PODCAST: Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa on Media Freedom in Asia

By Donald Greenlees, Senior Adviser, Asialink

“If we don’t clear up the virus of lies, facts won’t hit our citizens.”

On Friday, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two crusading journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muatov, for their efforts to defend freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia – two countries where media workers are facing increasing danger.

Ressa, founder and CEO of news site Rappler, last year she gave a wide-ranging interview to Asialink senior adviser Donald Greenlees on the challenges facing the media across Asia in a deteriorating climate of their freedom to work, which has seen journalists increasingly censored and even jailed.

Ressa herself has felt the blow-torch of intolerant government. She has landed in front of the courts in what her supporters say is an orchestrated campaign by the administration of Rodrigo Duterte to silence its critics.

It also is not the first occasion Ressa has attracted international praise for her efforts to ensure the public accountability of government. Time Magazine put her on its cover as Person of the Year in 2018 along with several journalists who had faced persecution for their reporting.

While the Nobel committee singled out Ressa and Muatov for their individual courage in defending the principle of free expression, it said the pair were “representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions”.

In the interview with Asialink, Ressa warns of the dangers posed by the digital media age when those with a political agenda can replace independent journalists as "gatekeepers to the public sphere". In that event, "the voice with the largest megaphone wins.”

“Tools that used to be enablers of normal people were corrupted by people who already had power. They’re being used as part of a dictator's playbook.”

“We’re back to the future," she says. "It’s a movement back to authoritarianism and tyranny. People are using tools of democracy and caving it in.”

You can hear Ressa’s full interview here:

Asialink · Journalist Maria Ressa on Asialink Insights


Donald Greenlees: In this Asialink insights podcast. We are joined by the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa. Maria is co-founder, CEO, and executive editor of the feisty Manila based news portal, Rappler. Lately, instead of reporting the news, Maria unfortunately has been the news; prosecuted, and threatened with jail for the crime of cyber libel and for alleged tax offenses. These are cases that many believe are designed by Rodrigo Duterte’s administration to bring Rappler and others bold enough to scrutinize the government into line. In the midst of this, Maria, a former CNN correspondent has become an icon for the free press. One of Time Magazine's people of the year in 2018 for standing up for the rights of journalist at a time when media freedoms are under pressure around the world, particularly in Asia. Maria, welcome.

Maria Ressa: Thanks for having me Don.

DG: We've seen a number of cases across Asia in recent times of journalists being jailed, threatened with legal action, refused visas or expelled from countries. What is your broad assessment of the state of media freedom in Asia at the moment?

MR: Definitely rolled back, and I would say that the pandemic has given already powerful governments even more power and money to do that. But I think it's not just in the region. If you look at this kind of move towards, I almost think the first step of authoritarians globally has been digital authoritarianism. So I would say that it's not just in our region, it is also global. There are many similarities between the way president Duterte deals with the media with president Trump or, God forbid, Viktor Orban in Hungary, or Bolsonaro in Brazil. We’re seeing a rollback globally aided now, not just by technology, but by a virus - by the pandemic.

DG: I mean, as you say, it is a part of a global pattern and nobody has publicly vilified journalists in the media more so than Donald Trump, you would argue. Do you think that the actions of established democracies have given a signal to governments everywhere that it's okay to curb media freedoms?

MR: Yeah, absolutely. You know, it all flows. So, first I think I'll say the biggest problem that needs to be solved before press freedom, before journalists can do their jobs is exactly what American social media platforms, what technology has done. That's the first. It has enabled the rise of digital authoritarians - they're democratically elected, but then they cave in democracy from within. They create something like a one party state, and then what we're seeing globally is the rise of this network. It's networked on social media. Again, it's alt-right, you even see it - say in a country like Poland, where you have the rise of the Law and Justice Party or Vox in Spain. So I think that this is something that we first need to deal with - supposedly American companies with values of democracy. But where president Trump, with the election of Trump and again, the election of the United States. How can you have elections... how can you have integrity of elections if facts are debatable? The technology has enabled lies, laced with anger and hate, which spread faster and further than boring facts.

DG: The rise of fake news, this argument that Donald Trump has propagated, this line - ‘fake news’, it's undermined confidence and trust in the public as well though, hasn’t it? I mean, it's not purely about elite politics - we’re seeing an erosion of the standing of journalists among the public at large aren't we?

