When misinformation and disinformation run rampant and journalists are blocked from speaking truth to power, democracy will die a death by “a thousand cuts,” says journalist Maria Ressa.
Preventing that is what Ressa, the CEO and executive editor of Rappler, a Philippines-based digital news site, fights for every day.
“It’s like this narrative of journalist equals criminal,” Ressa said in an interview with HuffPost. “I don’t think we’ve lived through a time period where we have had to sacrifice so much to do our jobs. And every journalist everywhere around the world I think feels that, because power has just gained more power, and COVID-19 has also just exacerbated that.”
The Philippines is among the deadliest nations for journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. And Ressa, who previously worked at CNN, put herself in the crosshairs as a vocal critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and his war on drugs.
Duterte’s drug war and the investigative reporting in Rappler provides the backdrop to Ramona S. Diaz’s new documentary, “A Thousand Cuts,” which hits U.S. theaters on Aug. 7.
When Duterte came to power in May 2016, it wasn’t the first time Ressa interacted with the new president. She had interviewed him when he was the mayor of Davao in 2015, during the run-up to the presidential election, when he admitted he’d killed people in the past.
In 2016, Rappler began covering Duterte’s drug war. That uncovered and ignited the disinformation campaigns against those who have criticized and spoken out against the administration, including Ressa and Rappler reporters.
The timeline echoes other global watersheds of 2016, including the U.S. presidential election.
“If you want to know what’s going to happen to the United States, look at what’s happened to us, because our dystopian present is actually your future,” Ressa said. “It’s happening now.”
The film follows Ressa as she responds to charges of cyber-libel from prosecutors in the Department of Justice.
The charges related to a May 29, 2012, Rappler report on wealthy businessman Wilfredo Keng’s ties to drug dealing and human trafficking. Earlier this month, a Manila court found Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr. guilty.
“Rappler and both accused did not offer a scintilla of proof that they verified the imputations of various crimes in the disputed article upon the person of Keng,” Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa said in the 36-page ruling on June 15, The Associated Press reported. “They just simply published them as news in their online publication in reckless disregard of whether they are false or not.”
Ressa, sentenced to up to six years in prison, is currently on bail as she looks at her legal options.
Ressa said a verdict like this is significant because it codifies the “kind of abuses that we have lived through in the last four years.”
At the same time, a new antiterrorism bill awaiting Duterte’s signature is getting attention worldwide.
Though military officials say threats from the violent Abu Sayyaf jihadist group necessitate the new law, advocates are worried about a clause that allows suspects to be detained for up to 24 days without charges.
It would also give an antiterrorism council, likely composed of top government officials and presidential appointees, the power to define and designate groups and individuals as terrorists in the broadest terms.
“This is the time when Filipinos are going to have to decide what kind of system we want. Do we want democracy, or do we want autocracy?” Ressa said.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, called the law “a human rights disaster in the making” that will “open the door to arbitrary arrests and long prison sentences” for the president’s critics.
Hold The Line
Diaz added a coda to the film after Ressa’s conviction.
Diaz, who also directed the 2003 film “Imelda,” a profile of the former first lady of the Philippines Imelda Marcos, says the film is still optimistic despite ending with the note on the verdict.
“It’s still hopeful because we had Maria saying, ’Don’t be afraid,” she said. “We wanted to be still hopeful, you know, because it mirrors Maria, her optimism.”
Diaz also hopes that the film provides a counterbalance to the darkness of the drug war.
For Ressa, what is happening in the Philippines should be a cautionary tale for all other democracies and for those fighting for press freedom.
“I think if the international journalists hadn’t done our stories, I may no longer be free. We survived the last four years because of the kindness of strangers, because people helped,” Ressa said. “People recognize the same things happening to them. So maybe you don’t even have to know that we’re in the Philippines because you’re seeing it happening out in your backyard.”
Filipinos around the world, particularly in the United States, have been asking how to respond to what is happening in the Philippines. Ressa said Filipino Americans have more power than they think, whether it’s connecting with family and friends still in the country or sharing their stories on social media.
“When you do stand up for liberal democracy for these values of press freedom, you will get clobbered. Prepare yourself for that,” she said. “But if you’re organized as a community, then you can protect each other while helping protect us.”
June 30 is the deadline for Ressa to appeal her conviction, but she remains confident in a world that’s uncertain.
“Someone asked me if I feel like I could win this, you know, and how do you respond to that?” she said. “I mean, like, if I thought that [I couldn’t win], then I wouldn’t even try.”
“It’s like looking up at Mount Everest and you’re there and you’re exhausted before you begin the climb,” she said. “And so the way I think about it is that it’s one foot in front of the other. The journey is the battle, right? It’s a battle for truth. So, truth-tellers unite.”