Maria Ressa: Filipino journalist vs Rodrigo Duterte

From Saturday Morning, 10:05 am on 9 May 2020

Filipino journalist Maria Ressa's work exposing government corruption and the misdeeds of the powerful has put her on a collision course with the government of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Philippines' President Rodrigo Duterte's decision was a consequence of US legislative and executive actions, a spokesperson said.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte Photo: AFP

She spent nearly 20 years working as CNN's lead investigative reporter in Southeast Asia, before setting up the social news network Rappler in her homeland.

Now, in what critics describe as a politically motivated prosecution, she's being accused of cyber libel and tax evasion. Prominent human rights lawyer Amal Clooney is among her admirers and is defending her at her trial.

She told Saturday Morning that even in the pandemic the Filipino government was focused on security rather than public health.

On 1 April, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte warned violators of coronavirus lockdown measures they could be shot for causing trouble and said abuse of medical workers was a serious crime that would not be tolerated, Reuters reported.

"My orders to the police and military ... if there is trouble and there's an occasion that they fight back and your lives are in danger, shoot them dead."

"Is that understood? Dead. Instead of causing trouble, I will bury you."

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Filipino journalist Maria Ressa Photo: Supplied

Ressa said a day later a 63-year-old farmer who wasn't wearing a mask, got into a fight with the police officer at a checkpoint who said he was drunk, and "he kills him, kills him".

"Just a week ago, a former colonel in the military who has PTSD was stopped at a checkpoint and the cops, who are now dressing like the military, the cops thought he was reaching for a gun, and they shot him and killed him."

She said there were instances where police entered residential areas, and once tried to arrest a Spanish man in his home, "which is unconstitutional".

"Today the police defended it saying that cop was just his job."

She said it was "over-reliance on violence and arrest" adding that about 30,000 people had been arrested "at a time when the courts aren't working, so how do these people post bail?".

Ressa too has been arrested and bailed eight times in the past year.

The charges against range from securities fraud and tax evasion, to cyber libel, she said.

"This is my 34th year as a journalist and I would never have thought I would be arrested for doing my job. I was arrested twice in a five-week period, then I was detained once - experiences I wish I didn't have, but it gave me a clear personal experience of the abuse of power."

She said they were politically motivated charges meant to stifle press freedom.

"Truth is critical in any democracy," Ressa said.

"I became the cautionary tale for journalists."

A few silver linings

But Ressa said with the Covid-19 pandemic came a few a silver linings for the country.

"Silver lining number one is the Duterte government has to deliver, it has to work. The very things that it used to gain and hold power are the very thing they must now work against - they can't lie; facts matter. Disinformation campaigns that it was using against its people lost their intensity - real people came up and challenged it.

"The second one, to fight the pandemic you need an 'all of nation' approach. One of the tactics the Duterte administration has done is to divide and conquer, to demonise - us against them, to polarise which is built into the design of social media. Now they have to work to unite society.

"I'm hoping they learn faster, because frankly, where they go, we go."

Ressa said being threatened led her and her company Rappler to do some of the best investigative journalism in her career.