Journalist Maria Ressa has faced criminal charges and death threats because of her coverage of the populist, authoritarian Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. She's covered Duterte's bloody "war on drugs," his expanding grip on all parts of the government and his crackdown on the press.
Publish Date: Feb 23, 2021
from W H Y Y in Philadelphia. I'm Terry Gross with fresh air today, a journalist who's been standing upto a populist, authoritarian president and as a result has been targeted by armies of Internet trolls has been jailed, faces criminal charges and was named Time magazine's 2018% of the year. The journalist is Maria Ressa, who is now the CEO and executive editor of the online media organization Rap Lor, based in Manila. The president is Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. Maria Ressa is the subject of a documentary that will be shown Friday on the PBS series Frontline. Later, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel Outlaw, an updated Western she describes as The Handmaid's Tale meets Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. At a time when many journalists are facing increasing threats around the world, my guest, Maria Ressa, has stood up to one of the world's most dangerous leaders. Ressa is a co founder and executive editor of Rap Lor and Online Media Organization, based in Manila. She's been covering the rise of the populist authoritarian president Rodrigo Duterte, since he was a mayor in the Philippines when he became president in 2016 Ressa and her reporters covered Duterte's bloody war on drugs, his expanding grip on all parts of the government and his crackdown on the press. Ressa and Wrap Lor have faced 13 government investigations. She now faces nine criminal charges. In June, Ressa and another reporter were convicted of cyber libel, defaming someone online. It's a Filipino law that's being applied retroactively because the law didn't even exist when the alleged crime was committed. They are appealing and are still fighting other charges. They also face constant threats of assassination and jail from Duterte, his supporters and the army of Internet trolls they unleash. Ressa sees this abuse of power and the weaponized use of the Internet as a danger to democracies everywhere. Maria Ressa was born in the Philippines and grew up in the US She worked for CNN for two decades. She ran CNN's bureau in Manila and then the Jakarta bureau and served a CNN's lead investigative reporter focusing on terrorism in the region. Rested decided to make Manila her home and created rap lor. Her fearless work has garnered attention worldwide. In 2018, she was named Time magazine's Person of the Year. Now there's a documentary about her work, called 1000 Cuts, directed by Ramona Diaz. It will be shown this Friday on the Frontline Siris on PBS stations and online. Maria Ressa. Welcome to Fresh Air and I so admire your courage and the journalism that you have been doing, so thank you for coming on our show. Thank you for having me. I want to quote some of the things that President Duterte has said in this first one got a lot of applause. He said, If you don't kill me now, four months from now, I'll roast you like a pig He said, Just because you're a journalist, you think you're exempted from assassination and a speech, he said. When I became president, I said, Do not do drugs because I will kill you. I have three more years. I'm really going to finish you off You'll see. At his inaugural address, he said, If you're into drugs, someday, you'll make a mistake and I will kill you. It's just horrifying to hear a president speak about killing his citizens like that. Do you take him at his word, especially with journalists saying that just because you're a journalist, you're not exempt from assassination. I think that's the one thing he's always delivered his threats, you know, The funny thing is, in 2015, which was when we were trying to figure out Was he really going to run or not? I sat down with him, and that was the first time I'd interviewed him since 1989. So I interviewed him a long, long time ago. And then in 2015, and in that interview he admitted that he killed three people on camera, you know, and and at that point, maybe the way American journalists covered Trump, it was like I didn't quite know what to think or how to react. But since then, every quote that you said it creates a new beginning off how the president uses his power, right? He doesn't lie about it. He threatens and, you know, he creates a list of the off people he says are drug addicts. And in that he gave me this list. This is now in 2016, December 2016. He's already president. We're sitting at the palace and he gives me a thick list like almost ah, foot long on board, he says. This is these air all the drug addicts, and I was like, Is this proven? He said? Well, no, not yet. But then slowly, over the next few years, those people on that drug list they wound up dead. So I think the difference between the United States and the Philippines between Trump and Duterte is you have institutions. And while Americans say that your institutions aren't strong enough, they were strong enough to hold a strong president. We have a president who's boasted off killing people and continues to encourage the police and the military to kill people. We don't know what to do with that. In one of your interviews with President Duterte, you said to him, You break the law, you threatened to break the law. You've said you killed. And yet you have the task of keeping the rule of law. Is it important that people be afraid of you? And he answered Yes. For the rule of law, there must be fear. So that's a very brave question to have asked him, especially since his government has been investigating and threatening you. Um, what is it like for you to confront him with questions like that? You know, That was December of 2016, and I was one of four reporters that he gave on interview, too, at the Palace with President Duterte. At that point, I was really curious because all of the things that he had said, you know that he believes that he understands the Filipino psyche and really, he his his understanding of the psyche is all about bullying. He believes that Filipinos do not follow the law and that they must be threatened into doing that. I had asked him earlier. How are you? How are you going to make this country where 110 million people. And it's It's been a tough a democracy that's kind of, you know, had weak institutions, weak law enforcement, endemic corruption. How are you gonna handle this? And he says, No, no, no, I'll be different because I know how the Filipinos think. And then he said how he would use institutions like the tax agency to run after, uh, and make his his make Filipinos follow. Well, little do I know. Little did I know then that the tax agency would come after me because I'm doing my job right. I faced five tax evasion cases that the government has filed Andi All because we've been reclassified from a news organization to stock brokerage Like, what's the Let me think of the exact Yeah, yeah, yeah, this is what? When I actually go into it, I just go, Oh, my God. Um, so we're no longer well, we were reclassified as a dealer. Insecurities. That's the exact quote. So rappel er, as an entity is not a news organization, we are quote dealer in securities. And because we are, we then should have paid all the taxes that a stock brokerage agency would right, that that makes perfect sense, doesn't it? That makes it so much sense as being tried retroactively for, ah, law that didn't exist when the so called crime was committed, which is what happened to you with the libel case. So it is really remarkable what you're facing now. One of Duterte's first moves as president was to initiate ah, war on drugs, which he promised you in an interview would be bloody. And he wasn't kidding. There were bodies on the street. Um, what did he say he was trying to do, like in all of the clips that I've heard from him from the man he appointed as the leader of the war on drugs. They're going after addicts. I don't hear them talking about the big dealers who are basically addicting other people. They're talking about the addicts who have, like, a health crisis because they're addicted. Yes. And that's, you know, I think you look at Human Rights Watch. Amnesty International. Um, all the reports that we have done will show you that the poor have borne the brunt of the drug war and the number of people killed. You know, that's the first casualty in our work for truth. It it goes the government, the police will say it's about they rolled it back this year, toe 5500. But, you know, as of uh oh, my gosh. The end of 2016, the beginning of January 2017, it was at 7000. But we watched in plain sight as the police world back the numbers. And yet, on a daily basis, our reporters would come home with at least eight dead bodies a night. So from the end of 2016 to 2017, we knew something bad was happening. But human rights groups are saying that up. Uh huh.