- Maria Ressafounder, CEO and executive editor of Rappler, an acclaimed Philippine news website.
Web exclusive interview with renowned Filipino journalist Maria Ressa, who is speaking out against Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte for his attacks on the free press and his assault on the people of the Philippines. Duterte has repeatedly targeted Ressa and her acclaimed news site Rappler for reporting on his deadly “war on drugs.” Last week, the Filipino government indicted Ressa for tax evasion in what is widely seen as the government’s latest attack on the website. We speak with Maria Ressa in New York City. She has received the 2018 Knight International Journalism Award and the Committee to Protect Journalists 2018 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue with Part 2 of our discussion with Maria Ressa, the founder, CEO and executive editor of Rappler. That’s an acclaimed Philippine news website that’s been repeatedly attacked by the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Last week the Filipino government announced it is indicting Maria Ressa for tax evasion in what’s widely seen as the government’s latest attempt to shut down the website. She has also been banned from their equivalent of the White House in the Philippines, just as Jim Acosta lost his press pass. In fact, Maria Ressa worked for CNN for 20 years before she founded Rappler.
Rappler has helped to expose the president’s deadly “war on drugs” in which he has boasted of killing thousands of people. Rappler has done a video series titled Impunity. This video is “Alias Heart.” Heart de Chavez was allegedly murdered by the Philippine National Police on January 10th, 2017. This clip begins with Heart’s mother, Elena de Chavez.
ELENA DE CHAVEZ: [translated] I held her against my chest. That was why my clothes were covered in blood. When I saw her, there was a hole in her face, here.
ARRIANE DE CHAVEZ: [translated] Somebody there said that before Heart was brought into the house where she was shot, they kicked her first. They broke her arm.
ELENA DE CHAVEZ: [translated] That wasn’t just it. They shot my daughter four times.
ARRIANE DE CHAVEZ: [translated] When you’re a rich person, you’re treated like a VIP, but when you’re a poor person, the treatment is RIP.
ELENA DE CHAVEZ: [translated] I know it was the cops who killed her.
CHIEF DANTE NOVICIO: [translated] There is no evidence the police did the killing, because the alleged suspects were wearing bonnets, so it’s hard. It’s hard to say.
ARRIANE DE CHAVEZ: [translated] I can identify those who killed my sister as cops.
CHIEF DANTE NOVICIO: [translated] The police do not go into homes to kill people. We do have police operations when police do end up killing, so they’ve developed a mindset that it’s the police who killed.
INTERVIEWER: [translated] Do you have plans to file a case?
ELENA DE CHAVEZ: [translated] How can I file a case? Who will I file against? Even if I wanted to, who will I file a case against? Duterte? That he ordered the killings?
AMY GOODMAN: From the series Impunity. Talk about your work at Rappler, Maria Ressa, and this series, as you expose Duterte’s drug war.
MARIA RESSA: We realized that it was difficult to just stick with numbers, so we looked at the people and the way their lives were torn apart by the order of the top leader to go and kill people, and to do it with impunity. And these are the stories. The Impunity series looks at it. We have several that actually names a policeman. All of these people are still free. There have been no justice for the victims. And you’re talking about thousands of them.
Impunity is also not just in line with our government, right? Our government seeds these lies based on the impunity of Facebook. So these things go hand in hand with us—how our people think, how our people feel. In many ways, we’re manipulated to see the world in one way. And then the actions of the government are violent, are deadly.
AMY GOODMAN: You’ve come to the United States. You just received an award from the Knight Foundation, and tomorrow night from the Committee to Protect Journalists, because of your work and also the threats that you’re under. What are your thoughts as you come here and you hear President Trump? I mean, in the last few weeks, there have been a series of white supremacist attacks, among them on the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh where 11 Jews were gunned down. And the shooter, Robert Bowers, quoted Trump as he referred to—I mean, in your case, it’s the drug war; here, it’s migrants. And he attacks—he calls the migrants, Trump does, “invaders.” And so the person who gunned down the Jewish worshipers talked about the Jewish support for immigrants. The language that he uses, President Trump now saying that if they throw rocks—he’s referring to migrants or immigrants—we will consider those rocks like rifles, so, clearly saying they will shoot them, they will retaliate in kind.