MR: Yeah, but again, I would say what's happening is the same exact thing that's happened to us in the Philippines. You have exponential attacks coming at you bottom up from social media, actually enabled by social media. And then you have power, whether it is president Duterte or president Trump or Bolsonaro. Again that power then takes that same narrative and comes top down. In our case, after that, when president Duterte actually attacked Rappler in a State of the Nation address in 2017, the weaponization of the law came right after that. And 2018, I had 11 cases and investigations filed against me in Rappler. 2019, I had eight arrest warrants, eight criminal charges. I had to post bail, I was still arrested twice within a five week period. So you can see, I guess that's why for me, the beginning of the end of democracy starts with the facts. So what we've seen in terms of what's happened with the United States, I think the erosion of democracy started with Silicon Valley and then with the election of president Trump. We know Russian disinformation networks targeted Americans in 2016, the data is there. And president Trump's attacks on the media - when he called CNN and the New York Times fake news a week later, president Duterte called Rappler fake news. It all kind of flows downhill. And the hard part is - in the global south, where our democracies were weaker to begin with, our institutions were weaker - our institutions in the Philippines collapsed within the first six months. We now have the most powerful executive we have ever had... more powerful than Marcos, as he likes to boast. And we essentially have a man who dictates, he tells everyone-- the checks and balances are gone. He tells everyone what he wants, and then it happens.

DG: To what extent though, do you think the media itself has to accept a certain responsibility for this deterioration in trust that we see? We've seen a lot of media openly take sides with political parties or with candidates. The media itself has become very partisan in many cases around the world. Is it purely a matter of the politicians or does the media actually have to accept a little bit of responsibility for this state of affairs?

MR: You know, in this one - and Don you and I go way back at a time when I wish it was still the times when we were in Jakarta together. Journalists aren't perfect but we have a set of standards and ethics that we live by. When we were the gatekeepers to the public sphere, we were held accountable. If you publish a lie, you could be sued, right? The problem is that news organizations lost our gatekeeping roles very early - I would say, as early as 2014, to technology. And technology has abdicated responsibility for the public sphere. So my short answer to you is - yes, but despite the faults of media, the erosion of trust is largely triggered and pushed by technology because cheap armies on social media - and there've been studies done on this as early as 2017 - cheap armies on social media have made facts debatable.

The design of social media platforms - social media is essentially... every single one of them - and the ones that are at play in the Philippines are American social media platforms - they're behavioral modification systems, right? And we put all our data in there and then these platforms know us better than we know ourselves. And with micro-targeting, they sell our most vulnerable point to a message, whether that's to a government or to a company, they sell that to the highest bidder.

So I would take responsibility for excesses. I think definitely when things move towards the digital, you had companies like Buzzfeed, which was about memes, but has then moved towards journalism, right? Digital encourages what people - like I’ve said - it’s clickbait. But the journalists under attack right now, we’re not clickbait. And because I am under attack on social media I can tell you that the things we lived through during the fall of Suharto in Indonesia, the kinds of attacks there that we went through, is nothing compared to the digital attacks when we tried to hold the Duterte administration accountable for the war on drugs and for its propaganda war. I was slammed right after we published the story. It was an average of 90 hate messages per hour, that's per hour. And then when I went to the social media platforms, they said, ‘Oh, well, just report them.’ I'm like - ‘Do I work for you?’ It's like, there are more attacks than hours in the day. The safety of the users should not be our responsibility, so that to me is my answer.

DG: What can the media itself do Maria? I mean, in the old days of the mainstream traditional media, it was edited top down. This is very much a bottom up sort of phenomenon.

MR: Yes.

DG: What can the media do? Do we need to be better at ensuring when we report, we get the facts right. That we were going that extra yard to make sure that we're not vulnerable to accusations of fake news?

MR: So I think I'll say two things. Number one, when you're in a battle for facts, journalism is activism. I would never have thought I would face eight criminal charges from the time we knew each other. Eight criminal charges for ludicrous charges that I bucket into three: there's securities fraud, there's tax evasion (five), charges of tax evasion, and there is cyber libel - a kind of retroactive application of a law. So that's the first - is that, this is not the fault of media. Number two is that, if what you're talking about is it seems to me like it is a world where we still have power. We don't have power. The people who are reading the news, Facebook is now the world's largest distributor of news. That's been cleaved from the news organizations, that used to be a power newsgroups had. And that power, I think, largely was exercised judiciously because we were legally liable for it.

