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Despite Two Recent Arrests, Filipina Journalist Maria Ressa Continues to Speak Out for Press Freedom

Web ExclusiveApril 26, 2019
Media Options

Web-only interview with Maria Ressa, founder, CEO and executive editor of Rappler, an acclaimed Philippine news website. In recent months, Maria Ressa has been arrested twice by the Philippines government, as President Rodrigo Duterte cracks down on critics and the media. Just this week, a prominent Filipino newspaper accused her of plotting a coup. Ressa talks about press freedom, Duterte and the global impact of President Trump’s attacks on the press.

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Part 2 of our interview with Maria Ressa. She’s the founder, CEO and executive editor of Rappler, the acclaimed Philippines news website. Maria Ressa has been arrested twice in recent months by the Philippines government, as President Duterte cracks down on critics and the media. In February, she was detained in a cyber libel case that’s widely seen as politically motivated. She was arrested again in late March for allegedly violating a ban on foreign media ownership. She’s here in New York City after being named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people of 2019, joining us now for Part 2 of our discussion.

Can you talk about the “matrix,” Maria?

MARIA RESSA: I wish it was a movie. Just this week, it looks like, we’ve escalated fantasyland, right? But the presidential palace—so, it was first seeded as a story in a pro-government newspaper, that’s run by the head of international public relations for President Duterte. It alleges that a group of independent news sites, including Rappler and the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, which was founded by Sheila Coronel, who is now a dean at Columbia Journalism School here—that Sheila and I and others, who are independent journalists, are plotting to oust President Duterte, as in coup plotters, right?

They released a “matrix.” They’re calling it the “matrix,” but a very crude link analysis—expensive software that tries to make fantasy look like a reality. We reacted very quickly. It’s just—it’s fantasy. And everyone else—the focus of this was Ellen Tordesillas, who runs Vera Files, also another accredited fact-checker by Facebook in the Philippines. It’s a concerted attack. When government says something, regardless if it’s a blatant lie, people listen to it. And so, this opens up a whole new can of worms. You know, the—

AMY GOODMAN: And you, of course—you and Rappler, again, are on this list.

MARIA RESSA: Yes. I’m still there, along with some of our board directors. It looks like someone just took a list of the directors of Rappler and plastered it onto this matrix. The problem is that they’ve already seeded things like the Department of Justice saying, no, they won’t file cases. Who asked them whether they should file cases? And then the Philippine National Police has said that they’re going to proactively investigate the journalists and the people named on this fantasy list. It’s like inception, you know? And I guess that makes me both angry and embarrassed for the Philippine government.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, I mean, in naming all these journalists and journalistic organizations, with Duterte calling reporters who ask him tough questions “spies,” and, again, saying, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination,” it’s like a hit list.

MARIA RESSA: You can see it all converging. Correct. So, this is kind of—the drug war, President Duterte released a narco list—right?—his list of people in the drug war. Very quickly, journalists pointed out that some of the people named in that list, A, are dead, B, are not where they’re supposed to be. It’s very easy to fact-check this matrix and show that it isn’t true. But there are already repercussions, when the police begin to investigate you. I mean, why would they even investigate? There isn’t any evidence. But this is how things are set in motion.

AMY GOODMAN: This is President Duterte speaking to your news organization, Rappler, in October of 2015, when he was the mayor of Davao City, before he was president. He’d been accused of running death squads.

MAYOR RODRIGO DUTERTE: I must admit that I have killed. Three months early on, I killed about three people.

AMY GOODMAN: So, that’s, at the time, Mayor Duterte—


AMY GOODMAN: —now president, talking to you—


AMY GOODMAN: —boasting about killing three people.

MARIA RESSA: This was in October of 2015.

AMY GOODMAN: You think this helped get him elected president?

MARIA RESSA: Sadly, I believe so. And looking back on it, you know, I asked the tough questions, but I didn’t drill. And I think one of the most interesting things in that is partly because he was refreshing. He admitted. Who admits to you on camera that they killed people, right?

But then, beyond that, let’s take a look at what the propaganda machine has done. President Duterte faced human rights charges of—it’s something called DDS, that he ran the Davao Death Squad. After the propaganda machine kicked into motion, DDS had a new meaning, because they just astroturfed it. It became Duterte Diehard Supporters. And I guess that goes to how all these attacks continue. Because they control the pipeline of information and they use social media effectively, they’re able to turn white to green, and something that was a negative has now become a positive.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about the recent decision of the Philippines’ highest court ordering Duterte, the government, to release documents relating to thousands of deaths linked to his so-called war on drugs.

