Maria Ressa

Maria Ressa tells Ateneo grads: Draw the line, embrace fear, beware the mob

Michelle Abad

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Maria Ressa tells Ateneo grads: Draw the line, embrace fear, beware the mob

COMMENCEMENT SPEAKER. Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa gives a commencement speech before the Ateneo de Manila University Class of 2023 on June 30, 2023.

Stella Arenas/The GUIDON

Just before her commencement speech, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa is conferred an honorary degree in sociology

MANILA, Philippines – At a time when disinformation is rampant and new technology brings about new risks, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa told Ateneo graduates to draw the line for their values, embrace fears, and build communities, but beware the mob.

In her commencement speech on Friday, June 30, at Ateneo de Manila University, Ressa reminded the Class of 2023 that they were graduating “at an existential moment in history,” calling them the “Back to the Future” batch.

“Now more than ever, we know that information is power. Without the right information, it is impossible to fight back – whether it’s to find a cure for a disease, coronavirus, for the climate, or to hold power to account,” said Ressa.

Maria Ressa tells Ateneo grads: Draw the line, embrace fear, beware the mob

In reminding the graduates of the gravity of the current situation, Ressa reiterated lines from her Nobel lecture – how a lie repeated a million times becomes fact, and how lies have infected the information ecosystem and bring out the worst in humanity.

Ressa also noted the rise of new forms of artificial intelligence (AI). While the previous generation of AI was the curation of content based on every user’s algorithm, the next generation is creation through generative AI. “And until today, there are no guardrails,” she said.

“Many ask me, how do you find courage? Just like small acts can turn you evil, courage grows from small acts. So let me share three lessons as you battle for your identity and for meaning: One, draw the line now for your values. You’re in Ateneo. So you have. But draw the line. Two, embrace your fear. Three, build your community, but beware the mob,” she said.

Just before her speech, Ateneo conferred an honorary Doctor of Philosophy in Sociology degree on Ressa.

HONORARY DEGREE. Ateneo de Manila University administrators confer an honorary sociology degree on Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa on June 30, 2023. Courtesy of Stella Arenas/The GUIDON

The university decided to confer the honorary degree in September 2022, calling Ressa a “trailblazer and a truth-teller, zeroing in on the importance of freedom of expression and ethical journalism.”

Dealing with difficult times

“You don’t really know who you are until you’re forced to defend it… Then every battle you win – or lose – every compromise you choose to make – or to walk away from… When you stay silent, because silence is complicity… all these struggles define the values you live by – and ultimately, who you are,” said Ressa.

The hate that causes us-versus-them mentalities have led to the likes of Nazi Germany, the bloody drug war under the administration of former president Duterte, and the detention of former senator Leila de Lima, she said. The solution? Finding our humanity in the things that bring people together.

“We build a stronger democracy by strengthening our common humanity,” she said.

In telling the Ateneo graduates to embrace their fears, the seemingly never-fearful Ressa spoke of personal times when she feared, or doubted herself on whether she had chosen right.

“It took me more than a month to confront my fears – of jail, of violence. I hated that the baton, the leadership of a news group, was passed to me at that moment in time, but I also knew I wasn’t going to drop it. That’s where courage comes from. It’s a simple choice and a commitment,” she said.

Ressa likened the graduates entrance into the real world like “joining a battle in extremely uncertain times.” She shared one of the toughest moral choices she had made, back when she was a correspondent at CNN covering the final days of the Indonesian military’s scorched earth policy, when they were killing pro-independence supporters.

A source, who was also a friend, had run to the news network’s car and asked for a ride, because he was being hunted and he feared for his life. But the team had needed to go to Suai, where more reports of violence were coming in. Bringing him along would take him directly to the military and make the CNN team vulnerable.

Since the team’s first responsibility was to get the story, Ressa told the source that they could pick him up in the evening on the way back to Dili.

“We got to the church. There was a massacre. It was a long, grueling day. When we drove back, we got to our designated meeting point an hour late. So it was dark. We waited an hour. He wasn’t there. We waited another hour. He didn’t come. And only later did I find that he had been killed,” she said.

In her 37 years of being a journalist, Ressa remains to ask herself if she did the right thing. “In situations of anarchy and war, it’s hard to distinguish right from wrong.”

“It is going to get worse before it gets better because it’s going to be tough to tell fact from fiction. Which is why you have to prepare yourselves. This time matters. What you do matters. This is in your hands. But you’re not alone. Look to your left. And then look to your right,” she said.

‘Continue standing with the truth’

Graduates like class valedictorian Tristan Joseph Alcantara and life sciences program awardee Dorothy Andrada took away the need to find courage in noise-filled times.

Alcantara said he saw his graduation as a “symbol of hope” following the pandemic and the “tumultuous” political climate. “We are here and we are ready to face the world and the challenges that are yet to come,” the political science graduate said.

“We are in a very important moment in our history, and how we defend our truth will say a lot about how our future will pan out. For my fellow batchmates, we got this!” said the valedictorian. –

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Michelle Abad

Michelle Abad is a multimedia reporter at Rappler. She covers the rights of women and children, migrant Filipinos, and labor.