Well, now that's not the case. And we can be as careful as we want to be but it will not get distributed to the users. They will not get the facts. And so you look at the political landscape in every country because the design of social media builds polarity, builds division, builds an ‘us against them’ into every one of our democracies. You can see the tearing apart of democracies. And in that context, anyone can say anything. So, no, I don't see... and I think about this - it's from firsthand experience because, do I run after the Duterte propaganda machine labels us as political players or political operatives - which we're not - I know that for a fact.

They just don't like getting questioned about corruption deals or about a propaganda manipulating the people. Nobody wants to answer. And then even when they do answer, they'll say - ‘well, propaganda has been around for a long time.’ They don't deny it, right? So I'm just saying, I don't see how we can do anything else, because if we don't clean up the virus of lies, facts won't hit our citizens. They won't because it just won't be distributed. It doesn't distribute as quickly as the lies, pounded a million times, laced with anger and hate. And I think that's your other part. News organizations, globally, in countries like ours, where digital authoritarians have come in, work under constant attack. And there are two fronts where tech platforms have done that - the first is monetization; the advertising model has crumbled. The second is the very same platforms that have taken the revenue are also the same platforms where credibility and trust is eroded, and that is by design. That's what our data shows us.

DG: Now, you said earlier on that you had a hankering for the old days, but really if we look at the situation more broadly in Asia - our colleague, Keith Richburg, former Washington Post correspondent, now professor of journalism at Hong Kong University, has noted that really we're returning to a familiar territory with the attitude of authoritarian regimes in the region. That this situation is no different to what we saw in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Is Asia simply returning to an old pattern, to its default position on press issues?

MR: We were all reporters at the same time, and while I agree with Keith that this was the past, I think it was a past that was rewritten with people in each of our countries. Well - look like a country like Cambodia, Hun Sen has been in power forever - that hasn't changed. And he's just consolidated more power. Vietnam, very similar, although different, right? But in countries like the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia, I would argue that the people wanted more. I mean, look, by next year I would have been a journalist for 35 years, and my first year of reporting was 1986. The People Power Revolt that sparked all these global movements for democracy, the yearning for democracy, the yearning for a piece of power, to hold your government to account. The fact that it is being rolled back now, I don't think that that’s the status of each of our countries. Because I would think that the Philippines-- let's look at that framework - we've never had a revolution. So we've had colonial powers come in, 300 years under Spain, 50 years under the United States. The joke of Stanley Karnow is ‘300 years in a convent and 50 years in Hollywood’, that's what we've done. Unlike, say Indonesia, which did fight a revolution, right? We didn't, but we adapted a US-style constitution, and we've struggled with making our institutions strong enough, making the checks and balances strong enough. But what goes against it, I would say, is a culture of political patronage, feudal patronage.

And I would say that that isn't Southeast Asia, if you look at it globally - Anne Applebaum came out with a great book looking at how the complexity of the world. And I think this began in 2014 when everything became so difficult that normal people in democracy started saying - ‘I can't think about all of this. And - ‘let me just find... I want someone else to think about it, take it off my shoulders.’ I think that began with the election of Modi in India. In Indonesia, 2014 elections between Jokowi, now President Joko Widodo, and - imagine - the son-in-law of former president Suharto. And it was neck and neck. I see that nostalgia for the old days - for somebody to just take the burden of decision making, especially in a country like the Philippines where people struggle with food on the table and it will get worse post pandemic. But having said that, is that where Filipinos want to be? I don't think so. I don't think Indonesians, you were there; I don't think Indonesians want to give up their democracy. And just because we haven't gotten to strong stable institutions with checks and balances doesn't mean we want to go back to what the past used to be. I think that's where Keith and I would debate, but certainly is he correct that this is where it's going back to? Yes. We're back to the future. I went back and looked over what happened with martial law when Marcos declared martial law here in 1972 - it is like history repeating itself. But I would say that that's a pendulum swing that is global. There is a movement back towards authoritarianism, towards tyranny. And part of that is a consolidation of power, of people in power using the tools of democracy and caving it in from within.

DG: Doesn't that mean all of these theories that were propagated about the power of mass communications in the hands of these new tools of grassroots communication, that they would be great liberalizing influences around the world... doesn’t it look like all of those theories are just turning out to be wrong?

