By Sara Gomez Armas
Manila, Jun 16 (efe-epa).- After being found guilty of cyber libel on Monday, prominent Filipino journalist Maria Ressa tells EFE in an interview that democracy has become weaker, not only in President Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines but also across the rest of the world with the rise of populist, authoritarian and fascist leaders.
Ressa has become the flag-bearer of press freedom in the Philippines, where journalists, especially those of Rappler – an influential news portal she has run since 2012 – are often targeted in cyber-attacks by troll armies working to flood the internet with pro-Duterte propaganda.
Rappler has also come under attack from the courts, where Ressa has another seven cases pending against her, including charges of tax evasion and foreign ownership violations. She also faces up to six years in prison after the cyber libel verdict.
According to the journalist, named Person of the Year by the Time magazine in 2018, her problems with the judiciary are the result of political persecution by Duterte’s administration for Rappler’s critical reporting. But Ressa is clear that in order to defend democracy, journalists must continue to do their job, which is nothing but “telling stories.”
Rappler was the first in reporting abuses committed in the war on drugs campaign Duterte launched after coming to power in 2016. It also uncovered several scandals involving the president’s inner circle – such as the alleged illegal wealth amassed by the Duterte family – and the brutal disinformation campaigns on social media allegedly orchestrated from the presidential palace.
Question: How do you feel now, few hours after being found guilty in a cyber libel case?
Answer: I had prepared myself for the worst case scenario, but while hearing the verdict, it is still hard. You feel your heart stopped. It’s a little bit better than I expected. I expected to be convicted because those were all the signs we were getting. This is what weaponization of the law looks like, when it comes to a verdict.
Q: Are you afraid of going to jail?
A: It’s something I really had to think about. The first time I grappled with it was April last year at the launch of Trial Watch in New York. George and Amal Clooney asked me to be part of a panel. On my right side was Mohamed Fahmy, who was in jail in Egypt, and on my left side was Jason Rezaian, who had been in jail in Iran for 545 days. I realized there that yes, it could happen. I thought I am gonna have to learn to think about this, I have to imagine it, I can’t be afraid of it because if I am afraid of it I can’t do my job well (…) This is not only about me going to jail, it’s the future, not only of Rappler, the future of my country. That’s the part that makes me really sad.
Q: How far do you think this administration can go to gain more power and restrict more democratic freedoms?
A: I don’t know how far this can go. I am shocked on how far this has already gone and I think we are doing our best in Rappler to try to keep our finger on the wound. But the reality is, the government has tremendous powers and our power comes from the Constitution, which is not what it used to be. When this anti-terror law becomes law – it’s just waiting for President Duterte’s signature- you can be arrested without a warrant if you’re deemed a terrorist by a group of cabinet secretaries. You can be searched and held in jail for 24 days. Isn’t that scary? Essentially, it would allow to mark any potential critic as a terrorist. Look at senator Leila de Lima, she’s been in prison since February 2017 and she hasn’t had a proper trial. (…) I am actually getting a trial, regardless of the arguments of the case.
Q: Is this happening only in the Philippines?
A: I think in all parts of the world we are seeing the rise of this kind of populists authoritarian-style, fascist leaders. It’s a death by a thousand cuts, what’s happening is that they are dripping away, slash, slash, slash (…) and It’s an accumulative effect. Democracy is definitely weaker.
Q: I am sure you heard presidential spokesperson Harry Roque’s statement on your verdict. He said something like: President Duterte is not behind any attempt to restrict press freedom. What would you say to him?
A: Actions speak louder than words and actions are very clear. Even his words are pretty clear. He’s threatened journalists with assassination, he’s threatened Rappler, he has called me names. I have nothing personal against President Duterte. He is the president of a nation and I am treating him with the respect the office demands. But I am asking, to let journalists do their jobs. (…) The track record is there and the behavior is there.
Q: How does it feel, all the support you are gaining inside and outside the Philippines?
A: I think that support is what allowed us to stay alive after four years of the government’s attacks (…) That’s the erosion of rights we are going through right now and we need to say that this moment is important, and we need to move to protect our rights. I see things happening now that I never thought might happen, and shouldn’t have happened. This is a crucial time, we need to act.
Q: How has the Rappler team handled all of this?
A: When the attacks on social media began in 2016 – our team was young (63 percent women and the average age was 23) – our social media team and reporters were constantly attacked. Pia Ranada, our palace reporter, was attacked as much as me. But she was young, I’ve been through a lot, I have a thick skin and I understand why I’m being attacked and I have built enough of a track record. Pia had to learn to handle this in her twenties. So we sent folks to counseling but the counselors didn’t know how to counsel because this is a new weapon against journalists. There was a time when pro-Duterte supporters came to the office and made threats, “shoot them”, “kill them”, “burn their office.” When that happened I had to increase security 6 times because I don’t want our team to be scared. (…) Unfortunately, It’s what we have to do as journalists today in the Philippines.