MAria Raisa is one of the two journalists He won the Nobel Peace Prize last year for defending media freedom – but now faces years in prison in the Philippines. She was found guilty of criminal defamation endorsed by the Court of Appeal of that country and awaits a hearing before the Supreme Court. Coming down the tracks are seven more cases. She is currently on bail, but due to the high number of extrajudicial killings that were the hallmark of former President Rodrigo Duterte’s disgraceful rule, she has been forced to wear a bulletproof vest when on the road. Standing up to a dictator comes at a high price.
What flows through this, Ressa’s memoir, is a strong moral sense that journalism should be grounded in honesty and truth-telling, in evidence and indisputable facts. An experienced and acclaimed journalist, Raisa made her career at CNN, where she founded and ran the Southeast Asia bureau during the 1990s. Born in the Philippines and then raised and educated in the United States, she returned after graduation and found her way into the media at an exciting time – colonialism ended and democracy seemed possible.
Unfortunately, the region experienced early on the kind of right-wing populist playbook that has since blossomed elsewhere. The powerful move to power in democratic elections, promise simple solutions to complex problems, and rule in a semi-dictatorial fashion. Protest was crushed, opposition leaders were imprisoned, dissenting voices were silenced, and freedom of the press was sacrificed in favor of political power.
Populist governments either sponsor pro-government media or consolidate ownership in the hands of cronies. Critical journalism is stifled by threats of fabricated lawsuits. Courageous whistleblowers of corruption and abuse end up in jail or even die. The collapse of the rule of law is inevitable. Autocrats do not have much time for an independent or legal career: these are the “enemies of the people.” This path of de-institutionalization has been well practiced.
Ressa charted these developments in her own country, as well as the rise of Islamist terrorism in neighboring countries a decade before 9/11. She has also become excited about the potential of social media platforms, believing that they can create informed communities of citizens who campaign for good governance and stronger democracies.
In 2012 she founded Rappler, a digital-only news site. The idea was to crowdsource breaking news, promote investigative journalism, and provide voters with better information as they went to the polls so democracy could be reinvigorated. The success of the project and the growing number of followers angered the government. Telling truth to power, exposing a lie, can be a very dangerous business.
The chapter on the job of journalism, in which the myth of “objective” reporting explodes, should be read by everyone in the profession. She is clear that there can be no balance when a world leader commits war crimes, tells outright lies or denies the climate emergency in the face of scientific consensus. Words like neutrality and balance can be hollow concepts, often hijacked by vested interests to silence criticism. Good journalism is about professional discipline and judgment, exercised by the entire newsroom which operates under a strong code of standards and ethics. This means having the courage to report evidence even if it gets you in trouble with the authorities at hand.
Sadly for Risa, she learned in the most formidable way that social media has been playing a pivotal role in tearing away everything she loves. rappler under constant attack; I have been trolled, harassed, and horribly abused and misogynistic. Her reputation as a brilliant journalist has been ruined by bloggers who have taken over her country’s information ecosystem. An insidious new form of state censorship has taken advantage of Facebook’s algorithms. Its urgent message now is that news organizations are being replaced by tech companies that have no interest in protecting facts, truth or trust, whose business model has divided societies and weakened democracies, and for whom the profit motive is paramount.
Ressa’s book is a rallying cry for liberal progress threatened with destruction. She urges us to use education to inculcate discernment and develop the ability to question what we are told. It calls for steps to be taken to bring the rule of law into the virtual world and for us to be more cooperative so that trust can be rebuilt.
So how do you stand up to a dictator? One thing is for sure: you can’t do it alone. Raisa needs support from all of us, and she needs it right now.