Conscientious journalism comes at a price

A book, writes Amal Clooney, ‘for anyone who might take democracy for granted.’

By Allen Gaborro

Subjected to social and political pressure in the Philippines, Filipino American journalist, writer, and co-founder of the candidly disquisitive Rappler digital news website, Maria Ressa has exhibited nothing less than fearlessness and resoluteness in the face of it all.

In the intro of Ressa’s memoir “How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future,” human rights attorney Amal Clooney testifies to Ressa’s dauntless spirit in the uncovering of veritas. Clooney’s appreciation came in a political environment in which Ressa had been threatened with prison time under the regime of Rodrigo Duterte. Clooney states that this isn’t “because [Ressa] has committed any crime—but because the leaders in her country do not want to hear criticism.”

Ressa has been a highly visible figure both domestically in the Philippines and internationally as a dedicated observer and champion of democratic rights and freedoms. She has made it a moral and ethical imperative to communicate to her readers the calamitous ramifications of the downturning of the rule of law and liberal democracy: “We live in only one reality, and the breakdown of the rule of law globally was ignited by the lack of a democratic vision for the internet in the twenty-first century.”

But before her public life, came a very personal one. In her book, Ressa talks about her mother bringing Maria and her sister as young girls to the United States from the Philippines in 1973 and how she had to cope with life in a new world. Ressa did well in America having achieved an advanced education but also in acquiring some valuable life lessons. She would be awarded a Fulbright scholarship which would serve as a launching pad to her journalistic career.

It was upon returning to the Philippines where she transformed herself into a full-fledged journalist for several news outlets. Ressa’s hard work was rewarded when she was given the opportunity to work for CNN in 1988. 

In 2012, Ressa co-founded Rappler, an internet news website. Its mission statement was to, through the medium of responsible, due diligence reporting, “speak truth to power” in the endeavor to reach for the lofty ideals of human existence rather than to suffer in silence the basest instincts of human nature.

Maria Ressa guesting on ‘The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.’

As Ressa writes about Rappler, “My ambition was to create a new standard of investigative journalism in my country, one that would harness the social media platforms to build communities of action for better governance and stronger democracies.”

Maria Ressa and Rappler were the perfect counterpoints to the rise of Rodrigo Duterte to the presidency in 2016. His pugnacious, illiberal, and menacing positions made a clash with Ressa and Rappler inevitable. In service of democratic values and social justice, Rappler assiduously laid bare how lies and disinformation propagated on social media helped Duterte win. 

Rappler raised the stakes even higher by dredging up the enmity and depravity of the thousands of extrajudicial drug war killings that were essentially state-sponsored by none other than the head of state himself, President Duterte. But Ressa’s conscientious journalism would come at a price. Duterte’s government and his faithful legions would retaliate against her and Rappler with political and legal persecution as well as with social media-induced (Facebook in particular) fabrications and death threats.

The themes that stand out throughout Ressa’s memoir are her generosity of insight, organic solicitude, and beginning-to-end resilience. Combined with her inner fortitude, those virtues have empowered Ressa to endure what were the “three C’s” of Duterte’s rule: “corrupt, coerce, co-opt.”

How the tables have turned since. Ressa has become the first Filipino to win a Nobel prize and has emerged as an icon of probity, professionalism, and civility. Her story is one as a dyed-in-the-wool advocate of due process and the general welfare of humankind. Ressa is proof that goodness and high-water heroism are still extant in the world.

Rodrigo Duterte meanwhile, is no longer in office and whistles past the graveyard as a potential International Criminal Court case for his murderous drug war looms on the horizon.

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