World Press Freedom Day

[OPINION] Fighting the virus of lies

Maria A. Ressa

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[OPINION] Fighting the virus of lies

Graphic by Janina Malinis

'Those with power and money must choose. Ask yourselves these questions: Who are you? What do you stand for? What kind of world do you want in the next decade?'

The following speech was delivered by Rappler CEO Maria Ressa on Sunday, May 2, after receiving the 2021 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

[OPINION] Fighting the virus of lies

Thank you so much to UNESCO, the independent jury, the more than 80 press freedom and news organizations who have helped us hold the line. This is for Rappler and all Filipino journalists who – despite the increased risks just to be able to do our jobs – continue to hold power to account. It’s also a reflection of how the world looks at the Duterte administration today and the death by a thousand cuts of our democracy happening in front of our eyes.

I wish I were with you today in Namibia, but I’m in Manila, prevented from traveling by court order – which I continue to fight as State-led legal attacks are waged against me on multiple fronts. I also can’t travel because my nation is suffering the consequences of putting retired military generals in charge of a public health crisis – when political patronage and loyalty, not competence, is the metric of power.

This is a time when lies and incompetence kill.

In less than two years, the Philippine government filed 10 arrest warrants against me.

In 2017, government propagandists tried to trend the hashtag #ArrestMariaRessa. They failed, but they kept at it, and two years later, I was arrested – twice – in a little more than a month. They violated my rights when they prevented me from posting bail and detained me overnight. I suppose they wanted me to shake and feel their power.

To the budding dictators of this world, if you have to abuse your power to make you feel powerful, you’re not powerful – just abusive and small.

What I and other truth-tellers in the Philippines have lived through has given us firsthand experience of how the law and law enforcement have been turned against our people. Now more than ever, power and money rule.

In 2016, 4 months after Duterte became president, Rappler and I wrote investigative pieces showing you how the first casualty in our nation’s battle for truth is the number of people killed in our brutal drug war. That violence was facilitated and fueled by American social media companies. Based on big data analysis, we reported the networks that were manipulating us online, targeting and attacking truth-tellers, pounding to silence anyone challenging power, which created an extensive social media propaganda machine.

Five years ago, we demanded an end to impunity on two fronts: Duterte’s drug war and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. Today, it has only gotten worse – and Silicon Valley’s sins came home to roost on January 6 with mob violence on Capitol Hill.

What happens on social media doesn’t stay on social media.

Online violence leads to real world violence.

Since 2016, I have felt like Sisyphus and Cassandra combined, repeatedly warning that our dystopian present is your future. American biologist EO Wilson said it best: we’re facing paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology.

Social media, with its highly profitable micro targeting, has become a behavior modification system, and we are Pavlov’s dogs experimented on in real time – with disastrous consequences. Facebook is the world’s largest distributor of news, and yet studies have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than really boring facts.

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The social media platforms that deliver the facts to you are biased against facts, biased against journalists, biased against meaningful conversations. They are – by design – dividing us and radicalizing us. This is not a free speech issue. It’s not the fault of its users. These platforms are not merely mirroring humanity. They are making all of us our worst selves, creating emergent behavior that feeds on violence, fear, uncertainty, and enabling the rise of fascism.

Think of it like this.

Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, and it becomes impossible to deal with our world’s existential problems: the coronavirus, climate, the atom bomb that exploded in our information ecosystem when journalists lost gatekeeping powers to technology companies. Tech abdicated responsibility for the public sphere and couldn’t seem to fathom that information is a public good.

Women, people of color, the LGBTQ, those already marginalized become even more vulnerable as you’ll see in the UNESCO report “The Chilling” whose lead author, ICFJ’s Julie Posetti, convinced me to speak up when my attacks began many years ago.

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Of course, there’s a cost to speaking truth to power.

On Christmas Eve two years ago, Amal Clooney sent me an email. Until then, no one had really had the time to go through the many ludicrous charges I’m facing and their penalties. Turns out I could go to jail for the rest of my life. By her last count – on paper – it was more than a hundred years in prison. So I dealt with the sinking feeling in my stomach – this is my lawyer telling me that, right? I took away a lesson: don’t open an email from Amal on Christmas Eve! Sometimes you just have to laugh.

