MANILA – The battle to save democracy in the Philippines is ongoing and can be won with good journalism in times of propaganda and fake news, says a leading journalist who has been fighting tax evasion charges in the southeast Asian country.
Maria Ressa, the CEO of Philippine news site Rappler and an acclaimed journalist honored with Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, told EFE in an interview that the challenge in defending good journalistic practices and save press freedom was more difficult than ever.
“This is the worst in more than 30 years since the days of Marcos. We have never dealt with challenges like this,” said Ressa, a bitter critic of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Rappler, established in 2012 to recover the essence of journalism, is now one of the most influential websites in the country. The news site has often been targeted for exposing fake news and criticizing Duterte’s policies.
Ressa said during the 2016 election campaign, Philippines had turned into a “ground zero” of lies and social media was used as a weapon to propagate lies, a phenomenon that has now spread rapidly across the world and affected the elections in the United States, Europe and more recently in Brazil.
“When you see a lie a million times, it becomes truth and that’s what happens in social media. It creates alternative realities,” said the 55-year-old.
Ressa, who has got security 24 hours in the newsroom for the last one year, said the danger of the social media is that one does not know when they would appear in real life.
She said Rappler has been working to uncover false news or hoaxes and has unraveled a “sophisticated machinery” of fake accounts linked to Duterte used to “intimidate and silence his critics” and “promote hatred.”
Rappler’s work along with several reports that exposed alleged human rights abuses in the war on drugs led to acrimony between the 73-year-old president and Ressa.
After several cyber bullying incidents and a failed attempt in January 2018 to revoke Rappler’s license to operate, Ressa was indicted on multiple counts of tax evasion in November.
She said the charges were politically motivated, had no legal basis and were invoked to silence independent media in the country.
Ressa has paid thousands of dollars to get bail and said she had to shell out only a thousand dollars less than the former first lady Imelda Marcos, who was accused of corruption for appropriating some $200 million from the public money.
The judicial attack came at the time when Ressa was on a trip to receive important awards including New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists who awarded her with “Gwen Ifil” honor for press freedom. She was also awarded Knight Prize for international journalism in Washington.
The awards, she said, have served for the world to look at Philippines and what is happening in the country.
The attacks on Rappler are not new: threats, insults and campaigns to discredit on social media against its journalists began early on.
Later on, grievances came directly from Duterte, who has accused Rappler repeatedly of being financed by the CIA and has denied it access to the presidential palace.
Ressa, with more than 30 years of experience as CNN correspondent and head of the news of the Philippine chain ABS-CBN, said it has not been easy to deal with so much dislike for her or her young team, some hundred journalists of which 68 percent are women, with an average age of 23.
She said her employees get psychological assistance to deal with cyber bullying from social media trolls.