Force of nature: Why Maria Ressa 'holds the line'

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Her case has become an emblem of broader issues within Philippines society.

Facing up to six years in jail, indomitable Filipina journalist Maria Ressa has not backed down, calling on journalists "to think who we are, what are our values", explaining "that's why we say we hold the line".

The internationally-renowned journalist, who was convicted on June 15 under The Philippines' cyber libel law, remains free on appeal, as press freedom groups around the world rally to support her. Ressa and her independent publication Rapplerhave been consistently singled out by populist Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte, who has used threats of deregistration of the Rappler website, charges of tax fraud and the weaponising of the internet via an army of online trolls against her.

"The rules are very clear, this kind of grey area, where if you go too far, you know you'll get slammed," said Ressa, speaking to reporters outside the court after she was convicted. "Let's not play the game. Are we a democracy or not? Let us do our jobs."

An international coalition of press freedom groups and human rights activists, including Australia's Alliance for Journalists' Freedom and the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance, the US-based Committee to Protect Journalists and French-based Reporters Sans Frontières, have rallied to mobilise international diplomatic support for Ressa and to pressure The Philippines government to overturn her conviction. Bono gave her a shout out at U2's first-ever concert in Manila last December. International human rights lawyer Amal Clooney has joined her defence team.

"It's important that we stand up and fight this," said Australian journalist and academic Peter Greste, co-founder of the Alliance for Journalists' Freedom, who has been following the Ressa case closely. Greste knows how it feels to be targeted by an authoritarian regime, in 2013, the then Al Jazeera journalist was sentenced to seven years' jail in Egypt on trumped-up anti-terrorism charges.

"It's really important that we keep up the international pressure," Greste told Newsworthy. "There are times when certain cases become emblematic of a much bigger, wider problem," he said. "Our case became that emblem ... of wider struggle of press freedom against authoritarianism. Maria's [trial] has become that case in The Philippines."

'She is one of the most courageous and ethical journalists I've ever come across'

The "crime" Ressa, CEO and founder of independent Filipino news site Rappler, and Reynaldo Santos Jr, a former writer for the publication, were convicted of related to a 2012 Rappler article titled: "CJ using SUVs of Controversial Businessmen". The cyber libel law under which they were tried did not come into effect until four months after the article was published, however the court ruled that an update to correct a minor typographical error ("evation" was changed to evasion) in 2014 amounted to a republication of the story and made the law applicable. Santos' article detailed the now-deceased, controversial former Chief Justice Renato Corona's alleged links to "shady transactions and persons".

Prominent Filipino activist and entertainer Jim Paredes said if Ressa is jailed, it would be "a blow to press freedom" and have a "chilling effect" on other Filipino journalists. The 67-year-old, who lived through martial law under the Marcos regime, (writing "Handog ng Pilipino sa Mundo", which became the anthem of the 1986 People Power Revolution), is now an outspoken critic of the Duterte regime.

"I've lived through the Marcos dictatorship, and here's another one that's more lethal," he said from his home in Sydney. He moved to Australia in 2006 but remains a Filipino citizen and regularly returns.

Paredes described Ressa as a good journalist, "very sharp" and widely experienced, saying she and her publication Rappler were "holding the line despite a lot of harassment".

Not everyone sees the verdict as a blow to press freedom. Writing in the The Philippine Star this week, JV Arcena argued "what bothers me is how media organisations, human rights groups, and even foreign state actors were quick to use these issues to question the verdict, package the conviction as an attack on press freedom, and link the issue to President Rodrigo Duterte."

For him, the question was a simple question, had the cyber libel been committed? "This is how democracy truly dies," Arcena said, "by a thousand cuts of sloppy reporting that hides behind the shield that is press freedom."

In Canberra, Marcus Strom, federal president (media) of the Media, Arts and Entertainment Alliance met with The Philippines' Ambassador to Australia, Hellen B. de la Vega, last Friday to discuss the Ressa conviction. While details of the meeting were confidential, it broadly covered the conviction of Ressa and her colleague Santos, press freedom in general and the safety of journalists in the Philippines, where 189 journalists have been killed since the end of martial law in 1986. "I think that the ambassador genuinely wanted to engage with us on this issue," Strom said, adding the ambassador had said she would "report back to the Foreign and Justice Minister" on the meeting.

Call to arms

Ressa, upon hearing Strom would be interviewed by student journalists about her case, passed on this call to arms. "Together we're standing on the rubble that used to be, and where we can imagine a better world and help create it. As journalists we need to think who we are, what are our values, and that's why we say we hold the line," Ressa said. "We have a set of morals and we live according to them, and that is to make this world more equal, sustainable and compassionate."

Greste described Ressa as "one of the most courageous and ethical journalists I've ever come across". In response to her message, he said "that statement reflects those values". Being a local journalist is "much, much harder" than being a foreign correspondent, Greste said. "After all, it's local support that embed [the government] in power, they're more likely to apply direct pressure on you if you're a local journalist.

"You also have a lot more skin in the game than if you're a foreign journalist," Greste said, referring to how local journalists have ties with their country such as family and reputation.

That said, The Philippines government has tried to portray Ressa, 56, who was named as a "Guardian of the War on Truth" in Time magazine's 2018 Person of the Year awards, as an outsider. She was born in The Philippines but moved to the United States at 10 with her family, returning to Manila after she graduated cum laude from Princeton University. In the years since returning, she worked as the lead investigative reporter for CNN in South-east Asia for nearly two decades and headed up the news division of The Philippines' ABS-CBN broadcast network before establishing Rappler in 2012.

"Some of her internal critics say that she is better connected globally than she is locally," Strom said, "this is part of a narrative that the government is trying to paint around her ... that she's not a local journalist."

Paredes said it is hard to determine whether she has more supporters or critics within The Philippines, but described those in the country criticising her as "mostly trolls". "They're paid to hate her," he said.

The new cyber libel laws were introduced by then president Benigno Aquino and aimed to address legal issues concerning online interactions and the Internet in The Philippines. However, President Duterte has been criticised for specifically targeting journalists with the law.

"These laws are used to try and keep people quiet," Strom said. "There's a relentless war against [Ressa] and what she stands for in Philippines society, which is a free, brave media," he said, "an independent media that will report without fear or favour."

Paredes describes the Duterte era as an "upgrade" on the controls of former president Marcos. "It's more than 2.0, it's more sophisticated and deadly because of social media."

This week, Duterte attacked Ressa directly, describing her as a "fraud" and threatening to expose her, according to The Philippines Daily Inquirer."We are just compiling [information] at this stage and someday in bold letters, we will show your incongruity," Duterte warned, saying "she would someday have a taste of her own medicine".

For Duterte critic Paredes, there is no longer any question of the president's agenda. "Regardless of what Duterte says about [how] he's being democratic and all of that, this [Ressa] case alone proves that he has no respect for freedom of speech. There's no pretence anymore." He also highlighted Duterte's move to shutdown the ABS-CBN broadcast network.

The MEAA is supporting Ressa by lobbying both the Australian and Philippines governments, raising awareness among its 5000 members and within the media industry more broadly.

"You've got a populist right-wing government that is determined that its line will dominate," Strom said. "Her case has become an emblem of broader issues within Philippines society.

"We think international solidarity to support press freedom is vital," he said, "we have a voice so we think we should use it."

What happens next is in the hands of the courts. Strom says Ressa told him the appeal papers have been filed. Should the conviction and jail sentence be upheld, he was certain of one thing: "It won't silence Maria Ressa, she's a force of nature."


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