You can't negotiate peace if you don't agree on the facts
THE WEEK|October 31, 2021
INTERVIEW MARIA RESSA, CEO, Rappler
RIYAD MATHEW

You are the first Filipino to win a Nobel Peace Prize. What does this mean for your country? Usually, a journalist winning such an honour would indicate that something is wrong in the country.

A/ Well, for us, it’s been a very tough few years since 2016 (when Rodrigo Duterte became president). [I’ve] had ten arrest warrants in less than two years. I’ve fought cases; we’ve fought getting shut down.... It was incredible to realise that we weren’t alone, and for that I profusely thank the Nobel committee. I think one of the things it accomplished in the Philippines was that it united Filipino journalists.

Beyond that, this was an acknowledgement globally for all journalists [of] how difficult it has been to do our jobs. The last time a journalist had been given the Nobel Peace Prize was in 1936 (the 1935 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in 1936), and he languished in a Nazi concentration camp. The Nobel committee looked at the world and I think they’re saying we’re at the precipice of something like 1936. What happened after that? World War II. And after World War II, the world came together to create a new world, to prevent the worst of human nature from ruling us.

[After the Nobel Prize announcement] what the [Duterte] government did was radio silence, I guess stunned silence. [Three days later,] we had a strange statement that kind of goes against your question. The government said, “We congratulate Maria Ressa, the first Filipino to win the Nobel Prize. It proves press freedom exists in the Philippines.”

Q/ You said in an interview that you are idealistic. Most journalists are, when they start out. What are the challenges you have had to go through to hold on to your ideals?

A/ Conquering your fear.... When I was heading ABS-CBN, I had a direct line to the president. Because you want to make sure you’re fair. In this case, the idea of negotiating with the government didn’t really appeal to me because we work too hard at Rappler.

[But] I didn’t realise that the government would go so far. When there were just cases being filed, I thought they were just trying to intimidate us. I’m too old, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and so we continued. When they arrested me, they did it to ensure I was detained overnight; they arrested me just before the court closed. That’s when I realised I have evidence of how this government will abuse its power in order to intimidate. And I came out of that night stronger. I’m lucky compared with others, I’m a high-profile journalist. The government wanted to make me an example: “If we can do this to her, what can we do to you?” And that’s exactly the kind of Mafioso mentality that the government has exuded. Imagine if you’re a journalist in the provinces walking home at night. Do you get the warnings that I’ve gotten? At least not for 19 journalists who were killed under this administration.

When I was convicted last year in a cyber libel crime—[for] a story that was published in 2012, before the law that we allegedly violated existed—[I said that] we’re bending the law to the point it’s broken. So, first weaponisation of social media, then weaponisation of the law.

Having said that, is the Philippines now Russia? I remember when I was still with CNN and I would visit Russia and [see] the kind of duality of what the facts are. I used to think, this is great, we’re not Russia. Sorry Russia, sorry Dmitry [Muratov]. It wasn’t as tough, but now it is. But I think the difference is that we have a chance to regain our democracy. We’ve held the line and now we’re at the tail end; we have elections in May next year. And I hope we’re able to have elections and Filipinos choose well. The biggest problem, of course, is that [the] integrity of elections will depend on whether we have integrity of facts. And with social media platforms, that is impossible—unless they change it.

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