“I’ve paid more bail than Imelda Marcos,” Nobel Prize laureate journalist Maria Ressa said recently with a bemused smile in a brief conversation about the unceasing legal persecution she and the website she founded in the Philippines, Rappler, have faced. If she were convicted of all the charges brought against her since the election of President Rodrigo Duterte, she would be sentenced to no less than 100 years in prison.
Ressa, and her co-laureate Dmitry Muratov, editor of the opposition newspaper Novaya Gazeta in Russia, six of whose employees were murdered in the context of investigative reports they published, are two journalists with extraordinary courage and determination. Like the last time the prize was awarded to a journalist – in 1935 to Carl von Ossietzky, who was persecuted by the Nazis – this time too it was done among other reasons in the hope that the international spotlight would protect the winners and other journalists in their home countries.
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The announcement of their award on Friday, after some years in which the prize was granted to politicians who ended up disappointing, was intended to offer support to more than just these two journalists and their colleagues. It was also meant to spotlight the growing dangers to freedom of expression and to the media worldwide – particularly in an age when we seem to have more freedom of expression than ever before.
According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, since 1992, 1,416 journalists have been killed around the world because of their work, including 87 in the Philippines and 58 in Russia. In 2020, a new record was set for the number of journalists behind bars – 274. Muratov and Ressa “are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions,” the chairman of the Nobel Prize Committee said in Oslo.
The committee was referring not only to the old dangers to the press from authoritarian and populist leaders like Duterte in the Philippines or Russian President Vladimir Putin, but also sought to send a message to the big technology companies in the West about the importance of journalism in times when technology makes it easier to spread lies, according to its statement. And indeed, Ressa and the website she founded are a salient symbol of the two-sided challenge that social media presents to the press.
Ressa, a 58-year-old Filipina-American, established Rappler in 2012, with a major emphasis on the use of social media and new technology. The model was an independent, young, lively site very connected to its community of readers. With time, it began to stand out for its thorough investigations against corruption and human rights violations. These reports became harsh critiques of Duterte’s regime especially of Duterte’s aggressive enforcement practices against drug dealers in the Philippines, that led to an uncontrolled wave of murders.
Duterte does not hide his personal animus toward Rappler and Ressa. Beyond the curses he frequently hurls at them, he also – inspired by former U.S. President Donald Trump – often accuses them of spreading fake news. This led to a harsh online campaign that began with a growing army of trolls. Rappler also began to cover this phenomenon, which only deepened the harassment and led to a wave of threats on its reporters’ lives.
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One after the other, suits and accusations began to accumulate against the site and its employees, first and foremost against Ressa. Rappler was accused of tax offenses and foreign ownership. The climax was a defamation suit using a new law criminalizing online defamation – a law that did not exist at the time the alleged offense took place. The new law, from 2014, is part of a package of “cyber laws,” supposedly intended to fight crime on the web, but in fact it is now being used to persecute journalists in the Philippines. In the same way they use the democratization of the internet for their political ends, the authorities there have begun to harness the democratic system itself, in this case, the judicial and legislative branches, to persecute freedom of the press.
Ressa is not alone in this of course. In Russia, Turkey, India, Hungary and many other places, journalists are suffering from laws supposedly intended to prevent terror, involvement of “foreign entities” in civic discourse or promulgation of “fake news” on social media. But in fact they are used to persecuting opponents of the regime including opposition journalists.
The judicial harassment and attacks on social media are intended to terrorize journalists, impoverish independent media outlets and undermine public faith in them.
Ressa, who uses social media to disseminate information and connect with the community, has also realized the dangers these platforms present for journalism itself. She now calls this a love-hate relationship and has become a prominent ambassador on this issue.
“Technology is the enabler of authoritarian populace governments. Because, they were able to use the same tools of empowerment, to actually clamp down on democracy. That’s where the engineers are just going to have to get smarter,” Ressa said in an interview with the Reuters Institute of the University of Oxford. “Old power,” Ressa said, “needs to connect with this new power that is algorithmic based. We need to, as journalists, stop looking at it as content, and look at these networks of disinformation. They need to come together.”
According to Ressa, journalists were once the gatekeepers, while today, social media have that power. The idea of social media is that it gives everyone an equal voice, but in fact, they choose to whom to give this voice. “American tech companies…have to come out of their ivory towers, and realize that their algorithms unleashed in the global south, are killing people.”
The case of Ressa must remind us that the popular campaign today to increase government regulation of social media, for the sake of freedom of expression, could very quickly become a double-edged sword against freedom of expression. In the same way, security dialogue can be used to restrict the actions of critics of the regime through, for example, laws against foreign funding. But more broadly, Ressa’s case should remind us that in this century, the dangers to democracy are no longer obvious as they once were.
The image of the classic dictator has been replaced by democratically (or at least supposedly democratically) elected leaders. They are making sophisticated use of the democratic system itself to empty it of its values. And without truly independent journalism, which is not silenced by the establishment, there will be no one to expose that establishment.
The writer is a member of the advisory board of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, along with Ressa.