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Filipina Journalist Maria Ressa Helped Expose Duterte’s Deadly Drug War; He’s Now Trying to Jail Her

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The award-winning Filipina journalist Maria Ressa has been arrested twice in recent months by the Philippines government as President Rodrigo 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. Duterte has long attempted to shut down Rappler, which has published groundbreaking work on Duterte’s deadly war on drugs that has killed thousands. Duterte has repeatedly described the site as fake news outlet. We speak with Maria Ressa, the founder of the independent news site Rappler and a vocal critic of President Rodrigo Duterte.

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, as we spend the remainder of the hour with award-winning Filipina journalist Maria Ressa, the founder of the independent news site Rappler, vocal critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. Ressa has been arrested twice in recent months by the Philippines government, as 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. Duterte has long attempted to shut down the Rappler, which has published groundbreaking work on Duterte’s deadly so-called war on drugs that’s killed thousands of people. Duterte has repeatedly described the site as “fake news.”

PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: You are a—a fake news outlet. And I am not surprised that your articles are also fake.

AMY GOODMAN: Duterte has also called reporters who ask him tough questions “spies,” and warned that, quote, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination.”

While Duterte’s government has attempted to silence Maria Ressa, her journalism has been praised around the world. In December, she was honored as one of Time magazine’s persons of the year in 2018, and just this week named one of Time’s 100 most influential people of 2019. On Wednesday, she won the 2018 Tully Free Speech Award at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University. We are joined by Maria Ressa right now.

Congratulations on everything that you’ve accomplished. I’m not going say congratulations for going to jail, though it might be a badge of honor, because, clearly, what Duterte is doing is attacking you for representing the press in the Philippines. But talk about why he put you in jail twice in the last months.

MARIA RESSA: I think it’s just to let us—so, I was arrested twice in about five weeks and detained once. And, you know, I have to say, I think it’s just to make sure that I feel the power of the state. It’s something that—the pace of all of this has been unprecedented. And I’ve covered the Philippines for more than 30 years. In 14 months, we’ve had 11 cases filed by the Philippine government. I’ve posted bail eight times. And then it just keeps coming. We’re going to face every single one in court. And I could face decades in jail if we lose them. And one of the things that always—it just hit me a few days ago that since January 2018, when we’ve really begun facing all of this, we have not won one single motion—not one, regardless of how ridiculous the cases are.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain what he’s charging with you. What’s this foreign ownership issue, the tax issue?

MARIA RESSA: So, I think you have to look at the whole thing, and it’s about three years long now. It’s preceded by attacks on social media, astroturfing, right? It’s fake. They seed it, it grows, and people think it’s real. And the first attack is that—was actually by pro-Duterte bloggers saying that—random question by one of the ones who become a government official, underneath—she headed social media for the presidential palace. Her first question was: “Is Rappler CIA?” It begins there. And then, what’s seeded is that Rappler is foreign-funded. The actual case is that we’re controlled by foreigners. So ludicrous, precisely because even in the Philippines we’re known for our independence.

The thing that’s most alarming for me, though, is the fast pace of something called the cyber libel charge. In this one, a story we published seven years ago, before the actual cyber libel law was enacted, is being used against us to say we violated the law that didn’t exist yet. I don’t know how else to—you know, when I first saw it, I laughed. The National Bureau of Investigation, its own lawyers threw it out. And yet, a week later, it’s resuscitated, and now it’s in court.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to what happened when you were just released from jail, just this small clip.

MARIA RESSA: You cannot harass and intimidate journalists to silence. We’ll stand up and fight against it. And as long as we are a democracy under a constitution, which has a bill of rights, we will demand our rights be respected.

AMY GOODMAN: So what happens to you when you are detained? And have you dealt directly with Duterte, the president of the Philippines?

MARIA RESSA: I have. I mean, the last interview I did with him was December of 2016. And the interview that I did with him in October 2015 actually helped bring him to the attention, helped the critics of President Duterte point out that Rappler, because we covered him fairly, actually helped him get elected. Certainly, he knew the power of Rappler, our millennial demographic, and that’s perhaps part of the reason that we’re under attack.

But I think there’s something far more insidious that’s happening now. It’s normalizing these attacks. You know, when you say a million times that I’m a criminal, even though it’s not true, people begin to believe. And that’s what happened first on social media: The attacks became normal. And then people who had never met me then began to believe it. Then, a year and a half later, when President Duterte comes down and says, you know, Rappler is owned by foreigners, the cases began a week later, and we’re sandwiched there.

It’s a tough place to push back, but I think it’s truly important to do that, because this is the time—I think this is a pivotal moment for Philippine democracy. This is the time when we have to fight for the rights that are guaranteed by the constitution. We have elections coming up, May 13th. And if we lose an independent Senate, I think it’s only a matter of time before the Philippines get a new constitution.

