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Maria Ressa: Duterte's government 'weaponizing' information

Ana P. Santos Interview
February 16, 2019

In an interview with DW, Maria Ressa, award-winning journalist and founder of news site Rappler, spoke about the continued political bullying and relentless attempts to silence any kind of dissent in the Philippines.

Maria Ressa
Image: Reuters/E. Lopez

Maria Ressa, a regular critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's brutal war on drugs, was arrested on Wednesday and charged with libel against a businessman. Her arrest drew strong condemnation from both within the Philippines and abroad. Ressa, who is now free on bail, and her organization Rappler have repeatedly locked horns with Duterte and his administration.

Rappler's reporters are known for scrutinizing his policies and appointments and for questioning the accuracy of his sweeping, often bellicose statements.

Read more: 'Submit or suffer' — Rappler shutdown worries Philippine media

The president has made no secret of his dislike of Rappler's reporting. He once told reporters in Manila that the news site had been "throwing trash and s**** all along," and that its stories were full of innuendo and "pregnant with falsity."

Still, Duterte's government said that Ressa's recent detention is "merely part of any criminal procedure" and that it has "nothing to do" with press freedom.

In a DW interview, Maria Ressa said that the case of cyberlibel against her is a travesty of justice and that the Duterte administration is weaponizing information and manipulating the rule of law.

DW: You are now facing a string of charges that run from tax evasion to cyberlibel. How did it come to this?

Maria Ressa: This particular case of cyberlibel is a travesty of justice. It is about a story that Rappler published seven years ago, months before the law we allegedly violated — the Cybercrime Prevention Act — was enacted. The government can't impose a law and its penalties retroactively. But that's what they're trying to do. The lawyers of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) already threw this case out, but it was magically resurrected by the Department of Justice (DOJ) later.

Rodrigo Duterte
President Duterte has made no secret of his dislike of Rappler's reportingImage: picture-alliance/dpa/AP/B. Marquez

Can you explain how charging you with violation of the cybercrime law has ramifications not just for you and the Philippine media but for all Filipinos in general?

There are two very dangerous and contentious points in this case. There's this idea of continuous publication. Rappler in 2014 corrected a typographical error in the article and based on that, they claimed continuous publication.

The period of prescription was on something else and is connected to the period for how long you can file a libel case. Under the Philippine law, it is one year. The DOJ now has this creative interpretation saying that it is much longer than that and they are using it here.

It means that anyone in the Philippines who posts on Facebook can now be charged with cyber libel, which carries a bigger penalty than ordinary libel. They can also be charged for a much longer period than allowed under the libel law.

When you were interviewed immediately after you were released, at some point, you sounded emotional. How are you holding up now?

I'm good! I was cracking because I was so sad. I've been here since way before this government came into office and I will be here after as well. But I am extremely sad to see how the law is being manipulated.

Without the rule of law, you have nothing in a democracy and you end up just as a mob. We have always known that our institutions are weak and we are a patronage-driven system. But when people who wield power institutionalize patronage instead of the rule of law, then we have just taken a step back into the Dark Ages.  

I'm shocked at the levels of unprofessional behavior. Abuse of power becomes clear when actions that are taken reflect that. The reaction my arrest triggered, not just in the Philippines but across the world, was because this is a travesty of justice.

What needs to be done to protect media as the fourth pillar of democracy?

I think it's very easy in the Philippines. We need to clear the toxic sludge on Facebook, and Facebook is starting to take those actions.

The reality is that every Filipino needs to admit that they are being manipulated and the government is using a scorched-earth policy for power by manipulating facts and truth, for lying like it is true. These things dumb down both our discourse and the public.

When you weaponize information the way this government and its supporters have done and you let lies masquerade as facts, even the government gets confused about what is real and what isn't.

The key thing here is not to be afraid. My arrest is meant to create a chilling effect. For journalists, the subliminal message is that if it can happen to Maria Ressa, it can happen to them as well.

And it can. This is the time to be outraged. Press freedom is not just about journalists. This is certainly not just about me or Rappler. Press freedom is the foundation of every Filipino's right to the truth. We will keep fighting. We will hold the line. This has become more important than ever.

Maria Ressa is a Philippine journalist. She is the chief executive officer of the Rappler online news website. She previously worked as an investigative reporter for CNN.

This interview was conducted by Ana P. Santos.

Editor's note: Ana P. Santos is a regular contributor to Rappler and has a bimonthly column.

Salvador Panelo on Conflict Zone