MARIA RESSA: This is dangerous. We know this. That weekend of the synagogue shooting was also the weekend when you had a man, Cesar Sayoc—there were four different instances of violence—in Tallahassee soon after, in Kentucky. I don’t know how much more of a direct line—it’s like—you know the movie Inception? The real—social media is the dream world where whatever you seed in there pops out in the real world. The United States knows more than anyone the connection between these incitement to hate—we know this from terrorist threats, right?—and what governments have gone through, and now these incitement to hate are popping up in real-world violence.
When the president uses words like this, not only does it impact your own citizens; in a world with no boundaries, where Facebook unites and connects 2.3 billion people, it also goes cross-borders. It empowers other autocratic leaders to actually say similar things, to threaten the media in the same way, to encourage violence in the same way. And I think this is a global playbook that you can go back to, I hate to say, Russian disinformation and China’s own B-to-B way of controlling democracy.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to talk about China in a minute, but I want to go back to Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte. In his own words in 2016, Duterte likens himself to Hitler.
PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: Hitler massacred 3 million Jews. Now, there is 3 million—what is it? Three million drug addicts, there are. I’d be happy to slaughter them. At least if Germany had Hitler, the Philippines would have [me]. You know, my victims, I would like to be all criminals.
AMY GOODMAN: He compares himself to Hitler.
MARIA RESSA: Yes. This is part of our president’s rhetoric. He has told soldiers to rape women in Marawi, which was taken over by Filipinos working with ISIS. I mean, it is a different world. And when your leader gives permission for the worst behavior, for the worst of humanity, then you get impunity. Right? Then the people get cover.
AMY GOODMAN: In a speech to soldiers earlier this year, President Duterte suggested they should shoot female guerrillas in the vagina.
PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: [translated] Tell the soldiers there’s a new order coming from the mayor. We won’t kill you. We will just shoot your [female rebels] vagina so that if there are no vaginas, it would be useless.
AMY GOODMAN: Duterte later defended his remarks, saying he was being sarcastic.
MARIA RESSA: Words from the mouth of the president, the top leader, probably the most powerful man in the last few decades. The president, by the end of his term, will appoint 13 of 15 Supreme Court justices. That’s—you know, and he already owns the executive. He owns the legislature.
AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about President Duterte.
MARIA RESSA: President Duterte. Sorry, yes! Yes, not President Trump. So, actually, I see in the United States your institutions are pushing back. Our institutions are already crippled, and they’ve crumbled. And the people pushing back, I think, have to be the journalists. And we’re not the only news group that’s been under threat, right? He has threatened all journalists. He has threatened to take away the franchise for the top television network. The Philippine Daily Inquirer, the top broadsheet, he has already threatened the owners with cases, the businesses with cases, and they, within weeks, said they would sell the newspaper. So, it’s a very difficult environment to work in.
AMY GOODMAN: Last year, we interviewed Raffy Lerma, the award-winning photojournalist who has documented President Duterte’s so-called war on drugs. He described the situation on the ground.
RAFFY LERMA: It’s really overwhelming, what’s happening in the Philippines right now. There, close to 14,000 people have been killed in this—the name of the drug war, and 4,000 of which have been claimed by police in police operations. They claim that they have killed 4,000 people. And the rest are unexplained killings, those they say that are deaths under investigation. And some of them are the vigilante killings. And, well, yes, so many people have been killed. … I can say most of the killings are poor, are the poor. I have also covered people like getting caught with millions of drugs’ worth, but they’re alive. They get due process. They go to court. They’re not dying. And these people, they get killed with 200 pesos’ worth of drugs. That’s around $4. That’s your life in the Philippines.
AMY GOODMAN: That’s Raffy Lerma, the award-winning photojournalist. We talked to him exactly a year ago. Have things gotten any better, Maria Ressa?
MARIA RESSA: They’ve gone further underground, I would think. It’s not as—but the killings continue. Raffy’s photo on the front page of the Daily Inquirer, the Philippine Daily Inquirer, was actually the trigger for the president’s attack against the Inquirer a year before he attacked Rappler.
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what that photo was.
MARIA RESSA: It was like a Pietà. It was a woman holding her husband. And, you know, it was a—it was very visceral. And the president, in his first State of the Nation address, attacked—
AMY GOODMAN: Her dead husband.
MARIA RESSA: Her dead husband, sorry. He was killed in the drug war. The president attacked the Inquirer, and, within weeks, the Philippine Daily Inquirer announced it—the owners said they would be selling it. Raffy is now a freelancer, right? I mean, this is—it is a war of attrition. It is trying to attack news groups behind the scenes, where it hurts, owners. The owners of some of the news groups say that it’s meant as far away as their second cousins are getting cases thrown against them.
