Maria Ressa is one of two journalists who won the Nobel peace prize last year for her defense of media freedom – yet she now faces years of imprisonment in a Philippines jail. Her conviction for criminal defamation has been upheld by that country’s court of appeal and she awaits a hearing before the supreme court. Coming down the tracks are seven more cases. She is currently on bail but, given the high number of extrajudicial killings that have been the hallmark of ex-president Rodrigo Duterte’s ignominious rule, she has been forced to wear a bulletproof vest when on the road. Standing up to a dictator has a heavy price.
What flows through this, Ressa’s memoir, is a strong ethical sense that journalism has to be grounded in honesty and truth-telling, in evidence and incontrovertible facts. An experienced and acclaimed journalist, Ressa made her career at CNN, setting up and running the Southeast Asia Bureau during the 1990s. Born in the Philippines then raised and educated in the US, she had returned after graduation and found her way into the media at an exciting time – colonialism had ended and democracy seemed possible.
Unfortunately, the region experienced early the sort of rightwing populist playbook that has since flourished elsewhere. Strongmen sweep to power in democratic elections, promising simple solutions to complex problems, and govern in a quasi-dictatorial manner. Protest is crushed, opposition leaders are thrown in jail, dissenting voices are silenced and press freedom is sacrificed to political power.
Populist governments either cultivate pro-government media or consolidate ownership in the hands of cronies. Critical journalism is snuffed out with threats of trumped-up prosecutions. Brave exposers of corruption and abuse end up in prison or even dead. The breakdown of the rule of law is inevitable. Authoritarians have no time for an independent judiciary or legal profession: these are “enemies of the people”. This trajectory of dismantling essential institutions is well rehearsed.
Ressa charted these developments in her country, as well as the rise of Islamist terrorism in neighboring nations a decade before 9/11. She also became excited by the potential of social media platforms, believing they could create well-informed communities of citizens who would campaign for good governance and stronger democracies.
In 2012 she founded Rappler, a digital-only news website. The idea was to crowdsource breaking news, strengthen investigative journalism, and provide voters with better information as they went to the polls so that democracy could be revitalized. The success of the venture and its growing number of followers drew the wrath of the government. Speaking truth to power, exposing the lie, 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 everyone in the trade. 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 impartiality and balance can be hollowed-out concepts, frequently hijacked by vested interests to silence criticism. Good journalism is about professional discipline and judgment, exercised by the entire newsroom operating under a strong code of standards and ethics. It means having the courage to report the evidence even if it gets you into trouble with the powers that be.
Sadly for Ressa, she learned in the most vicious way that social media were playing a pivotal role in tearing up everything she held dear. Rappler came under sustained attack; she was trolled, harassed and subjected to horrific, misogynistic abuse. Her reputation as a great journalist was trashed by bloggers who had taken over her country’s information ecosystem. A new, insidious form of state censorship took advantage of Facebook’s algorithms. Her urgent message now is that news organizations 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 the drive for profit 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 instill discernment and develop the ability to interrogate what we are being told. She calls for moves to introduce 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 for sure: you cannot do it alone. Ressa needs support from all of us, and she needs it now.