Former President of the Philippines Duterte will go down in history - but not always for the right reasons.
Since 2017, an independent news website called Rappler, has bravely tasked itself with the fearless disclosure of Duterte's war on drugs and information warfare, despite Duterte’s attacks and smears.
Behind Rappler.com is a feisty co-founder called Maria Ressa. And to put it lightly - the Philippines hasn’t been an easy place to conduct independent journalism.
In general, the world's attention on Rappler has served as a shield against more assaults. The Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler’s registration in 2018, and an arrest warrant and tax evasion charges were issued for Ressa. She was named Time's Person of the Year that same year, but since then, she has begun travelling in a bulletproof vest.
She called 2018 a time of anger, fear, and hate. But the story has not ended yet.
Ressa was arrested in 2019. She was found guilty of cyber libel charges in 2020. She received the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 along with Russian journalist, Dmitry Muratov. Rappler was ordered to shut down in 2022, and the dictator's son of the Philippines, Bongbong Marcos, won the presidential election by a landslide amid massive disinformation. Ressa and Rappler were acquitted of tax evasion in 2023. Over the years, the highs and lows have both tested Ressa while giving her hope.
It’s unlikely that decades ago, people would have predicted that this delicate, introverted, shy girl contained the seeds of such strength and resilience.
Ressa, born in 1963, lost her father when she was one year old. She and her sister stayed in Manila with their grandmother after her mother moved to the United States. In 1973, her mother "kidnapped" them in the middle of a class, taking them to New Jersey. As a new immigrant, Ressa didn't speak English very well.
“My teacher actually reminded me that I didn’t speak for almost a year,” she recalls.
However, she made a strong effort to fit in. She practised English and played the piano, violin, basketball and chess. She earned straight A’s, striving to carve a niche in her new homeland. After applying to 13 universities, Ressa enrolled at Princeton.
While Ressa was adjusting to her new life in the United States, her home country, the Philippines was adjusted to life under an increasingly repressive government.
One year before Ressa's departure from the Philippines, in 1972, the then-President Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law. He not only suppressed numerous dissidents and press freedom but also indefinitely extended his term in office during the nine years of martial law. The years of brewing oppression and anger were further ignited when opposition leader Ninoy Aquino was assassinated in 1983 on the airport tarmac. Thousands of supporters poured into the streets to mourn his death.
Following that, Ferdinand Marcos declared that a snap election would be held in 1986, and Corazon Aquino, Ninoy Aquino's wife, declared her run for the presidency. But after a military defect and accusations of fraud and vote-buying, the Philippines finally erupted into a four-day "People Power Revolution" (EDSA), ending Marcos' 22-year rule. Corazon Aquino became Asia's first female president.
It was also Ressa's graduation year. She wrote a play about a grandmother who resembles Marcos and a mother who resembles Corazon fighting for custody and love over a child who symbolizes the Philippines. She saw the play as a means of exploring her identity, family, and home country.
Anything personal is political, and vice versa, in her opinion.
“You don't ever get the whole story when you're a child, right? Respect for your elders. Right? And so, writing the play was a way for me to actually get my mom, my grandmother to tell me what exactly happened.”
She laughs and explains that the custody battle depicted between the grandmother and the mother in the play is similar to her own story.
Ressa’s journey took her back to the Philippines in search of her roots and her grandmother. She still clearly remembers the euphoria of the People Power Revolution during that time, thinking that the Philippines was going to be incredible.
Is 'crisis' a gift from God for journalists?
Ressa started her journalism career at the government station PTV4. After that, she joined the news documentary program 'Probe' and later became a reporter for CNN. Her work took her into disaster areas and war zones, providing her with valuable on-the-ground experience.
“But it was more than that,” she writes in her new book How to Stand Up to a Dictator.
“Nothing shaped my personality – or my ability to withstand threats – more than becoming a breaking-news television journalist, learning to maintain my composure while live and even under literal gunfire. That became my superpower.”
The East Timorese crisis, for instance.
East Timor held an independence referendum in 1999, with approximately 80% of voters choosing independence from Indonesia. The result sparked a violent outbreak by the pro-Indonesia military, which spread throughout the country. As the head of CNN's bureaus in Jakarta and Manila, Ressa led her team into the country and decided to stay in a rented local house rather than a hotel – the choice that ultimately made her team the last international news team to leave.
She recalls hiding under beds through the night, with the lights off, until they could safely reach the airport until dawn.
“What I’ve learned from warzone coverage is that fear corrodes clarity of thought,” Ressa writes.
“So, a tip to those going into battle: go into the trenches with people you trust, and if things turn worse, manage the fear with hope.”
Ressa left CNN in 2005 and joined ABS-CBN, the Philippines' largest television network ABS-CBN. One of the most challenging crises struck her in 2018 when she received a phone call telling her that three of her colleagues had been kidnapped by the Islamic terrorist group Abu Sayyaf in the southern Philippines. She was told not to notify the military and government.
Ressa's decisions, therefore, had life-or-death implications for her colleagues. Mishandling the situation or refusing negotiations could have resulted in Abu Sayyaf carrying out their threat to behead the hostages.
Years of experience in war zones made her realize that “the beginning hours are crucial in the kidnapping in the southern Philippines”, as other larger and better-armed groups might be involved to demand a share of the ransom. After hanging up the phone, she quickly came up with a list of things to do, including calling key sources to handle the situation, speaking with her colleagues' families to discuss the decisions made, and reassuring her colleagues to keep the news organization running.
