Maria Ressa, Duterte & the Fight for the Free Press


MARIA RESSA: So no qualms about killing killers?


RODRIGO DUTERTE: Yes of course. I must admit, I have killed. Three months earlier I killed about three people.


ARONSON: That’s journalist Maria Ressa interviewing Rodrigo Duterte back in 2015 before he became president of the Philippines.


She’s been at the forefront of covering Duterte and his brutal crackdown on drugs - and she’s now facing criminal libel charges related to her work.


RESSA: So now of course people still speculate that there is a possibility you would still run for president, that it’s possible to replace —


DUTERTE: Well they say I’m disqualified, I hope I’m disqualified — I’m telling the Filipino people, it’s going to be bloody. 


ARONSON: Maria has become one of the most prominent journalists in the world.


We first spoke to her for our documentary, The Facebook Dilemma, back in 2018, and we’re featuring her in an upcoming film by Director Ramona Diaz, A Thousand Cuts.   


I got the chance to talk to Maria from her home in the Philippines, where she’s awaiting a verdict in her case, which is expected Monday.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE, and this is The FRONTLINE Dispatch. 


FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation committed to excellence in journalism. And by the WGBH Catalyst Fund. Support for The FRONTLINE Dispatch also comes from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Early detection is key to catching and treating many cancers. You can learn more about the innovative programs at mass-general-dot-org-slash-cancer. Mass General Cancer Center: everyday amazing.


ARONSON: Maria, I know I'm talking to you from the Philippines. Thank you for joining us this morning. 


RESSA: Thanks for having me. 


ARONSON: So tell me a little bit about your life right now. What's it like right at this moment?


RESSA: Oh my gosh. It's a tough question because I vacillate. I mean, it shifts from emotion to emotion to emotion, there's a lot of anger. I realized how angry I was. It's been four years of attacks that we've weathered. There's sometimes hope, you know, because I see our young, actually young Filipinos really coming back up, but… Fear. Because what happens Monday? I mean, there's a chance I could actually be jailed. There's... I mean, my lawyer tells me a small possibility because it's never happened before. But you know, I'm facing a case that has also never happened before. Oh, my gosh, I don't have a great quick answer for you, right? But, I guess how do I feel now? Resolute. I know that a verdict will be handed on Monday and that verdict will have a huge impact on me, on Rappler, our company, and on Filipinos because the case that we're facing will determine two major points. You know, the first one is changing terms of cyber libel, of libel online, from the period of prescription from one year to 12 years. That's a huge change, and then the second one is this idea that when you change a typo on a piece that you're actually republishing it. It's an idea of continuous publication. So technically, I could actually tell you, I could go to jail because someone in Rappler changed a typo.

ARONSON: Wait I need to understand that better — tell me what story you’re talking about and what happened


RESSA: For, us it was a minor piece that looked at how the Supreme Court Justice at that time, who was facing impeachment charges, was riding in an SUV that was owned by this businessman. So you know, we had a picture of the car. We had what the businessman had done, an intelligence report that also described his connections, and then a Supreme Court justice, whose integrity had been questioned. So that's all the story was. But the problem was that this is the story that got me arrested seven years after the story was written.


ARONSON: What happens then?


RESSA: The agents of the National Bureau of Investigation, that's our equivalent of the FBI, came shortly before the courts closed. So around 5 p.m., they came to our office and they picked me up. I should have been able to post bail, but I was prevented from posting bail. When our lawyers got to court, the judge refused to accept it. And so I was detained overnight.


ARONSON: That was a year ago, February, right?


RESSA: A year ago, February, I was actually arrested on February 13. And I posted bail on February 14. I posted bail the next day, but I was livid because I realized then that, you know, my rights had been abused and I could say that because I wasn't allowed to post bail. My government decided that, you know, they wanted to show me their power and, okay, I'm with you. You're powerful, government, you know? But I thought that it only showed, gave me first hand knowledge of abuse of power.


