In Rodrigo Duterte’s war on press freedom, Maria Ressa defends the truth | Rachel Obordo
For the first time a Filipina, Maria Ressa, received the Nobel Peace Prize – “a victory for Filipinos, for journalists and for the global struggle to defend press freedom”, as her colleague Lian buan the dish.
Ressa, co-founder and managing director of the Rappler news site, shares the award with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov in recognition of their individual activism and their relentless fight for press freedom. It is a symbol of courage in light of the human rights situation in the Philippines. Since President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016, even residents unrelated to drugs have been affected by the thousands of extrajudicial killings that have taken place. According to Human Rights Watch, during the containment of Covid between April and July 2020, the country saw the number of murders increase by more than 50%.
Ressa and Rappler fought to keep the reality of Duerte’s “war on drugs” and its aftermath in the spotlight. It has also become the symbol of the struggle and struggles that many Filipinos experience on a daily basis. Almost any Filipino can tell you how someone was attacked, killed or kidnapped in front of them, often for mistaken identity. No family, including mine, has been spared the abuse of power and corruption inflicted on the public.
Official government figures indicate that since 2016, at least 6,117 suspected drug traffickers have been killed in police and security operations. However, the UN cites that as of June 2020, government figures have already recorded more than 8,600 deaths.
Drugs are not uncommon in poor urban areas of the Philippines, but the number of lives affected by Duterte’s bloody war is countless. Children of victims are left behind and often struggle to survive in an already difficult environment, live in cramped conditions and often struggle to access clean water and sanitation. Many, especially those from large families gathered under one roof, suffer from malnutrition. As Human Rights Watch said in a recent report, the death of a family member who earned money leaves the children of the victims in dire economic straits. Many of them suffered from psychological distress, sometimes leading them to drop out of school and take paid work from an early age. Others have been intimidated by their peers and have even been left on the streets. And with many people seeking justice and accountability, Ressa has been ruthless in her fight for the truth.
Faced with multiple threats, criminal charges and two arrests, Ressa continued to denounce Duterte and protect freedom of expression. She joins Filipino environmental activists, liberal politicians and LGBT groups and individuals who have been threatened and attacked for challenging the administration’s discrimination and promoting disinformation. According to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility, by the end of 2020, 19 journalists had been killed under Duterte’s administration, while there were at least 171 cases where journalists were threatened or assaulted between June 2016 and April. 2020. State officials are often the alleged perpetrators of these actions, while journalists frequently face harassment and threats of defamation or bans from coverage. The Philippines continues to be a dangerous place for those who work in the press.
In 2017, Rappler was accused of violating the Philippine constitution and declared by Duterte in his State of the Union address as “wholly American-owned.” He even went on to say, “Not only is Rappler’s news fake, but being Filipino is also fake.” The criticism was later found to be unfounded, but marked the beginning of retaliation against Ressa, his colleagues and his Mission for Truth. She and a former Rappler researcher, Reynaldo Santos Jr, are currently on bail after being convicted of cyber defamation in June 2020 and face up to six years in prison. They have filed an appeal and are awaiting its outcome.
Despite these continued attacks, Ressa has held firm in what can only be described as a heroic act of defiance and courage. Journalism and democracy in the Philippines may be on the edge of a cliff, but Ressa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize, is a shining light in a long dark tunnel.
A simple glance on social networks confirms this. The former spokesperson for the presidency Edwin Lacierda says: “You [sic] makes our country proud in the midst of impunity and shrinking democratic space ”, while human rights lawyer Leni Robredo said“tireless efforts … for truth and accountability”. For me, as a Filipino journalist, Ressa is an inspiration. For others around the world and especially in the Philippines, his work keeps the good fight going – or “holding the line” as Ressa calls it.
In a live conversation with Rappler, Ressa said, “When you don’t have facts you don’t have the truth, you don’t trust. Trust is what unites us to be able to solve the complex problems facing our world today. The award is the vindication of the work she and her colleagues at Rappler have done, not only for the Philippines, but for press freedom and democracy around the world. She goes on to say that she hopes the victory will be “the energy for all of us to continue the battle for the facts.” Let us join her and do not be silent.