The Civil Beat Editorial Board Interview: Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Maria Ressa
June 26, 2022 · 11 min read
About the Author
The members of The Civil Beat Editorial Board are Chad Blair, Patti Epler, Nathan Eagle, Kim Gamel, John Hill and Keona Blanks. Opinions expressed by the editorial board reflect the group’s consensus view. Not all members may participate in every interview or essay. Chad Blair, the Politics and Opinion Editor, can be reached at email@example.com.
Editor’s note: In 2021 Maria Ressa became the first Filipino recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. She is co-founder and CEO of Rappler.com, an online news organization in the Philippines. Ressa spoke with Civil Beat on Thursday from Chicago, where she was on her way to Hawaii from Germany. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What message are you going to bring to the East-West Center media conference?
I think two things, and this is very similar to what I did in the Nobel lecture, which is, we are globally in a battle for facts. And journalists are in many ways — you know “The Hunger Games”? We’re the “tribute” in the sense of we think it’s still the old world, where we tell our stories. We spend our careers learning how to tell compelling stories.
But the world’s largest distribution platform for news is Facebook. And then you got to add TikTok into the mix now. But these social media platforms now distribute news that we create. Right. And yet the world’s largest distribution platform for news is biased against facts. It’s biased against journalists. How did it change us as people, as societies, as democracies? And then what do we do? Because I feel like (the myths of) Cassandra and Sisyphus combined in the last six years or so.
We journalists need to understand the tech, and then I think citizens in a democracy — we have a few years before we lose our democracies.
Of course you saw in the Philippines on May 19, we had our presidential elections. And 36 years after People Power ousted Marcos and sent the family to Hawaii, we have Ferdinand Marcos, Jr., his namesake and only son, win our elections overwhelmingly. We watched history be changed in front of our eyes. What does matter is the context that we’re working in now. And frankly, it’s a call to action as well.
You mentioned the election of Bongbong Marcos as president and also Sara Duterte, the daughter of current president. Obviously, Rappler was not well-received by Rodrigo Duterte as he was busy eradicating extrajudicially what he thought were drug dealers. What are your thoughts on press freedoms now that a Marcos and a Duterte are tag-teaming it at the top levels of power?
Under the Duterte administration, I’ve called it death by a thousand cuts of democracy. And I just came from the Global Media Conference in Bonn. I did the first keynote, and the closing keynote was Timothy Snyder, the historian from Yale. And I said, “What advice do you give us?” And he said, “Protect your journalists.” And that’s pretty damn good advice.
The world’s largest distribution platform for news is biased against facts.
There’s a version of the Martin Niemöller quote from World War II that we wound up using in the Philippines. You know, “First they came for the journalists.” We don’t know what happened next. So we know what happened under the Duterte administration. I had 10 arrest warrants in less than two years. I’ve had so many different experiences I wish I never had. But, OK, it makes you stronger. And I know what to expect next.
Press freedom has been weakened incredibly. It requires much more courage just to do normal stories, things that we wouldn’t have thought about before. And, people talk about a chilling effect. We have Siberia, so that is it.
And it’s funny. It’s the incentive structures for journalism that have really switched. When you have a government that wants to stifle any kind of dissent or to stifle even difficult questions, there’s a lot of incentive to shut you up. For us, we’ve lived through bottom-up attacks and then the attacks coming down from the president himself. We were the third news organization that was attacked by Duterte. The first was the third-largest newspaper, the Philippine Daily Inquirer. The second is the largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN (News).
I mean, he does make good on his threats. He threatened to shut down ABS-CBN. They lost their franchise in May of 2020. And in fact, one of their franchises was given to a kind of pseudo-religious group in kind of a midnight deal. And what we’re seeing now with Marcos, the incoming administration — we can just look at what he did in the campaign. In the campaign, he refused to join any of the debates that were set up. He refused questions, hard-hitting questions from journalists.
Ostensibly, it’s because (he said), “I’ve answered these questions.” Well, when you run for president, you should really be there, especially in a country that has a constitution patterned after the United States. We have a Bill of Rights like the United States. We have freedom of speech, freedom of expression enshrined in the Bill of Rights, freedom of the press.
So, look, he didn’t answer the questions. What he did do is create his own little cadre of closed-in bloggers. And he’s not alone in this. Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil does the same thing, as do many kinds of illiberal leaders.
I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt. We have a new incoming administration. He is president-elect. And I hope for the best, because I have no choice but to hope for the best. But look, we’ve weathered really difficult times. Can it get worse? Perhaps. Just two days ago, the outgoing national security advisor took down websites, essentially turned them off. That hasn’t happened in the Philippines in the past. In the past, it would be pornographic sites that would have happened to.