Believe it or not, I’m lucky. When you’re the target of attacks you’re the only one who sees it all, but you can also see exactly how the tactics change. Knowledge is power. And because I spent two decades of my career outside the Philippines, the international community knows me, the quality of my work, my values, my work ethic.

So many others aren’t so lucky.

Like 35-year-old Ritchie Nepomuceno, who accused the police of extortion, torture, and rape. She was one of at least 3 Filipino women who filed charges against 11 policemen who they said held them inside a secret room at a police station. Less than two weeks ago on April 19, Ritchie was walking down the street when she was shot and killed.

Human rights activist Zara Alvarez and another colleague were set to testify against the government and the military. She went as far as asking for court protection, which was at first denied, and is still on appeal. Last August, she was walking home with her dinner – she had just bought it – when she was shot and killed. So was her colleague. No one is left to testify. I could go on.

Now let’s go to the journalists.

Frenchie Mae Cumpio, still in jail, celebrated her 22nd birthday in prison. Arrested and jailed more than a year ago, it is a familiar tactic: get an arrest warrant; do a raid; then charge with possession of illegal firearms and explosives, a non-bailable offense.

That’s also what happened to Lady Ann Salem, another young journalist. Arrested last December, Salem said the police planted evidence in her apartment, but another judge voided her arrest warrant. It still took time before she was released, forcing her to spend 3 months in prison during a pandemic. 

Because she’s a journalist.

It’s not a coincidence that these victims are women. This February, Senator Leila de Lima, whom Amnesty International calls a prisoner of conscience, began her 5th year in prison. She calls it lawfare – when law is used as a weapon to silence anyone questioning power.

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The cuts to democracy are bleeding. They’re overwhelming and can’t be ignored.

Last year, two days, just two days after World Press Freedom Day, Filipino lawmakers, nudged by President Duterte, shut down ABS-CBN, once our largest broadcasting network, our largest news group, also headed by a female journalist. Thousands lost their jobs.

Around the same time that Hong Kong passed its draconian security law, the Philippines passed an anti-terror law that sparked 37 petitions at the Supreme Court to declare it unconstitutional. Under that law, anyone some Cabinet secretaries call a terrorist could be arrested without a warrant and jailed for up to 24 days. Here’s one last fact: more lawyers have died under the Duterte administration than in the 44 years before he took office.

So here’s the thing: our problems can’t be solved from the Philippines alone. Again, something I’ve said repeatedly: what’s local is global; and what’s global is local.

As we face the coronavirus, there’s an equally dangerous and insidious virus of lies unleashed in our information ecosystem. It’s seeded by power wanting to stay in power, spread by algorithms motivated, created for profit, a business model Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism. The reward is your attention, and all this is linked to geopolitical power play. Last week, the EU slammed Russia and China for their intensified vaccine disinformation campaigns. Last September, Facebook took down information operations from China that were campaigning for the daughter of Duterte for president – next year, our presidential elections – that network was creating fake accounts for US elections, and it was attacking me.

The virus of lies is highly contagious. They infect real people, who become impervious to facts. It changes the way they look at the world. They become angrier, more isolated. They distrust everything.

In this environment, the dictator wins, crumbling our democracies from within.

I became a journalist 35 years ago when people power in the Philippines helped spark democracy movements around the world. I had the great privilege of reporting on much of Southeast Asia’s transition from one-man authoritarian rule to democracy. 

Inevitably, there is this one moment when power and money chooses – status quo or change: in the Philippines in 1986, it was an elite family’s banner at a protest rally that helped open the floodgates that ousted a dictator. In Indonesia in 1998, months of student protests led nowhere until the business community and the military stepped in, ending nearly 32 years of Suharto.

Those with power and money must choose.

Ask yourselves these questions: Who are you? What do you stand for? What kind of world do you want in the next decade?

The more you have, the more you must risk.

Because silence is complicity.

Whether you’re at the UN or heading a nation or a corporation, or you’re a politician, human rights worker, a journalist, or a citizen, fight – and win – your individual battle for integrity.

At stake is our collective global future.

Please act now.

Courage ON.

Thank you. –

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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.