Maria Ressa

When Maria won: An oral history from the Rappler newsroom

Gelo Gonzales
When Maria won: An oral history from the Rappler newsroom
Here's what happened as the Rappler newsroom found out that Maria had won the Nobel Peace Prize

A day prior to Maria’s win, I was jotting down on my to-do list: “Get a haircut.” The team had been scouting for people in the newsroom who might be able to interview Maria if she were to win the Nobel, and my pandemic hair wouldn’t have cut it.

The rest of the newsroom had less mundane concerns.

Four days before that Friday, the COC filing had begun, which is to say the gong had been struck to officially commence the 2022 presidential election season, a once-every-six-years Ragnarok of sorts for Philippine news organizations. It was going to be a packed, tiring, sleepless week for our entire news team – never mind the looming Nobel announcement, with one of your organization’s founders in the running. 

With the COC filing taking the most space in that week’s agenda, it was only a few days before that the team really started planning if Maria were to win. Our editor in charge of the entire Nobel coverage was Jee Geronimo. She remembers receiving an email from a journalist from Norway asking how they could reach Maria if she were to win – there might have been rumblings.

“That email made me realize that it could happen, she could really win, and we didn’t have a coverage plan yet because we really didn’t think it could happen,” Jee said.

She added, “My initial thought was that since Maria would be bombarded with interview requests, her first interview should be with Rappler.” 

You might’ve heard it before: Maria was in an online panel about independent media in Southeast Asia when she received the call from Oslo. Happy Feraren, our Rappler+ head who was coordinating with the panel organizers, informed them beforehand that the team was on standby for a possible Nobel announcement that might cut short Maria’s time at the panel. 

And when it did, Happy said: “I messaged the organizers right away that she had to go. You could see Maria in the panel receiving a phone call and then turning off her camera. When she came back, her co-panelists from Indonesia and Malaysia congratulated her as well as all the participants. It had been publicly announced by then.”

At around the same time, Happy showered. The husband was assigned to equally important tasks: tidying up the apartment, and setting up her ring light. “All that while I dried my hair, put on some makeup, and looked for an orange shirt to wear for Rappler.” You don’t often remember these things, but this wasn’t most days, because that day, Happy would be with Maria on a call very soon – the first interview with the first Filipino Nobel Laureate – although what she really wanted to do then was “to jump and cheer and celebrate but we were going live soon.” 

Other Rapplers took care of the jumping and cheering in their own homes; sheer joy, and then catharsis. From Duterte’s attacks to social media-enabled hate-mongering against Maria and the company, to a legal system being wielded like a weapon, there was consistent, immense pressure for us, for Maria to stand down and play along. But she didn’t, and she held the line, and we all tried to do the same, and that award is validation, and it is cathartic.

For some, the celebration came with loud expletives as was the case for multimedia producer Jaira Roxas. It was loud enough that her mom, who was in the other room, had to yell back at her, “Nanalo ba si Maria (Did Maria win)?!”

Our usually eloquent manangs, our senior editors, had also been reduced to spewing “OMGs” and “OMGGGssss” in their respective chat groups. I have a screenshot but I’ll keep it private because I value my job security. Meanwhile, Kevin Hapal, our head of data and innovation, was already Googling “Nobel Peace Prize money.” (“Please don’t judge me, I was just really curious!” he’d also tell me.) Like some of us, Kevin said he was getting messages from people trying to confirm Maria’s Nobel win at the time.

While most of us were celebrating at home, some of us were in the field like reporter Dwight de Leon. Dwight was in Pasay for the last day of candidacy filing for the 2022 elections.

Dwight tells us his story: “I’ve been with Rappler for only seven months, and since it was my biggest coverage yet, it was also the first time I started receiving hate messages online, even on my private social media accounts. I know we’re not the most liked news outlet out there, especially among administration supporters who are allergic to our line of questioning and brand of journalism.” It was his own baptism by fire.

“So I was overjoyed to end that eight-day coverage in October with the news of Maria winning the Nobel. It was she who won, but I felt like each of us got a piece of that victory. Personally, I found reaffirmation in what we do, and I became more confident to ask questions, despite the aggressions we endure,” Dwight said.

Editor Margie de Leon who who was just wrapping up the end of her shift for the marathon COC filing when she heard the news, said, “I tried so hard to wrap my head around the fact that this was THE Nobel Peace Prize – practically the most prestigious, most valuable prize in the whole world, and that we got it. I couldn’t make the connection. Parang hindi gumagana utak ko (It was like my mind wasn’t working). It took me maybe two days for it to really hit me that it was real.”

Back at Happy’s call with Maria, the latter had begun to speak: “Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality…” and on how a world without a shared reality means we cannot ever come together to figure things out and solve problems. 

Happy could only reply, “Waiiiiiit!” The interview wasn’t live yet. 

Happy, around two weeks later, would also write a piece (“How a Nobel Peace Prize winner helped me overcome my eczema”) about her negative past experiences doing media work that had put a premium on looks. She recalled there too her time interviewing Maria: “That moment is still a blur to me. It’s all so surreal considering Maria Ressa was always a role model growing up. It was hard to contain my excitement while asking her questions about the award.”

Such was the energy that afternoon. It was mostly everyone was just trying to keep their composure in a scenario that, prior, perhaps all of us were only secretly manifesting without truly expecting.

We held an impromptu general assembly on Google Meet later that night. We applauded our leader, of course, several times. Maybe halfway through, we remembered, “Hey, maybe we should be recording this!” And we did.

It’s fortunate we remembered because our senior editors Chito dela Vega and Miriam Grace Go had some insights to share. Chito said we all could now put in our resumes that we have worked with a boss who also happened to be a Nobel laureate. Maria “broke the glass ceiling” for Filipinos, he added. We can win Miss Universe crowns, we can win Olympic gold medals, and we can win the Nobel prize. Miriam, who has a deep fondness for Japanese culture, quipped we’re all now just one degree apart from 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature awardee Kazuo Ishiguro.

Some of us just expressed more basic demands: “Christmas party at Spiral!”

Maria had earlier thought that “spiral” was maybe like a reference to another sort of spiral, a spiral towards the end of well, something. We had to remind her – “No, the buffet!”

Addressing the newsroom, Maria said, “I really just wanted to say, thank you because you have done an amazing job.”

We could use a victory. Media around the world could use a victory. Democracy, and its crucial pillar, press freedom could use a victory. Not winning would not have been a non-victory – the nomination alone was a win – but as a company that’s been battered during the Duterte administration, we’ve learned to tune out the noise, and focus on the work. Take the wins when they come – and our journalists’ work has not gone unrecognized – but especially when that win is the world’s most prestigious trophy, you’ll have to forgive us for relishing the moment…and just the same, for asking for Spiral. – Rappler.com

Gelo Gonzales

Gelo Gonzales is Rappler’s technology editor. He covers consumer electronics, social media, emerging tech, and video games.