MANILA, Philippines – A flame put through gale-force winds, sputtering at times, but still burning.
For Rappler staff and friends, tenacity has been the saving grace of a company put under intense pressure by the Duterte administration and other forces threatened by independent journalism.
Veteran investigative journalist and book author Marites Vitug, who is editor-at-large at Rappler, said the media company’s 10th anniversary is a milestone for the dream of independent reportage.
“It’s really a flame that’s always burning in every journalist’s heart – to be independent, not to be beholden to big business or any vested interest,” said Vitug at a panel discussion during Rappler’s anniversary celebration held online on Friday, January 7.
Vitug, who started investigative publication Newsbreak in 2001, said there have been repeated attempts to put up small news outlets through the years. She had joined many of them but they all folded up due to many constraints – not least of which was flight of advertisers frightened by backlash to critical journalism.
Rappler, now a decade old despite similar pressures, is testament to the viability of the dream of independent journalism.
“Clarity of purpose” is what helped Rappler survive its toughest years, said Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism executive director Carmela Fonbuena who was among Rappler’s first beat reporters.
One of the moments that tested Rappler’s sense of purpose was President Rodrigo Duterte’s accusations to the news organization in his 2017 State of the Nation Address (SONA).
History professor Leloy Claudio was in the Rappler newsroom during Duterte’s speech, part of a panel assessing the SONA that was being moderated by Rappler CEO Maria Ressa.
“I saw everyone freeze for a while, one moment, then Glenda (Rappler Executive Editor Glenda Gloria), you were there and you said, ‘Ah, wala lang ‘yan (That’s nothing)’…. I felt you were readying yourselves for battle. You can almost actually physically see the flame in your eyes, in (Rappler CEO Maria Ressa’s) eyes…. It was an eye of the tiger moment,” he said.
Though many Filipinos have been swayed by Duterte’s vilification of journalists, Claudio said the Philippines has a long history of valuing a free press, starting all the way from national hero Jose Rizal.
“If you look at the text of Rizal, very clear, he said the reason why we should separate from Spain is because Spain cannot give us our basic rights. One of those basic rights that Rizal said Spain could not give us because of the colonial relationship is freedom of the press,” said Claudio.
Rappler, staffed mostly by young digital natives, millennials, and Gen Z, continues the tradition of young Filipinos upstarts fighting for dearly-held values – from the Filipino liberals who put out La Solidaridad during Spanish colonial times to the activists and journalists who stood up to the Marcos dictatorship.
But Gloria, who moderated the panel, acknowledged that Rappler is also seen as a cautionary tale by other journalists, proof that critical journalism is a scary and punishing task.
Fonbuena hopes more Filipinos realize the role independent media groups play in safeguarding democratic and personal freedoms.
“A lot of people, I’m afraid, don’t realize the bargains they’re making when they tolerate the government’s attacks on our freedoms. I just cannot imagine what would have happened if, for example, Rappler did not fight back, if Rappler was silent, if ABS-CBN was silent,” she said.
Vitug called on all Filipino journalists to find strength in solidarity, especially in times of government pressure and attacks on truthful and critical reportage.
“Let’s support each other; let’s not be divided. I think we’ve seen such a divided press in the past years. We all have one goal, that is truth-telling and chronicling the facts in this country,” she said. – Rappler.com