So, you know, I suppose, for us, I think the difference with Rappler is we have no other business interests. We’re journalists. Rappler—the largest group of shareholders in Rappler are journalists, which means we will hold the line, and I will talk, right? Why should we not? This is the time. And I think this is the same in the United States. We have to speak now while journalists still can.
AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about China. Right now, you have Xi Jinping, the general secretary of the Communist Party of China—right now, you have Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader, visiting Duterte.
MARIA RESSA: He’s on a, yes, state visit.
AMY GOODMAN: How significant is this?
MARIA RESSA: Extremely, because we’re about to sign documents that will allow for joint exploration of the South China Sea. If you remember, under the administration of President Aquino, the Philippines took China to the International Court tribunal and won. But the win came after President Duterte took office. And we have not used that. We won. This is our territory. But President Duterte has decided not to fight the giant, and to win them over. So, we are going, supposedly, to do joint exploration. These are some of the things they’ll be announcing in the next two days.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain the relationship between China and the Philippines, and then where the U.S. fits into all of this.
MARIA RESSA: The Philippines was a firm ally of the United States, and vice versa, right? We were a former colony for 50 years of the United States, and even our Constitution is patterned after the United States. After Ferdinand Marcos, after martial law broke down and we regained our democracy, the United States was the primary ally of the Philippines.
All that changed with the election of President Duterte. He was elected in May 2016. By October 2016, he went to Beijing and announced—even without having the Department of Foreign Affairs know this, he announced that he would pivot the Philippines from the United States to China and Russia. He added Russia, and we were trying to figure out: Why Russia? So, in October of 2016, our president announced that we would pivot to China and Russia. Chinese investments are welcomed in now. Chinese telecommunication company is coming in to create a third telco.
I think what’s alarming here—let’s look at it on the positive end. Right? In one way, you can say President Duterte’s foreign policy means that we will benefit from having both the United States and China. But in another way, what we are also seeing is, if you look at—Freedom House just came out with a report this month that looked at how China is exporting its digital authoritarianism, government to government. So if you think about how information now is being used to push back democracy, Russia does a B-to-C, and China does a B-to-B. And China has brought in—
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean, B-to-B?
MARIA RESSA: Business to business, government to government. So it’s exactly what Freedom House has documented. Their study came out a week ago. You can look at how China’s Great Wall, the way it manages digital authoritarianism, now being shared with other governments. I’m assuming that will also come to the Philippines. There have already been announcements of partnerships with China.
AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean to you?
MARIA RESSA: It means we have to be more aware of security. Right? We have to be more vigilant. We have to put in more measures so that we can make sure our sources are safe, our communications are safe. Surveillance, digital authoritarianism, I don’t really know what that means yet, I think, as the technology shifts. This is the challenge to the American technology platforms. Will they clean up the toxic sludge, how they have been manipulated by these types of geopolitical power plays, so that journalists, so that democracy can move forward?
AMY GOODMAN: So, two leading Asian Pacific summits that Trump has skipped are ASEAN and APEC, the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. I think Pence and Bolton went to these meetings. Can you talk about the significance of this?
MARIA RESSA: It’s huge. It leaves the door wide open for China. Right? And China is, in some ways, taking advantage of this. I think the leadership of the United States, it has a lot to think about right now. You have a president who doesn’t seem to want to lead the world, right? So who will walk into that giant vacuum? And in Asia, China is, both economically, because it already is set up that way, and in terms of partnerships. What does that mean for global power dynamics? I think these are—I think it goes down to even a more fundamental issue, because I also saw this at the Paris Peace Forum last week: Macron, Trudeau were there; President Trump wasn’t there. Right? So, again, who would—
AMY GOODMAN: The only world leader who was attending the 100th anniversary of the Armistice not to go to the peace summit that Macron held.
MARIA RESSA: Right, that was a day later.
AMY GOODMAN: Not to mention not going to honoring the U.S. soldiers who were buried in France.
MARIA RESSA: And that walk, right? Yes. So, what does that mean, again? What values? I think the Paris Peace Forum was all about trying to define the values and the principles that we move forward. This is a world that’s been dramatically changed by technology, by the internet. How are we going to navigate this? What values will align? How are all the different global powers, the academics, the journalists—how are we going to work together in this? These are huge questions. Will the United States be absent for these?
AMY GOODMAN: The South China Sea, what is the significance of it?
