[ANALYSIS] #DefendMediaFreedom: Time to act at an existential moment

Maria A. Ressa

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[ANALYSIS] #DefendMediaFreedom: Time to act at an existential moment
Four reasons why the Global Media Freedom Conference may mark 'the beginning of an era of change' to protect journalists and democracy

On July 10 and 11, I was among the more than 1,500 journalists, academics, and civil society activists who joined 60 ministers in delegations from more than 100 different countries to #DefendMediaFreedom in London. Led by the United Kingdom and Canada, the two days highlighted 4 themes: protecting and preventing attacks as well as impunity; national frameworks and legislation; restoring trust and fighting disinformation; and the search for sustainable business models.

Britain’s Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and Canada’s Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland were joined in the plenary on both days by human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, designated as the UK’s special envoy on media freedom. 

I know firsthand the need for this global effort. In about 14 months, the Philippine government filed at least 11 cases and investigations against me and Rappler; I’ve posted bail 8 times in about 3 months; I was arrested twice in a 5 week period, detained once – all a concerted effort to harass and intimidate us to silence. This follows nearly 3 years of exponential attacks on social media, what we call “patriotic trolling” – online state-sponsored hate inciting attacks against us with lies and half-truths, a scorched-earth policy to consolidate power.  

I was asked to discuss these personal experiences, share the findings of our digital forensics, and Rappler’s experience as a media and tech startup in 3 of the panels during the conference, including one with Indonesia’s Information Minister of Communication and Information Technology Rudiantara and Malaysia’s Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo.

Here are 4 reasons why the Global Media Freedom Conference was, as Amal Clooney said, “the beginning of an era of change:”

1. Silence is complicity.

The rise of populism and authoritarian-style leaders accelerated globally since 2016, with technology and social media acting as the accelerant. It happened in front of our eyes: when platforms took over the distribution of news but left behind the journalists’ gate-keeping responsibilities. That meant lies laced with anger and hate spread faster than facts. Without facts, you have no truth; without truth, there is no trust. Without all of that, democracy dies.

When the British and Canadian governments called for collective effort, they were the first to lead a global effort to say that lines have been crossed in human rights, in press freedom – that journalists must be protected because when journalists are under attack, democracy is under attack.

Both foreign ministers talked about the discomfort of politicians in organizing the conference. Secretary Jeremy Hunt made many laugh when he said, “A politician who stands up for journalism might occasionally feel like a turkey voting for Christmas.”

Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland, a former journalist, was frank. She knows the price of standing up for these values. Last year, she tweeted concern about the jailing of the sister of imprisoned Saudi blogger Raif Badawi. Saudi Arabia vengefully cut off diplomatic and trade ties, and while many governments sympathized with Canada, few came to its defense. If countries had stood up then, would Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman have sent Saudi agents to brutally murder Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey?

Freeland continues to stand up for her nation’s values on social media: she was the only high-ranking official who tweeted support for me when I was arrested. For that, she – along with Christiane Amanpour – were attacked exponentially: more than 7,000 tweets in the first few hours.

2. Actions speak louder than words, and there is “no place for neutrality.”

Aside from the conference, which will now happen annually (the second will be in Canada), Secretary Hunt announced 5 initiatives for action:

  1. A global media defense fund to be administrated by UNESCO to carry out the UN Plan of Action for the Safety of Journalists. Britain is donating about $3.8 million, and Canada bringing in $765,000. Separately, Britain announced that it would launch a separate, $18.8 million program to promote media freedom around the world. It’s unclear whether part of this money would go to another initiative launched by Luminate, one of the conference sponsors, to pull together a $1-billion fund for independent media.
  2. An international task force to help governments with their own policies to deliver their commitments on media freedom. It sounds like they will compile a list of nations every year at the UN General Assembly and decide on collective action.
  3. Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney to convene “a panel of experts to advise countries on how to strengthen the legal protection of journalists.”
  4. A rapid response mechanism led by Hunt and Freeland to lobby when media freedom comes under attack.
  5. The formation of the Global Media Freedom Coalition, which commits governments who sign up to a pledge to speak, defend, act and “intervene” – if necessary – in countries where media freedom and human rights are under attack. At least 12 were announced in London, but the final list will be unveiled at the UN General Assembly in September.

3.  Progress is not inevitable at this existential moment; we are backsliding fast. 

The statistics are alarming. In her two speeches, Amal Clooney pointed out that Freedom House chronicled the 13th year of consecutive decline in media freedom – which means fewer rights for all. She ran through numerous examples from India, Brazil, Azerbaijan, Maldives, Cairo, and, specifically cited Jamal Khashoggi, brutally murdered and dismembered in Turkey by Saudi Arabians who seem to have direct links to its leaders; to the Reuters journalists she helped release from Myanmar, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo; and to my – and Rappler’s – battle in the Philippines.

On July 11, Clooney focused on what we have long stated in Rappler: that there are attempts to silence truth and flood the public space with lies spread through disinformation networks on social media. This is our generation’s battle for truth – part of why Time magazine named us one of the “guardians of truth.” 

Clooney said: “I spoke yesterday of one of my clients, Maria Ressa, a brave journalist and former CNN bureau chief from the Philippines who dared to criticize the actions of her President and as a result has been the victim of every kind of government-sponsored harassment and persecution. She is attacked by online trolls who insult and threaten her in the vilest terms. The authorities tried to revoke the operating license of her news site, Rappler, and applied laws retroactively to criminalise her work. And the justice department has now launched a succession of cases against her that threaten to bankrupt her and send her to prison for up to 63 years. The current media crisis involves both the silencing of truth and the amplification of misinformation to levels we have never seen before. I believe that the way the world responds to this crisis will define our generation and determine whether democracy can survive.”

4. Local is global. Global is local.

After the Holocaust and we looked at what Hitler, Stalin, and World War II brought, leaders came together and crafted global responses and organizations to protect humanity against the worst of what people can do to each other. For economists, there was Bretton Woods; for the military, it was NATO; and led by civil society, there was the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The internet and technology has fundamentally changed our world, and it’s time to recognize that many of the problems we face came from decisions outside our borders. The wild, wild west and winner takes all mindset of technology has to change and recognize what it has destroyed.

What’s clear in many of the meetings I’ve attended led by global thinkers is that “old power,” from our global system of governance, knows little about “new power,” the technology that leaves complex decisions in the hands of a privileged few. Left alone, the algorithms that determine the distribution of facts in our public sphere are optimized for the worst of human nature: what spreads fastest are half-truths and lies laced with anger and hate.

We can’t rely on American technology platforms to set the norms and protect our public space. This requires vast collaboration not just between states but across many disciplines, including journalism, technology, academe, and many more. We are all stakeholders in our brave new world, and we have to start with the foundation: what are the values and principles we stand by?

From there, we can begin to rebuild.

The Global Media Freedom Conference is only the first step: it’s the first bricks laid on the road to a future we need to imagine – and create – together. – Rappler.com


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Maria Ressa


Maria A. Ressa

Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than 37 years. As Rappler's co-founder, executive editor and CEO, she has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. For her courage and work on disinformation and 'fake news,' Maria was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time's Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC's 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine's world's top 50 thinkers, and has won many awards for her contributions to journalism and human rights. Before founding Rappler, Maria focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. She opened and ran CNN's Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the network's Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. She wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia, From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism, and How to Stand up to a Dictator.