MR: I'll tell you - definitely in the Philippines. Rappler and I are perfect examples of a group that bought the Kool-Aid. But I will go back to social media platforms again. Rappler was created with technology to build community. So investigative journalism, married with technology, you build community. My elevator pitch when I was creating Rappler was we build communities of action. So you can argue that I was tired of throwing stories into a black hole. I wanted impact in our world. We wanted to make the world better, and I embraced social media, but the problem is I think social media became too greedy. I would, again, peg that to 2014. What else happened in 2014? Russia and the Ukraine - social media was a factor in that. This is when alternative realities truly began. And you have Russian saying one thing and Ukranians saying another, and who was lying? We know who was lying, but yet when you're on social media you begin to doubt. And that's actually, I think, the biggest problem right now - is that the tools that used to be enablers of normal people were corrupted, perverted, by people who already had power. Egypt was the first example. When you had in 2011... social media used for democracy's purpose. And then you have someone like Wael Ghonim who used to work for Google then saying by 2015, that these platforms are now being used as part of a dictator's playbook.

So I think that's one. I would peg 2015 as a year when Facebook brought in instant articles - lured all news groups into Facebook, and yet did not change the algorithms that distributed the news. So all of a sudden news facts are fighting for distribution along with gossip and hearsay, there was no delineation. And you go back to the purpose of Russian disinformation. The goal is not to just make you believe one lie. The goal is to create narratives that make you question the credibility of every institution. Because if you don't believe in anything, then the voice with the loudest megaphone wins. I think this is what we're seeing all around the world. We're struggling with this in the Philippines. When alternate realities, when facts are debatable, then how can you have democracy? I worry about the United States. How can you have integrity of elections if you don't have the facts? That's a reality we journalists have to deal with. And I think, you know, among the first things that we can do is demand accountability from Silicon Valley. We know in Myanmar, the UN has said genocide was enabled by Facebook. Facebook did its own study and agreed with that. Who's been held accountable?

DG: Maria, I need to just briefly ask you about your own legal processes. I'd have to say the impression that I have when I've seen you speaking publicly on the legal actions that have been brought against you, that you've come across with great stoicism. And it must be a very grueling process personally and tough for the organization, tough for Rappler. From a personal perspective, where do you stand in relation to these legal actions and what is the future you see for yourself and Rappler in journalism in the Philippines?

MR: Wow, it's a great question. So I think first is there are eight criminal charges against me and against Rappler. Where do I personally stand? I think Rappler and I are not the only ones on trial. I think our justice system is also on trial. What you are seeing play out in plain sight is really a battle for our democracy, for our institutions. We know with the shutdown of ABS-CBN, this is our largest network. This happened, it was shut down during the pandemic. We're in our 20th week, we're entering our 21st week of lockdown, the longest lockdown globally. And to have your largest broadcaster shut down, that's unthinkable, unheard of. If we weren't under home quarantine, which we are now, there would be people out on the streets against that. The last time that happened, Don, was in 1972 when Marcos declared martial law and ABS-CBN was shut down for 14 years.

So what does that mean for me? I see the pattern and the trend. We will fight these cases. They have done legal acrobatics to even have these cases in court. I know what it is - I call it. It is harassment and intimidation to shut us up. And I just won't shut up. (Laughs) I'm old,  Don! I've been around a long time and the Duterte administration decided to attack me in my fifties. I know who I am, why we do what we do. Rappler will keep doing accountability journalism.

In the meantime, we will fight these cases in court. As long as we are under this constitution, I will... every time something unjust happens, there is a name attached to it. June 15th - there was a conviction in a regional trial court in the courtroom of Judge Montesa. It is a retroactive application of a law in order to convict me and a former colleague. They actually had to change the statute of limitations of libel from one year to 12 years... that's her first decision. And then we filed a motion for partial reconsideration, and then she extended it to 15 years. How do you do this? I laugh, but then I figured - I have to believe... I have to believe that Filipinos will not give up rule of law voluntarily, that there are good men and women in the judiciary. And I hope that they will follow the spirit of the law. I will play it out. Let's see where it goes, and if we don't find justice today, I know we're on the right side of history. We will get justice, I just hope it's early enough so that I don't have to go to prison on bogus charges.

DG: Well, Maria on that note - you've lost none of your resilience or feistiness, so far as I can see. So on that note, we'll bring it to an end, but thank you very much for joining us.

MR: It's good to talk to you again Don. Thanks so much.