MARIA RESSA: The executive office has kind of pushed back. Every time the government or journalists have asked for any kind of documentation in this war on drugs, where tens of thousands—27,000, according to the U.N.'s latest estimate—have been killed since July 2016. So the Supreme Court recently ruled that they would need to release the documents. And we've seen the first group. And what it’s shown is that there is incomplete records, that the criminal cases have not been filed and that more needs to get done. But that’s a minor victory, right?

And that’s part of the reason, shortly before that decision, Rappler decided to go to the Supreme Court on a press freedom issue. And I hope that other Filipino journalists are going to be joining this case. It’s a case that Rappler has been banned from coverage of the presidential palace for 14 months now.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?

MARIA RESSA: President Duterte, literally, when he didn’t like a corruption story we had—it alleged corruption against his aide, who is now running for the Senate—he just unilaterally banned our reporter. So she walked into the palace, and the guard prevented her from coming in. There was confusion, no written order, but we were banned from the palace. Then, in succeeding months, we were banned from any event, even if it’s private, anywhere in the Philippines where President Duterte speaks. And what really triggered our case was when there was a campaign rally and President Duterte was speaking, and they threw our reporter out. So, we came in. We filed this case three weeks ago with the Supreme Court, hoping that they will pick it up. And it looks like at least the journalism community in the Philippines will come and support it. So, that’s a good thing. But these are small. These are small efforts to try to hold the government to account.

AMY GOODMAN: So, let’s talk about the devastation in the Philippines from the war on drugs. Rappler has helped expose Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, including in a video series titled Impunity. This video was titled “Alias Heart.” Heart de Chavez was allegedly murdered by the Philippine National Police January 10, 2017. This clip includes police officer Captain Edwin Fuggan [sic], Heart’s sister Arriane and Heart’s mother Elena.

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: 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: 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: That piece from the Rappler Impunity series. What has happened in that case, the killing in 2017?

MARIA RESSA: Everything is open. You know, there are so many mothers who have lost children. One case had a 5-year-old killed. And there is no sense of justice. And I think that’s what we’re trying to go back to. When the state begins to act like a criminal, when there is no accountability, when people are dying at this rate, there’s something fundamentally wrong. And part of what we’re also trying to remind Filipinos is that we shouldn’t accept this. This shouldn’t become normal.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’re heading back to the Philippines tonight. Are you afraid?

MARIA RESSA: I think I’m trying to be prepared. You know, when I come out and when I landed in New York, it’s like I don’t realize how heavy the air has become, and when I get here, it’s like—you know, I take a deep breath: “The air is clean! Oh my god! This is what freedom feels like!”

AMY GOODMAN: Well, not quite.

MARIA RESSA: Well, literally, yes, but compared to… And then, now that I’m getting ready—you know, last night, I just started getting mentally prepared. I’m looking forward to seeing my team, who’s doing good work. We’re in the last few weeks of a critical election. If we lose an independent Senate, we could lose our democracy. There is a lot at stake in these elections. And I’m not so sure Filipinos are aware of that, right? So, I’m getting ready. I am energized. We’re going back to battle.

AMY GOODMAN: This is from The New York Times, talking about the elections that are happening on May 13th. “President [Rodrigo] Duterte has publicly released a new list of people [that] he claims are 'narcopoliticians,'”—


AMY GOODMAN: —”vowing his remaining three years in office will be the bloodiest yet in his war on drugs. The list … [including] the names of 46 officials—33 mayors, eight deputy mayors, one ex-mayor, a provincial board member and three members of Congress. In the past, many of those who were listed ended up dead at the hands of police[men] or vigilantes.”

MARIA RESSA: That’s what we’re fighting. Who vets this list? You know, how do you get on this list, especially the first list that we saw? There were dead people already on the list, right? There were vendetta—people who get on there because the people who had power to put them on could. This is extrajudicial, and in the same way that journalists were listed without evidence. We need to demand evidence. We need to hold the executive to account for this. And having said that, what’s the point of this, right? It’s to control power. It sows fear. It makes people afraid to ask and to speak; otherwise, they could be included.