She discloses her feelings at that time in her book From Bin Laden to Facebook, describing that, “I felt confident because it seemed my whole career prepared me for this. I know the feeling of being in a life-and-death situation — half scared, half excited. To make the right choices, you need to get clarity, which allows you to think and respond faster. You get that by draining emotions. It’s an incredible state of being — the reason, I think, people get addicted to working in war zones.”
Ultimately, in ten days, Ressa and her team got her colleagues out.
Together with a few other female colleagues, this crisis created a strong bond that prepared them to tackle other, more significant, and complex crises during the Duterte administration.
Could we really "embrace fear"?
Rappler's four co-founders are known as "manangs," which means older sisters, but haters may call them witches. Rappler is great at connecting social media and communities. For example, one of the campaigns they launched, #ProjectAgos, allows the public to respond promptly to natural disasters through its Alert map.
Social media platforms play a vital role in the Philippines due to their high usage rates. In 2017, 97% of Filipino internet users used Facebook. By 2021, Filipinos spend the most time online and on social media for six consecutive years. Perhaps it's this very phenomenon that led Rappler to mobilize for positive change. Ironically, though, this gave Duterte and then-president Bongbong Marcos a platform to craft narratives to support their positions.
Following his election in June 2016, Duterte and his supporters continued to spread lies and disinformation to defend his war on drugs. Ressa and her team wrote a series of articles on the weaponization of the internet, the impact of Facebook algorithms on democracy, and how fake accounts manipulate reality.
Pro-Duterte Facebook accounts quickly reacted after the series was published: 20,000 accounts unfollowed Rappler in a single day, and Ressa was inundated with an average of 90 hate messages an hour on Facebook, including threats of death, violence, and misogyny.
“I can smell an arrest and possible closure of @rapplerdotcom @mariaressa”
“Maybe Maria Ressa’s dream is to become the ultimate pornstar in a gangbang scene. She is so desperate to get laid.”
“Make sure Maria ressa get publicly raped to death when Martial law expands to Luzon. It would bring joy in my heart.”
Furthermore, Ressa and Rappler were later accused of tax evasion, cyber libel, and violating foreign ownership rules. This meant she could be facing a cumulative prison sentence of up to 100 years.
She calmly says, “I think what former President Duterte forgot is that I did breaking news for CNN, I covered war zones in South and Southeast Asia. I'm okay with that.”
Ressa always tells in her speeches about the importance of preparing for the worst and embracing fear: Imagine what you're most afraid of, touch it and hold it so that you rob it of its sting, and move forward.
However, the Philippines experienced genuine fear and a high death toll under Duterte's six-year administration. Due to the drug war, there were bodies lying around on the streets; human rights organizations estimate that between 27,000 and 30,000 people were killed. At least 61 lawyers were killed, while 24 journalists and media workers became victims of murder.
Could we, then, truly embrace fear? What's the worst that could happen: imprisonment or exile?
She has, of course, considered the worst-case scenario: when she learned that she might be arrested when she got to the airport, she thought of Ninoy Aquino, the opposition leader who was killed on the airport tarmac.
“I also thought, what if I get shot? It's gallows humour with my co-founders, like I could get hit by a car stepping off the side of the road,” she adds, “I chose to live according to my values and mitigate the dangers. So the things I couldn't control, I reacted the way I live according to my values, and the things I could control, I worked very hard at it.”
So, is this one of the things she is willing to sacrifice for the truth?
She asks with a smile, “That's why I ask you what you're willing to sacrifice for the truth. I am okay with the choices I've made.”
Would you want to be Maria Ressa again in the next life?
The Marcos family was overthrown and exiled to Hawaii in 1986, but has successfully restored their family reputation through decades of systematic propaganda on social media. In 2022, Bongbong Marcos won by a large margin and succeeded Duterte.
Under the administrations from Ferdinand Marcos to Bongbong Marcos, Ressa has seen firsthand how information warfare and social algorithms have affected her and her country over the past few decades. That’s why she constantly cautions the world, saying, "Without facts, you can't have truth. Without truth, you can't have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality, no democracy,"
In her book, Ressa discusses her personal story, beliefs, values, and most notably fight against a dictator. She illustrates her point by comparing it to pirates taking over a ship. In such circumstances, individuals usually have three choices: they can choose to cooperate and fight back against the pirates, jump overboard and risk dying, or take the most common route, which is to hide.
“So how do you stand up to a dictator?” Ressa explains that people have to fight, rally and lead their community. However, the long-term battle can be exhausting, if given the chance, would she still want to be Maria Ressa, the fighter against the dictatorship, in her next life?
"What if I had another life? What would it be?" She thinks back on her entire career as a journalist focusing on leaders, newsrooms, a club, or a country.
“I think I like sociology and large groups of people, how do we be better? Because humanity has the capacity to do both, right? We can be the worst of who we are, which is why I'm so upset with the incentive structure of social media, it's pumping toxic sludge through all of us. And yet, the goodness of human nature is also something that always astounds me when I'm in disaster areas…”
Ressa realizes now that she hasn't answered the question directly. She laughs and says, "I don't know. I love the challenges of leadership. I love the idea of putting your self-interest away which is what journalism pushes us, right? While I'm not really answering your question, I don't know… Challenges make you who you are, failures make you who you are, right? ”
Ressa still hasn't answered the question, right? But she repeatedly conveys that she has no regrets and appreciates the life she has led. Every step and decision she has taken shows her willingness to sacrifice for the truth.
This article was first published in Mandarin in udn Global here.