Under pressure but remaining defiant, award-winning journalist Maria Ressa has had a turbulent few years.
Since 2018, the co-founder of the Philippines’ media site Rappler has faced a slew of charges for cyber libel, tax evasion and securities fraud.
How bad was it?
“In a little less than two years, the Philippine government filed 10 arrest warrants against me, so I had to post bail 10 times to keep me doing my job,” Ressa said. “All told, all these charges carry a maximum penalty cumulatively of 100 years, more than 100 years, I think it’s 103 years.”
Despite that, the veteran journalist seemed upbeat when she spoke with VOA via a video call a few weeks before a July 13 court hearing.
Despite the prospect of lengthy prison sentences, Ressa is more focused on social media manipulation and how it’s affecting the “retreat of democracy.”
Ressa has regularly come under attack from online trolls since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, using Facebook to directly reach supporters. At one point, she was the target of an average 90 hate messages an hour, according to analysis by the International Center for Journalists.
Social media campaigns have promoted the president’s policies and slammed his critics. And researchers pointed to a rise in disinformation and trolling used by politicians as “new forms of digital campaigning.”
The Philippines presidential communications office told VOA via email it has no part in the legal cases against Rappler.
The office added that the administration “has no policy of spreading disinformation to the public,” including the employment of trolls to discredit critics.
But Ressa is adamant that online hate and disinformation is a huge problem.
“If we don’t have guard rails around the social media platforms, we will not have the integrity of elections. What we’ve lived through the past six years of Duterte’s administrations, Philippine democracy will die,” she said.
“The studies have shown, lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further on social media,” she added.
Frosty relations between Rappler and Duterte have escalated over the years, with the president accusing the media outlet of being owned by Americans and publishing fake news. Under Philippine law, foreign ownership of media is illegal.
Rappler says it is owned by Filipinos, and Ressa dismisses accusations of fake news, saying, “We’ve never considered ourselves anti-government, we just do our jobs.”
Duterte, now 76, has remained popular since his election in 2016 and still holds a high approval rating, according to the latest report by PUBLiCUS Asia Inc.
A separate polling agency — Pulse Asia — put his rating in September at 91%. (When a social media user later claimed the rating was 99%, Rappler disputed the claim.)
Ressa also questioned the accuracy of such ratings given the political context. “In an environment of violence and fear, will people really say they don’t trust President Duterte? Will they say they don’t trust the police?” she asked.
Whatever Duterte’s popularity at home, his controversial war on drugs — the president once said the public should kill addicts — has brought international condemnation.
The Office of the United Nations Human Rights Commissioner (OHCHR) estimates that since July 2016, at least 8,600 people have died from the government’s drug war. Human rights groups estimate actual deaths could be as high as 27,000.
In its coverage of the anti-drug campaign, Rappler said the Duterte administration was underreporting the killings.
The country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, also reported critically on the killings, until it was forced to stop broadcasting on local television last year after Congress denied its franchise license renewal. Some TV and radio channels are currently operating online.
Some critics questioned whether Duterte’s administration stalled the renewal. The president had previously accused the network of not running his campaign ads and attacked it over coverage of his policies, Human Rights Watch says.
The president’s office denied this, telling VOA the order to shut the network came from Congress, not the Duterte administration.
Ressa says the shutdown of ABS-CBN has left millions without their main source of information, potentially exposing residents to online influence.
With fewer traditional news sites, more audiences turn to social media. But Ressa warned that the Philippines is a target for disinformation.
Facebook is being used as a platform that is “dividing and radicalizing us,” Ressa said, with people especially vulnerable when isolated during the pandemic. As of 2021, the country has about 89 million social media users, research group DataPortal shows.
The country also is believed to have been a testing ground for social media experiments, with investigative reports saying that a British consultancy firm, Cambridge Analytica, harvested 1.17 million Facebook accounts via means that deceived users and the platform. Cambridge Analytica is accused of using personal data for targeted political advertising that included the U.S. presidential elections in 2016.
“Facebook has said itself Philippines was ground zero,” Ressa said. “The Cambridge Analytica whistle blower Christopher Wylie told me that Cambridge Analytica and its parent company [SCL Group] were operating in the Philippines, in early 2012, 2013.”
Cambridge Analytica filed for bankruptcy in 2018 and denies it made use of data for the U.S. elections, Reuters reported.
The use of targeted ads and disinformation online is a concern as the Philippines heads to presidential elections in May 2020. Duterte will not be eligible to run for a third term but polls show a father-daughter ticket, with Duterte running as vice president, is a popular choice, Reuters reported.
The country is also faced with troll armies who spread disinformation and hate, often targeted at government critics.
And Ressa — with her lawsuits and spats with Duterte — is not spared. Threatening and demeaning posts scrutinize her professional credibility and attack her personally. Ressa describes the onslaught as “lawfare,” though she defiantly insists it’s what she must do.
“I think we dealt with it well by shining the light. We are holding the line. I would say journalists all around the world continue doing their jobs at far greater risk, and the government, corporations, civil society, need to step up to protect our democracies, because if they don’t, we will lose them,” she said.
But Ressa warns that social media is being used to foster digital authoritarianism.
“Part of the reason the rest of the world should look at what’s happening in the Philippines because it hasn’t yet come your way and you’re a democracy, this [is] your dystopian future,” she said. “We’re losing the battle for our rights.”
Editor’s note: The reporter of this article has contributed previously to Rappler.