AMY GOODMAN: What does that mean, if you lose an independent Senate?

MARIA RESSA: A lot of things, that have been—we’ve had a Senate that’s been able to block certain things, like the formation—like a new—

AMY GOODMAN: So, not the same party as Duterte.

MARIA RESSA: Yes. There were enough opposition votes that they were able to stop a new constitution being ratified, all right? So, our House of Representatives—Congress is essentially a rubber stamp now. And the Senate, in the past, was holding the line. Now it looks like we’re slated to bring in an administration Senate in the May 13—on May 13th, in a few weeks’ time. If that happens, it will only be a matter of time before the House passes a new constitution, parliamentary in nature, federalism, which is something that President Duterte wants. Not saying that federalism is not democracy, but this particular draft will fundamentally change our democracy. So, for Filipinos watching, this is our last chance. You know, we may no longer be a democracy in the way that we know it.

AMY GOODMAN: So you have Duterte saying, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination.” What gives you the courage to keep taking him on?

MARIA RESSA: I don’t really look at it as taking him on, you know? I do a job. My job is to hold power to account. Rappler, we do stories that the president, that—lots of people don’t like our stories. President Aquino didn’t like our stories. But that is the task of what a reporter does, right? So, his rhetoric is a noise for me. And while it does send a signal to the government bureaucracy—certainly the cases were triggered by President Duterte—it shouldn’t stop us. And certainly, we shouldn’t allow harassment, intimidation and the fear of that stop you from doing your job. So, as far as I’m concerned, we keep going, until the constitution is changed, if that’s the case, right? We demand the rights that are guaranteed not just by the Philippine constitution, but by the bill of rights. We have a constitution similar to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Rappler is known for exposing the so-called war on drugs, but where thousands of Filipinos have been killed.

MARIA RESSA: Can I correct how much? It’s not just thousands. And this is Michelle Bachelet at the U.N. who used this number. The latest estimate is, since July 1, 2016, until early this year, more than 27,000 people killed. That’s a U.N. estimate, right? The Philippine police will say—will admit they’ve killed more than 5,000 people. Even that number is huge. But there’s another bucket that they go off: It’s more than 30,000 homicide cases under investigation. This parsing of the details allows lies to continue.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain who is being killed. I mean, President Duterte himself has boasted about murdering people.

MARIA RESSA: He has. And before he even became president, in an interview with me—John Oliver wound up running this—he admitted he killed people, that he killed three people, and that he would continue. You know, another phrase that was used often is that, “When I’m elected, if I’m elected, the fish in Manila Bay will be fat,” because he’ll throw dead bodies in Manila Bay, right? That was the implied statement there.

Who’s being—these are not the drug dealers who are being killed. These are the poor people. These are in the poorest of the poor areas. And this is also where you can see, in statistical surveys, support in this demographic has waned for President Duterte. The people who cannot defend themselves, the people who are on a list, a random list, that is not backed. There is no trial. There’s no proof that the people being killed are even drug dealers. I think this is dangerous, in a country that has no rule of law, that normalizes extrajudicial killings. We have to demand better.

AMY GOODMAN: And President Trump, his support of President Duterte, how does that affect policy in the Philippines? How does it affect you?

MARIA RESSA: Well, when President Trump called CNN and The New York Times fake news, a week later President Duterte called Rappler fake news. I think it is a bad time for the world when the former beacon of democracy, the fighter for press freedom and human rights, is noticeably absent. And I think you’re feeling that all around the world. Simultaneous to that, though, is the American technology companies that have allowed cheap armies on social media to roll back democracy, a new weapon used against journalists. This is psychological warfare, right? And when you’re attacked—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re holding up your phones.

MARIA RESSA: Yeah. When you’re attacked—at one point I was getting 90 hate messages per hour. Per hour. You can’t even—it’s a whole new thing. So, anyway, how do we deal with it? We continue doing our jobs. We demand accountability. We tell our people. And I think the problem, though, is that—I think maybe same in the United States—is, in the Philippines, fear is palpable. And if it’s not fear, it’s apathy. People want to duck until this time period is over. And I think what it—

AMY GOODMAN: Well, you clearly aren’t. And I want to thank you so much for being here. Five seconds, a message to the world about the importance of press freedom.

MARIA RESSA: Press freedom is not just for journalists. I think this is a critical time for democracy around the world, both in the Philippines and in the United States. And you must fight for your rights while you still can.

AMY GOODMAN: Maria Ressa, I want to thank you so much for being with us, founder, CEO,executive editor of Rappler, an acclaimed Philippines news website, has been arrested twice in recent months.

I’ll be speaking Saturday night at UC Berkeley, 6:00—check our website—on the occupation of Western Sahara. I’m Amy Goodman. Thanks for joining us.

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