ARONSON: It's a little opaque, right? So you get arrested for a story that published seven years previous that you didn't write. What exactly are the charges and what are they for? 


RESSA: So cyber libel is a new law. It was passed in 2012. It's controversial. We had actually warned about its dangers. And of course, the irony, then is that we're among the first victims of this law. The cyber libel law, the violation of the cyber libel law is what this case is: a story that we did seven years from the time the case was filed. So seven years earlier, four months before the law had even been enacted. And the man who filed this is a businessman who received a government deal soon after filing this, you know, again, I can only talk about what the facts were. So he files a cyber libel case, the government's own lawyers, the National Bureau of Investigations lawyers, investigates and they throw it out. And, as it should be, because the period of prescription of that story had ended. You can only file, you only have a year to file a libel case, but then, to my surprise, it was resuscitated. And then filed by the Department of Justice.


ARONSON: Do you think they're looking for something? So they're looking for a way to connect the dots, I mean, what's going on here, exactly?


RESSA: What I was told is that at a period of time the government agencies were given a task to file cases against Rappler and that's certainly what we've seen with the filing of 11 cases and investigations. This was, to be honest, the most far-fetched of all of them. Getting rid of our, in January 2018 they tried to revoke our license to operate based on foreign ownership rules. So there was that, but the cyber libel case seemed ridiculous on the face of it. And the government's own lawyers threw it out. The National Bureau of Investigation’s own lawyers threw it out. So they seem to concur. And then to have that change. In fact, in our case, now we used the government law, the NBI’s own lawyer’s words when he threw it out. But the difference then is after that, they changed, the businessman, his name is Keng, they changed the application of this case just a little bit by saying that Rappler was actually still continuously publishing that article and they pointed to how we had essentially changed something in the article two years later, in 2014. And if you look at the article, it's identical except a typo was fixed. 


ARONSON: Right, so that's the typo incident. Got it. Okay. I was hoping Maria, you could talk a little bit about President Duterte and your relationship with him. Just sort of walk me through that. I’ve seen your interviews with him and your exchanges with that are public, but talk to me about your own thinking about that.


RESSA: So I've known... the first time I interviewed Duterte was when he was still a mayor, actually, shortly before he became a mayor in the late ‘80s when I was still with CNN. And he had the same reputation then as he did now, he was just younger. We were both younger. And when I saw him again in October of 2015, he actually brought it up. He remembered me and of course, I remembered him.


ARONSON: From his mayoral days where of course he did actually as mayor institute a lot of the policies that he's done more across the country now, right? If I understand his early days. 


RESSA: Absolutely. I mean, he has taken what he did in Davao which is, you know, a tough guy approach. There's a phrase, acronym: D.D.S., Davao Death Squad. He has always dogged accusations of human rights violations. The woman who was investigating him when she was the head of the Commission on Human Rights, Leila de Lima, when she was a senator and he had been elected president. She also continued investigating him and she is now in prison. She was jailed in February of 2017. And has been in prison since then on drug charges, right? So president Duterte is, I would say, a product of this generation in the sense that he is sexist at best, misogynist is the worst. But he is a strongman leader. And he can be charming when he wants to be, but, you know, it's a loyalty-driven system that he creates. 


ARONSON:  Yeah, so, you've covered him for years and I wanted you to talk specifically about your relationship with him in those sort of post-mayoral coverage days.


RESSA: When Mayor Duterte was trying to decide whether he was gonna run for office. He knew my work, right? I've been around a long time. And when I asked him for an interview, he seemed thrilled to do the interview. He was very charming. He was on his best behavior and that interview was shocking to me because he was blunt in a way politicians are not blunt. He admitted to killing three people in that interview and I didn't know how to react, right? But I nodded my head and just kept asking. During the campaign, Mayor Duterte learned about the power of Rappler, because during that campaign period he was the only presidential candidate to show up to our debate because the others found it too difficult. They were playing a numbers game, but Duterte had nothing to lose and he knew we had reach. And that debate, actually, he and his vice presidential candidate, that launched this campaign in the other parts of the Philippines where he wasn't as well known. Little did I know that at the time, right? And he was quite thankful we had a respectful relationship towards each other during that. After he became president, his first four interviews were given to the top networks and top newspaper, and to Rappler. And I spoke to him then. And I think it changed when the drug war death toll counts were being changed by the police because we refused to look away. We just refused to look away.


