Journalist Maria Ressa fights on for press freedom
Philippine investigative journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa warns how disinformation campaigns are eroding democracy at home — and globally
Maria Ressa has long proven her willingness to make sacrifices for the truth. The Filipino journalist, who also holds US citizenship, has spent years warning that social media giants like Facebook can be weaponized to influence election campaigns.
Research by Ressa and her online news portal, Rappler, confirmed how, for example, a social media disinformation campaign helped former Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte win office in 2016 — and wield a subsequent reign of terror under the guise of a war on drugs.
By establishing the narrative that the Philippines had a massive drug problem, and that Duterte was the best candidate to fight this menace, disinformation helped legitimize an anti-drug crusade that degenerated into a war against Filipino citizens — and caused thousands of deaths.
Maria Ressa vs. Rodrigo Duterte
As Ressa details in her 2022 book, "How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for our Future," it was difficult to fight the Duterte regime's propaganda without also becoming the subject of its attacks.
Her autobiographical book, which is also a cautionary tale for journalists around the world, describes how, during an interview Ressa conducted with Duterte in 2015, the then presidential candidate said he would kill anyone as part of his mission to curb crime — including her.
"If I have to kill you, I'll kill you. Personally," he said.
In the end, Duterte attacked Ressa by trying to prosecute her in the courts, and to shut down her Rappler news site. There was a constant threat of arrest during his presidency that ran from 2016 to 2022.
In January, an appeals court acquitted Ressa in a high-profile case of alleged tax fraud that could have seen her spend decades in prison. "These charges as you know were politically motivated, they were a brazen abuse of power and meant to stop journalists from doing their jobs," she stated to the media after the acquittal.
"It's a giant weight lifted off our shoulders, my shoulders, and Rappler's collectively," Ressa told DW of the successful appeal. She is also appealing another attempted prosecution.
'Fearless defender of freedom of expression'
Ressa was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her willingness to stand up to a dictator.
"Maria Ressa uses freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country," stated the Nobel Committee. "Ressa has shown herself to be a fearless defender of freedom of expression."
Even under the threat of arrest, Ressa and Rappler had "focused critical attention on the Duterte regime's controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign," added the Nobel Committee.
By also documenting how social media is weaponized to "spread fake news" and "harass opponents and manipulate public discourse," Ressa became the first person from the Philippines to receive the prestigious international peace prize — which she shared with Russian journalist, Dimitry Muratov.
The state of freedom of the press
The Nobel laureate, in her work exposing online disinformation and fake news, has articulated a growing threat to press freedom globally.
In 2022, the 20th World Press Freedom Index published by Reporters Without Borders (RSF) revealed how worsening political and media polarization "amplified by information chaos."
Like in the Phillipines, "the effects of a globalized and unregulated online information space that encourages fake news and propaganda" are sowing divisions within democratic societies — including in the US, where the spread of opinion media following "the Fox News model" are amplified by social media.
This is why "How to Stand Up to a Dictator" is directed not only at Duterte but also at Mark Zuckerberg, the owner of Facebook and its Meta parent company — that also owns Instagram and WhatsApp and has over 3 billion users — for platforming this disinformation.
Ressa was accordingly honored as a Time magazine Person of the Year in 2018 as one of numerous journalists combating fake news globally.
She describes Facebook "as a blunt mallet that uses freedom of speech to stifle freedom of speech," the journalist said, referring to the prevalence of fake news on the social media site. But she fears that Chinese video sharing app TikTok will be even more powerful: "[It's] like a surgical probe directly to your mind," she told DW.
Staying in Manila despite intimidation
In Manila, where Ressa continues to live and work, the journalist wears a bulletproof vest for safety.
Born in Manila and raised in the United States after fleeing President Ferdinand Marcos' Martial Law with her family when she was 10 years old, Ressa decided to return home on a Fulbright scholarship after earning her bachelor's degree. It was initially difficult to make a career, and a liveable wage, as a journalist in the Philippines.
But before founding Rappler with several colleagues, Maria Ressa had made a name for herself as CNN's Manila and Indonesia bureau chief and investigative reporter.
When she experienced hostility under Duterte and court cases began to mount, Ressa could have returned to the US, where she holds citizenship, but chose to stay in the Philippine capital.
Facts and truth vital to democracy
The investigative journalist notes a Rappler study showing that lies spread six times faster than facts on social networks.
"If you don't have facts, you can't have truth. Without truth, you can't have trust. Without these three, you have no shared reality," Ressa told DW. "You can't solve any problem, let alone climate change. You cannot have democracy."
Despite the threat of information chaos on growing Big Tech platforms, Maria Ressa is hopeful that this brave new world is also an opportunity.
"I love this new world, strangely enough," she said. "The next generation has the opportunity to do things my generation could not because the rules were different. So that's the opportunity. It's an inspirational time in its own way — if we survive it."
This article was originally written in German and was adapted into English by Stuart Braun