But this is an ongoing story. This is an appeal to the Marcoses and to the incoming administration that we are all in the same boat. It’s a difficult time globally. Our country needs to succeed economically. And the checks and balances of power are there as much for them as it is for the people.
What’s your legal status like today? Are you freely able to go back home and leave again? Or is there a concern that the next time you land in Manila you’re going to be arrested?
It’s more that I can’t leave. What’s happened is, I have got three cases that have been thrown out, but I still have seven criminal charges. And of those seven, in order to be able to leave, I have to ask the courts for permission. It feels arbitrary. I had some denied. I was an honorary pall bearer at Madeleine Albright’s funeral, but I was denied permission to travel for that. South by Southwest — I was denied travel. But I’m coming to East-West.
I always ask this question and I’ll ask it again in Hawaii. I think this is one of those moments where we have to sacrifice something for the facts, for the truth. I think journalists know this. We’re under constant attack. All the press freedom indexes show in the last decade how it’s gotten worse. But I think every citizen in a democracy needs to confront this. And unfortunately, what Covid has done is — again — the incentive is to just bury your head in the sand and look away. It’s so toxic. But don’t! Because now is the time that matters, you know?
Yeah, we have a few challenges in our own country right now, to put it mildly. How’s Rappler doing? Can you give us a status update?
We’re doing well. I mean, we’re exhausted. I’m tired! But we’re doing well in the sense that, in January 2018, when the government tried to revoke our license to operate, within four months we dropped 49% of our advertising revenue. And so really, if you go by what a government would want, this war of attrition, we should have gone bankrupt by the end of 2018. But we were forced to look at what we could do.
And that has created a new sustainable business model that allowed us to hire people. Even during the pandemic we grew. You turn crisis into opportunity, to quote the Chinese.
How has your life changed since the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize?
I felt like I was already doing so much with Rappler and then, with the Nobel Peace Prize, there’s so much more! I used to say I was swimming under two oceans of water trying to make my way up, and that was just Rappler and the government. Oh, and I was trying to write a book. I just finished the manuscript two weeks ago, I guess.
After the Nobel, it’s like there’s so much more that goes with it. And then we begin to realize the sense of justice, how people are looking for a sense of justice in all the ways that they can. And that includes contacting Nobel laureates.
This is one of those moments where we have to sacrifice something for the facts, for the truth.
So I try very hard to help as much as I can, but it’s different. It’s been incredible. In some ways it opened a whole other world that I didn’t really know existed. It’s been great for journalists because it’s a sign of recognition of what we have gone through, not just in the Philippines, but I think all around the world.
But the other part is, was the Nobel committee prescient? Because within four months of that awarding Russia invaded Ukraine. Dimitri (Muratov) has been forced to stop writing. Otherwise, he’d go to jail for 15 years. We’ve come under more intense attacks. The world is at the precipice of something. So, yeah, fingers crossed.
You’re referring to the Russian journalist who shared the peace prize with you. You probably heard he auctioned off the medal for $100 million to an anonymous buyer to help Ukrainian child refugees and UNICEF. What’s your thoughts about that?
He had told me he was planning on doing this. We saw each other in April in Geneva. I think we’ll see each other again before the end of our year, as the new Nobel laureates will be announced in October. This isn’t the first time a Nobel medal has been auctioned, but the difference, the gap, was like $4 or $5 million before this one. I think it’s a phenomenal sum for good. It does show you that people care about it.
I guess this is one of the bigger worries we had at the Global Media Conference last week. People forget that people don’t care, that the attention span of the news cycle leaves the Ukrainians fighting for their lives, their freedom. So that sum will go a long way. I hope he told the Nobel Committee. I think he did. He didn’t tell me that! Dimitri is funny.
Did I hear you say you’re working on a manuscript?
Yes, the book is coming out in November this year. It’s called “How to Stand Up to a Dictator.” And it’s a combination of memoir and really what we’ve gone through with the election of the Marcoses, 36 years after People Power, and then what’s up ahead in front of us. We’ve learned a ton in this time period. I’m just worried that it heralds something worse.
Any question that I haven’t asked?
I think we haven’t shifted enough to really look at the world as it is today, to look at this information ecosystem. In that Nobel lecture I called it an atom bomb that exploded there. And the kind of shift, both in terms of how we react to each other, because the divisions that are personal now. If anything, it shows you that what’s personal is political, what’s political is personal.
And then in the Nobel lecture I talked about the person to person defense of our democracy. Social media has atomized meaning, has brought it person to person. And somehow this is what we’re going to need to harness. I’ve been pretty much saying the same thing for six years. Thank you for listening. Let’s do something about it.
We’ll see you next week in Honolulu.
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