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Maria Ressa is a journalistic force in the Philippines and that’s why the country’s prevailing powers-that-be are trying to shut her up. Last week, a Manila court found Ressa and a colleague of hers at Rappler — the enterprising, investigative operation to which she is executive editor and CEO — guilty of cyber-libel related to a 2012 story that cited an intelligence report linking a prominent businessman to possible drug trafficking. Ressa did not write or edit the piece and the charges set against her were based on a law that was not yet on the country’s books at the time of the article’s publication.
The dubious circumstances of the case and the possible six month to six year imprisonment that could follow provoked a global backlash. In the eye of the storm is Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a populist strongman who has presided over a bloody war on drugs and an intensifying illiberal takeover of the country’s independent institutions. Ressa and Rappler have been dogged critics of Duterte’s rule and rights groups now see their plight as a textbook example of autocratic intimidation of the free press.
“The verdict against Maria Ressa highlights the ability of the Philippines’ abusive leader to manipulate the laws to go after critical, well-respected media voices, whatever the ultimate cost to the country,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, in a statement. “The Rappler case will reverberate not just in the Philippines, but in many countries that long considered the country a robust environment for media freedom.”
“Ressa remains free on bail for the moment, but she faces seven other indictments. All of them are similar in that there is scant evidence to support the charges against her,” noted Washington Post columnist Jason Rezaian. “Rappler ... has conducted relentless investigative reporting into corruption by Duterte’s administration, and this appears to have motivated the authorities’ moves against her.”
The warning signs were there. “Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a b----,” Duterte said just days after his election in 2016. “Freedom of expression cannot help you if you have done something wrong.” In the years since, his administration managed to shunt ABS-CBN, a major television network, off-air over a legal technicality, while Duterte’s relentless tirades against the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a leading newspaper, preceded its 2017 sale to an owner seen as a close Duterte ally.
“We have seen a sinister, concentrated attempt by some bad actors to really paint or portray legitimate media organizations in a negative light,” Regina Reyes, ABS-CBN’s head of news, told the Committee to Protect Journalists this week. “We’ve seen attacks on media by social media armies that have been dangerous and sustained. Sadly, that has been used by a lot of people, and we see that all over the world, to discredit independent media.”
The State Department issued a statement of concern about Ressa’s case, but, as in other instances of human rights abuses around the world, its censure lacks teeth in part because of the apparent indifference of the White House. President Trump, after all, has been known to joke around with autocrats abroad about imprisoning and executing ornery journalists.
“The Trump administration has been largely silent,” observed The Washington Post’s editorial board. “President Trump evidently admires Duterte’s strongman instincts; at one of their meetings, Trump laughed approvingly when Duterte referred to the press corps as ‘spies.’”
Like other journalists challenging nationalist governments, Ressa has found herself victim to vicious social media campaigns from Duterte’s supporters online. “I’ve worked in war zones ... [But] with the kind of hate and exponential attacks you get on social media — the weaponization of the law — this is tougher,” she recently told Public Radio International. “This is a tougher environment to work in than a war zone because you don’t know where the attacks are going to come from, right? There’s a Damocles sword hanging over your head all the time.”
Analysts see Ressa’s ordeal as the prototypical illustration of how modern democracies can backslide. That someone as prominent and famous as her now faces mounting legal cases and fees and the prospect of imprisonment is a chilling warning to journalists throughout the country with fewer resources and international connections. Meanwhile, authorities still cloak their actions in the language of liberal democracy.
Delivering the verdict against Ressa last week, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa quoted Nelson Mandela, saying that “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”
But the facts show something altogether illiberal is afoot. “In his four years in power, buoyed by his popular strongman rule, Duterte has amassed control over Congress, where his allies dominate, as well as the judiciary,” wrote Marites Danguilan Vitug, an editor-at-large at Rappler. “By the time he steps down in 2022, 13 of the 15-member Supreme Court will be his appointees. Duterte also appoints lower-court judges and many are fearful of going against him, giving up their independence.”
“This is how democracy dies in the 21st century: in a musty courtroom, with a judge invoking Mandela,” wrote Sheila Coronel, another celebrated Filipina journalist and professor at Columbia University. “There are no power grabs in the dead of night, no tanks rolling down the streets, no uniformed officers taking over TV stations. Just the steady drip, drip, drip of the erosion of democratic norms, the corruption of institutions, and the cowardly compromises of decision makers in courts and congresses.”