MARIA RESSA: Incredibly huge. Huge. I mean, that has been one of the flashpoints in global—
AMY GOODMAN: I dare say most people in the United States probably don’t even know where it is.
MARIA RESSA: Ah. So, it is the largest—it’s the largest ocean gateway. Everybody has been fighting for this, and this has been one of the potential flashpoints for violence in Asia Pacific for decades, as long as I’ve been a reporter. And now, South China Sea—you know, what the United States used to push for is open lanes, open commerce, that ships should be able to pass through. Well, now China—our president has actually said that China already owns it. I think he means de facto, because they are the power. But if China gains a greater foothold because they are given that by the Philippines in our territory, I think there are implications both for Philippines and for the rest of the world in the balance of power there. Joint mining—joint exploration rights also will change everything significantly. Again, all to be determined. And this is part of the reason why Xi Jinping’s visit these next two days are going to be important. We’ll be covering that.
AMY GOODMAN: Very quickly, the Philippine court indictment of Imelda Marcos, the widow of the late dictator, Fernando Marcos?
MARIA RESSA: It took a long time coming, didn’t it? And she’s still free. She didn’t attend her—she said that she was sick, and then, yet the night before, she was at a party. Justice is very delayed in the Philippines, and this was actually a Sandiganbayan, one court. This goes down to the individual men and women who are handling these cases. It’s their decision. That’s also one of my appeals is to the men and women inside the system, for them to make decisions not because they’re afraid, not because they’re co-opted, not because they’re coerced, but to stick to what they believe is correct, to keep our democracy alive. In that case, they made the decision to hold Imelda Marcos accountable for the crimes of the past. A long time coming.
AMY GOODMAN: Back to the “war on drugs,” the killing of one of the leading lawyers, one of the founding members of the Philippine lawyers’ group at the forefront of opposing the “war on drugs” was killed last week by three bullets as he left his office. The attorney, Benjamin Ramos, the 34th lawyer killed since Duterte became president two years ago?
MARIA RESSA: Lawyers, mayors.
AMY GOODMAN: How many journalists have been killed?
MARIA RESSA: I think seven—at least seven. I’m not sure of the actual number now. We’ve always—you know, the impunity, I guess, on every front, right? And it is coming at such a fast pace that people’s attention span—we can’t figure out what it means. We can’t—as journalists, we’re working around the clock just to cover what the president says and what he does. It’s a very different world, and I think what’s happened, like in the United States, is that most people will shut down on the news, not realizing that their future is being determined as they walk blindly through events.
AMY GOODMAN: How do you link—or do you—the rise of authoritarian leaders, whether we’re talking about Modi in India, Bolsonaro in Brazil—
MARIA RESSA: Brazil.
AMY GOODMAN: —Donald Trump here in the United States, and in your country, the Philippines, Duterte?
MARIA RESSA: You could connect it to the failure of liberal democracy, maybe the ills—so, this is the way I see it. I think we watched this already starting to happen. People—because so much change was happening in the real world—the Obama administration changed a lot of things for Americans, right? And technology changed a lot of things for Americans. And people wanted something solid to lean on. And so, what we saw, as early as 2014, the election of Modi. I covered him when he was being lambasted for human rights violations. And then, 2014 also—
AMY GOODMAN: In fact, he wasn’t allowed into the United States—
MARIA RESSA: Right.
AMY GOODMAN: —for human rights violations.
MARIA RESSA: And now he’s prime minister of India. At the same year, the former son-in-law of President Suharto in Indonesia, Prabowo, nearly won the presidency.
AMY GOODMAN: And is running again.
MARIA RESSA: And is running again. Right? I think this is a nostalgia for simpler times. People want to know that they matter. They want answers for complex questions, instead of being given complex problems. What made it move at lightning speed was social media. And social media was weaponized and used by these authoritarian-style leaders, both in their campaigns and then, even more efficiently after they took power, to retain power and to grow power.
And this is—I keep saying, this toxic sludge that is there on social media conditions our minds and helps them stay in power. You’re documenting this in the Mueller report here, how disinformation was used. And it’s actually a very simple formula, right? They take half-truths, they take the fracture lines of society, and pound it until it breaks wide open. And if it breaks wide open, there’s no real discussion that keeps democracy alive, and you can manipulate people to vote based on anger.
AMY GOODMAN: Thanks so much for being with us, Maria Ressa, founder, CEO, executive editor of Rappler, a leading Philippine new website, here in the United States to win several awards—the Knight Foundation award and the Committee to Protect Journalists. This is Democracy Now! To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.