On February 13, Maria Ressa—the founder of one of the Philippines’ most successful news sites, Rappler—was arrested in Manila on cyberlibel charges over a story about official corruption. The authorities arrived at her office too late for her to post bail, forcing her to spend the night in custody. Rappler reporters live-streamed the arrest, sparking an international uproar over what’s perceived as a state-sponsored attack against her and her publication. I spoke with Ressa about the culture of violence in the Philippines and the role of independent media there.
NF: Could you talk a bit about your arrest?
MR: I was charged with cyberlibel. The actual case comes from a story that was published by Rappler in 2012. The irony, of course, is that that story was published before the cyberlibel law was even passed. The thing to remember is that libel has always been used against journalists by the people in power in the Philippines.
NF: In light of the charges, can you expand on how the Internet has been weaponized?
MR: Ninety-seven percent of Filipinos on the Internet are on Facebook—it is our Internet. What’s been happening is called “patriotic trolling”: online, state-sponsored hate that is meant to silence dissent. You organize attacks against a particular person to incite hate and violence. In our case, the threats have ranged from “Behead her” to “Kill her” to “Rape her” to “Let’s put all Rappler staff on a firing line” to “Bomb Rappler.” This is meant to achieve two things: It creates a bandwagon effect for anyone watching on social media, and it stifles your target, pounds them into silence.
The second way the Internet has been weaponized is through DDOS [distributed denial of service] attacks flooding our servers to cause a shutdown. Our payment platform for our membership and crowdfunding was attacked this way. And it’s not just Rappler—they are targeting all the news groups, especially the ones that have been critical of President [Rodrigo] Duterte.
NF: In your view, does Duterte pose a threat to democracy in the Philippines?
MR: Absolutely. The levels of impunity in the drug war—I’ve never seen anything like this. The Philippine National Police admit to killing 5,000 people as of December last year. And none of those deaths are being investigated. But what’s the real number? You would expect the government to give us those numbers, but they keep getting shifted. They admit that they’ve killed more than 5,000 people, but there’s a bucket called “homicide cases under investigation” that suggests more than 30,000 others.
And the target is the Filipino people. All this violence is meant to instill fear. Their message is, “Be quiet or you’re next”—which is exactly what a [National Bureau of Investigation] agent told one of our reporters while she was live-streaming the arrest.
NF: Do you have some gauge of how popular Duterte is?
MR: All the surveys suggest he’s extremely popular, with [approval ratings] vacillating between 83 and 88 percent. He’s perceived as the antithesis of the old politicians, who are always so careful about what they say. Duterte is a guy who says what he means. He’s one of the guys—very similar to Trump.
But what you also have to take into account is that these surveys are done in people’s homes, so what factor does fear play into this? That’s why we need to look at the methodology. I think most surveys tend to side with power when it comes to things like this.
NF: What’s next for you and Rappler? Is there still hope for critical, alternative media in the Philippines?
MR: Yes, of course there’s hope! Always! That’s why we’re fighting. This is a battle that we cannot afford to lose. We’ll fight this in court. Rule of law is the most important thing in any democracy, and it should be implemented equally, whether you’re perceived as for or against. And we are neither for nor against the government—we’re journalists! But we do hold them to account. The best part about all of this, if anything, is that it calls attention to exactly what’s happening in the Philippines. And we, as journalists, will continue to do our jobs.