AMY GOODMAN: So, you’ve been arrested twice, jailed once. How much have you had to pay in bond or bail?

MARIA RESSA: Rappler has had to pay more than the entire Marcos family.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Marcos, the former dictator.

MARIA RESSA: The former dictator.

AMY GOODMAN: And Imelda Marcos, of course, still alive.

MARIA RESSA: Imelda Marcos, who’s been convicted, right? They are convicted. And yet, here we are.

AMY GOODMAN: And she’s out on bail.

MARIA RESSA: She’s never been arrested. And—

AMY GOODMAN: But she’s had to pay something.

MARIA RESSA: Like a fraction of what I’ve had to pay.

AMY GOODMAN: And tell us what she’s been convicted of.

MARIA RESSA: The worst. I mean, the family has siphoned. She has a slew of cases in four different countries, siphoning money away from—

AMY GOODMAN: About how much?

MARIA RESSA: The big number that was thrown at the Marcoses at the very beginning is $10 billion. That is huge.

AMY GOODMAN: And you’ve had to pay more than Imelda Marcos.

MARIA RESSA: I’m very special. And this is why this special treatment, this weaponization of the law—you know, I appeal to the Filipino—the men and women in the judiciary. You have to fight this individual battle for integrity, because we need to maintain the spirit of our constitution. We cannot give it up without a fight.

AMY GOODMAN: Maria Ressa, you go back and forth between the United States and the Philippines. Can you talk about a comparison between Presidents Duterte and Trump?

MARIA RESSA: I think that, you know, the Philippines is a cautionary tale for the United States. What shocked me is how fast things can change. And I think Americans need to be aware that the things that you think have been there for a very long time, it can turn on a dime. And in within six months in the Philippines, all of a sudden it’s OK to kill. If you look at Cambridge Analytica, that scandal, the most number of compromised accounts are in the United States. The country with the second most number of compromised accounts is the Philippines. You can do a lot with the technology that is there. And if your leader is pushing top down, society can transform. Your institutions are still pushing back. But the same thing that I tell Filipinos: Now is the time to fight for your rights. If you do not fight for these rights, they can be taken away, and it can happen quickly.

AMY GOODMAN: May 13th is the elections. And talk about what’s at stake.

MARIA RESSA: There’s a lot at stake for the Philippines in the May 13th elections, because what stopped a change of government in the Philippines has been an independent Senate. The House bill actually already pushed forward and approved a new constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: You have two bodies in the Legislature, like ours.

MARIA RESSA: We’re very much like the United States. Our constitution is patterned after the U.S. Constitution. We have a bill of rights very similar to the U.S. Bill of Rights. We have a House of Representatives and a Senate. The House of Representatives already passed a new constitution, a draft. It didn’t go through the Senate. It was dead on arrival, right?

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s one that would support Duterte’s changes.

MARIA RESSA: Well, this was before. After May 13th, all of the surveys are showing that administration candidates could win the new Senate. And if that happens, it will be only a matter of time before we get a new constitution. It will be parliamentary. It will most likely be a federalist form of government. But forget the facade. The substance of it will fundamentally transform the democracy that we have, take away a lot of the bill of rights, put a lot of power in the hands of President Duterte to appoint a transitional committee. We will no longer be a democracy. Our justice system will be completely transformed. So, this—there’s a lot at stake.

AMY GOODMAN: In what way?

MARIA RESSA: If you’re Filipino, you’ve got to ensure that we retain an independent Senate. There must be checks and balances, regardless of how tiny it is.

AMY GOODMAN: Could the term of Duterte be extended?

MARIA RESSA: If the constitution is changed, everything can happen.

AMY GOODMAN: How long does he have now?

MARIA RESSA: Right now a Philippine president has a 6-year term and can only have one 6-year term. He’s halfway through his term. But if the constitution is changed, you know, all bets are off.

AMY GOODMAN: And when President Trump talks about fake media, when President Trump talks about the media as the enemy of the people, what are your thoughts?

MARIA RESSA: The same things. I mean, they’re the same type of leader—and this is what I said in the toast at Time 100—you know, even though they’re on near opposite sides of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: So, wait, let’s talk about this toast.