ARONSON: So you just continued to report what you were learning.


RESSA: The government's own numbers that were being doctored in front of us, you know? And I think President Duterte, at that point, he doesn't look at the details. There's a coterie around him. He listens, he doesn't do the detail work and we came under attack because we were doing accountability journalism. We were holding government to account and then we became difficult. I think they thought that President Duterte looked at Rappler as an ally, but we're journalists.


ARONSON: Have you heard or has Duterte said anything publicly about this since your arrest?


RESSA:  He denies that there is any, that it has anything to do with government. And the government has always said it's a businessman's complaint. But the kinds of cartwheels that people have had to do to be able to make a charge stick. When you read it, and you read the memorandum that we filed. You just have... I feel like Alice in Wonderland and you know, and I'm just gonna walk through this until I get out the other side of the rabbit hole. But what is clear is if you look at this in context of all the other charges that have been filed against me, personally, and against the company, it is a clear pattern of harassment and intimidation. And all it has done is to make us stronger in our intent to continue to hold government to account because I just wonder, why are they so afraid? What are they afraid of? 


ARONSON:  I mean, do I understand it right that Duterte has, over the last couple of years, really, he's had quite a high popularity in the country. What do you make of that?


RESSA: Yes. The statistical survey show that I think it’s a combination of, you know, the perfect storm that got him elected. He captured the zeitgeist, the unhappiness around that, and offered solutions. A populist leader. Of course, he hasn't really delivered on those solutions, right. But, he did deliver on certain promises that, like, he would kill people. But I guess what we've seen is the popularity ratings, also maintained by information operations on social media. And this is where that's the second impunity that Rappler tried to hold to account and this isn't our government, it's an American company that is essentially our internet in the Philippines. Facebook. In 2016, we tried to hold Facebook to account for the way the platform was being used to manipulate Filipinos. And it continues to until today. These information operations have contributed to maintain President Duterte's high ratings. And, you know, it's very hard to separate that from the reality because what happens in Facebook often becomes reality.


ARONSON: I’ll be back to talk more to Maria Ressa right after this quick message. 


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ARONSON: I want to speak a little bit about your case in the middle of what's happening in the world. You know, populist leaders are challenging and, in your case, curtailing, you know, real press freedom. So I wanted to know, from your perspective, how do you see the allegations against you fitting into this larger global picture that we're starting to see emerge?


RESSA:  Well, the first part is, you know, when the lockdown began, I wrote a piece and I looked at how these leaders around the world were amassing tremendous power because of the virus, because of COVID-19. And the title of the piece is Don't Let the Virus Infect Democracy. But even before that, these actions are meant to cow, to intimidate, to, it's a war to, actually it's a war of attrition, right? Because our legal fees at one point, we were paying $40,000 a month. And we're a very small company. So it's meant to prevent us from doing our jobs. And I think globally, what you're seeing is by targeting journalists and there are two trends that are working simultaneously, the social media platforms have enabled the rise of types of leaders who often use that platform to tear down journalists. And what that means when you don't have truth tellers, when you don't have the facts is that your democracy becomes untenable. I just look at what's happened in the Philippines, the first people who came under attack, were the journalists, people, normal people who question the drug wars, and then the next step, human rights activists, the next step after that were opposition politicians. And when you stifle those other voices, when you pound them to silence, how do you work as a journalist in that environment? 


