are seven more cases. She is currently out on bail but, given the high number of extrajudicial executions that characterize the ignominious regime of ex-president Rodrigo Duterte, she has been forced to wear a bulletproof vest when on the road. . Standing up to a dictator takes a heavy toll.
What emerges from these memoirs by Ressa is a strong ethical sense that journalism should be based on honesty and truth, on irrefutable evidence and facts. An experienced and acclaimed journalist, Ressa made her career at CNN, founding and running the Southeast Asia Bureau in the 1990s. Born in the Philippines and raised and educated in the United States, she returned after earning her degree and had found her place in the media at an exciting time – colonialism had ended and democracy seemed possible.
Unfortunately, the region experienced early on the sort of right-wing populist playbook that has since flourished elsewhere. Strong men rise to power in democratic elections, promise simple solutions to complex problems, and rule in a quasi-dictatorial fashion. Protest is crushed, opposition leaders are thrown into jail, dissenting voices are silenced and press freedom is sacrificed to political power.
Populist governments cultivate pro-government media or consolidate ownership in the hands of cronies. Critical journalism is stifled by threats of bogus lawsuits. Brave whistleblowers of corruption and abuse end up in jail or even die. The collapse of the rule of law is inevitable. The authoritarians have no time for an independent judiciary or legal profession: they are the “enemies of the people”. This trajectory of dismantling essential institutions is well established.
Ressa described these developments in his country, as well as the rise of Islamist terrorism in neighboring countries a decade before 9/11. She also enthused about the potential of social media platforms, believing they could create communities of well-informed citizens who would campaign for good governance and stronger democracies.
In 2012, she founded Rappler, a digital-only news site. The idea was to bring together breaking news, strengthen investigative journalism and provide voters with better information when they go to the polls so that democracy can be revitalized. The success of the company and its growing number of followers attract the wrath of the government. Speaking truth to power, exposing lies, can be a very dangerous business.
Her chapter on the mission of journalism, in which she explodes the myth of “objective” reporting, should be read by all professionals. She is clear that there can be no balance when a world leader commits war crimes, tells outright lies or denies the climate emergency in the face of scientific consensus. Words like fairness and balance can be hollow concepts, often hijacked by special interests to silence critics. Good journalism relies on professional discipline and judgement, exercised by the entire newsroom operating under a rigorous code of standards and ethics. It means having the courage to report the evidence even if it gets you in trouble with the powers that be.
Unfortunately for Ressa, she learned in the most vicious way that social media played a pivotal role in destroying everything she held dear. Rapper suffered a sustained attack; she was trolled, harassed and subjected to horrific and misogynistic abuse. His reputation as a great journalist was trashed by bloggers who had taken over his country’s news ecosystem. An insidious new form of state censorship has taken advantage of Facebook’s algorithms. His urgent message now is that news outlets are being replaced by technology companies that have no interest in protecting facts, truth or trust, whose business model has divided societies and weakened democracies, and for whom profit motive is paramount.
Ressa’s book is a rallying cry to protect liberal progress, which is in danger of destruction. She urges us to use education to inculcate discernment and develop the ability to question what we are told. She calls for movements to bring the rule of law into the virtual world and she invites us to be more collaborative so that trust can be rebuilt.
So how do you stand up to a dictator? One thing is certain: you cannot do it alone. Ressa needs all of our support, and she needs it now.