AMY GOODMAN: You were just awarded as one of 100—Time 100 most influential people in the world of 2019. You were one of five people chosen to give a toast. Among those in the audience was Jared Kushner—

MARIA RESSA: Jared Kushner, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: —the son-in-law and senior adviser to President Trump.

MARIA RESSA: Yes. And in the toast, I talked about how my sister and I, both born in the Philippines, made two different choices. She chose to make her home here in New York. And then I chose the Philippines. I chose Manila as my home, for better or worse, you know? And I talked about how, despite that, our leaders are identical in style—populist, authoritarian tendencies, sexist at best and misogynistic at worst—and how this is transforming not just the way governance works, but the very values that are the foundation of what our societies are made of, right? The values and the principles, I think that’s the part that we keep forgetting. This will have an impact on the next generation.

AMY GOODMAN: Could you see Jared Kushner as you were speaking?

MARIA RESSA: I couldn’t. But Brian Stelter actually tweeted about it while while it was happening. I didn’t think about, you know—frankly, I’m just calling a spade a spade. You can see it in his—Jared Kushner can see that in President Trump’s words and his actions.

AMY GOODMAN: And what you’re saying to the American people about the moves that have to be made, you’re making me think about Yale historian Timothy Snyder’s book, On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century.

MARIA RESSA: On Tyranny, correct, right.

AMY GOODMAN: About shoring up institutions, responding very quickly, because things descend rapidly.

MARIA RESSA: You cannot be apathetic. You cannot think someone else will do it. Every one of us who cares about democracy, who cares about safeguarding our rights, jump in now, because the battle is now. You will see a quick erosion if you hold back. This is a collective responsibility. And this is the generation that will either win it or lose it.

AMY GOODMAN: What kind of resistance is there on the ground in the Philippines? What kind of pushback is there?

MARIA RESSA: Not much. It’s fragmented. In the Philippines, part of the problem is this—the information operations on social media is effective. We have a popular president, in the 80 percent approval ratings, compared to President Trump’s 30-plus, right? So, it’s—


MARIA RESSA: Duterte’s approval ratings are high. And again, I don’t know whether that’s reality or not—right?—because the astroturfing on Facebook works. And then the second one is, when you do these statistical surveys, they’re done in their homes, with the addresses on record. If you know that and you live in an area where law and order is weak or where martial law has been declared, would you really say you’re not for President Duterte? I mean, you know, so that’s why these elections are important.

Fear is a factor. You’ve seen that. You’ve talked—we’ve talked about the list, not just of people to be killed in the drug war, but journalists who are speaking up.

AMY GOODMAN: The “matrix.”

MARIA RESSA: The “matrix.” It’s another list, right? It’s a list of people to be targeted. It’s to sow fear. It’s not just about us. In fact, it’s probably not about me. It is about what that does to a society: “If you follow her and you speak out, you are going to be treated like this.” I go back, cautionary tale. This is a tried and tested method of the way President Duterte has ruled Davao City since 1988.

AMY GOODMAN: What in your background has given you this courage? Who are your role models?

MARIA RESSA: I come from different cultures. You know, my family left the Philippines when martial law was declared in the '70s. I grew up in New Jersey, in Toms River, New Jersey. And after I graduated college, I went to Princeton. And this is also ironic, because Imee Marcos, the daughter of Ferdinand Marcos, says that she graduated from Princeton. But Princeton says no. And then, when they congratulated me for the Time 100, then it became a big news in the Philippines again, right? Princeton now has a role in the Philippines. But I guess part of it—it's crazy! I feel like Alice in Wonderland, and the Mad Hatter is in charge. I just have to keep walking through, and I’m going to have faith that on the other side the world will be right-side up.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, I want to thank you so much for being with us. Safe travels back to the Philippines. Maria Ressa, founder, CEO, executive editor of Rappler, acclaimed Philippines news website. Maria Ressa has been arrested twice in recent months by the Philippines government, as Duterte cracks down on the media and all critics. In February, she was detained in one case that’s widely seen as politically motivated, arrested again in late March. We will continue to follow what she faces in the Philippines. She came here to New York to be honored as one of Time 100’s most influential people of 2019 and receive an award from Syracuse University’s journalism school. Each time she comes to the United States, it looks like, at this last point, she’s getting yet another journalism award. We only hope that protects her in the Philippines.

To see Part 1 of our discussion, go to democracynow.org. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks so much for joining us.

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