ARONSON: So Maria, I know that you've spent a lot of time telling your story. And, you know, in particular, the film that you are in that director Ramona Diaz made about you, A Thousand Cuts, it's such a tale. I mean, she's able to cover almost every moment of your life during this really intense time. I was curious why you've decided to do this much media and share your story so often?


RESSA: It was our only defense. You know, the only defense you have as a journalist is to shine the light. And in this film, part of the reason why is that I had no idea I had no idea what would happen next. There were times I was wearing bullet proof vest to get from one place to another. There are times when it was so uncertain I didn't know what the next day would bring. And yet, you get through it because I'm focused on our work. I'm focused on our team. And our team is so small, we couldn't document what was happening to ourselves. So Ramona was perfect because, you know, I said, ‘Okay, please capture it.’ I just know we're living through... This is a historic moment, and everything is changing. So much of what we know or what we thought we knew has already crumbled. And I, I didn't know. I felt like I guess for me, I felt like I was both privileged and at a horrifying point of being right on the front line.


ARONSON: How are you preparing yourself for Monday, what are you gonna do? 


RESSA: You know, I gave a commencement speech at Princeton University for the class of 2020. And one of the three things I told them was, you know, ‘Whatever it is, you have to embrace your fear.’ And that's what I've spent the last few days doing is to really embrace my fear and I am thinking through the worst possible thing that could happen and trying to plan for it, you know, and it's a little bit of gallows humor, also, I guess, because I, you know, with my co-founders, I've actually said, ‘Look, if I have to go to jail, you have to bring me sheets, you bring me a fan, you bring me food.’ Mentally, I think it all begins there. It's like, I have to be just mentally prepared, and then anything else will be a joy.


ARONSON: So, Maria, I know I'm talking to you just days before your verdict. Do you have anything else you'd like to say anything you want to share with us and our podcast audience?


RESSA: I think I've said this, I said this to Princeton: When it is so uncertain, what the world is going to look like, you have to sit and think about who you are and you have to define the values you live by. And you know, Raney, as a journalist, the standards and ethics we live by. This is very clear. We've spent our careers learning that and in many ways those standards and ethics have defined who I am as a person, because I became a journalist in my early 20s. And I've lived my way into this. So I think the way we will move forward is by knowing exactly who you are and why you do what you do. And then building from where we are today. What kind of world are we going to build? And I think journalism is so important in all of our societies right now our mission is critical. It’s critical to our societies. And yet, we are under attack on two fronts, the business model of advertising is dead. That's been sucked by the social media platforms, by technology companies, the same platforms that are attacking our reputations, that is tearing our societies apart, that is creating filter bubbles, that's polarizing on every topic. Right? So what does that mean? How do you deal with that? And this the world we're going to create now. I'm sorry, I pulled out much bigger than you wanted, right?


ARONSON: No, I mean, these are, these are absolutely unprecedented times. I mean, I've been a journalist now for 25 years and never experienced what we're experiencing now. I've never seen America be on the list of places that are dangerous for journalists to practice journalism. So I don't think you overstated the challenges to journalism both in you know, sustainability terms and in safety terms. So we'll be watching the verdict. We'll be all thinking about you and we're going to continue to report on your story. Maria, thank you so much for talking to us and we’re great appreciators of the work that you guys are all doing.


RESSA: Thank you so much, Raney. Thank you.


CREDITS: Go to FRONTLINE dot org to learn more about Maria Ressa and our upcoming film, A Thousand Cuts, directed by Ramona Diaz. 


A Thousand Cuts premiered at Sundance and was executive produced by Concordia Studios.  


This podcast was produced by Max Green and James Edwards. 


Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan. Production help from Maxwell Carter. 


Katherine Griwert is our editorial coordinating producer. 


Pam Johnston is FRONTLINE’s senior director of strategy and audience.


Our senior editors are Lauren Ezell and Sarah Childress.


Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Music by Stellwagen Symphonette. 


The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at WGBH and powered by PRX.


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