A high school teacher gave me a habit around books: If the first sentence doesn’t make you want to read on, put it down. Reading Maria’s words, it’s hard holding back tears in my eyes and lumps in my throat. It’s like my mom is sitting in my living room, growling defiantly at authorities again. Gossiping, in her teacher-voice, about politicians. Unlike many parents, my mom was happy I decided to become a journalist - as if years of political education and fretting that I decided to study theatre had finally paid off.
I don’t know why Maria Ressa's story resonates with me - or maybe I do. She’s an amalgam of my mom’s experiences and my own - her mom and my mom share a maiden name. We’re both Filipinos who were laundered through the American education system and grew up with a hyphenated Filipino-American identity. My mom was also threatened with death by a dictator - an event that turned her pipe-dream of moving to America into a hastily planned escape that split my family in half. I fled to the States with my parents while my siblings toughed it out in Manila. My parents fought each other and the American immigration system until we found someone to sponsor our refugee status.
“You don’t know who you are until you’re forced to fight for it” is the first line in How to Stand Up to a Dictator. It’s Maria’s unwavering stance, although she probably had little choice in fighting many of the battles she fights now - Duterte installed a “cyber-libel” law that saw her and another Rappler journalist arrested and tried for publishing an article that alleges a businessman had links to illegal drugs and human trafficking. She has also been targeted by other court cases that allege tax evasion and foreign ownership violations - anything Duterte thought would stick.
The fact that the Norwegian Nobel Committee gave the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists, Ressa and Novaya Gazeta editor Dmitry Muratov, highlights the fact that modern wars and insurrections are fought also in papers, on screen and online. Old school conflicts over land and resources are as important as the contest over who gets your screen time and, in turn, your living time.
Duterte wasn’t Ressa’s first rodeo with abuses of power. While running news operations at ABS-CBN, then the country’s biggest broadcaster, a local politician loyal to president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo ambushed and murdered 58 people, 32 of them journalists, who were accompanying his rival to file for candidacy for an upcoming election. Maria says the person who leaked one of the early images of the killings was a citizen journalist, likely a soldier - because as the news was breaking, the only people who had access to the burial site were military. The Maguindanao (Ampatuan) Massacre remains the single most deadly attack on journalists in history and the Philippines is still one of the most dangerous countries to be a journalist anywhere in the world.
Rappler is a unique beast in the information wars. It was founded by women - Maria Ressa, Chay Hofileña, Beth Frondoso and Glenda Gloria - as a Facebook page called MovePH with twelve journalists and developers in 2011 that quickly became the Rappler website in 2012. I got a chance to visit their offices in 2018 with my documentary filmmaker hat on, for a film based on Jonathan Ong and Jason Cabanes’s work on troll farms. I wanted to make a film on those farms and the people who worked there, weaponised relativism and the journalists who fight it. I ended up with a different film, but the impression I left their offices with stuck with me. This is where activism and journalism work - where each and every body was working to make this world a more hopeful place. Despite the risks. They even took therapy breaks.
If you’re brought up in Western newsrooms, journalism and activism are forcibly set apart. When Maria Ressa took the decision to root herself and her work in the Philippines, she found that, there, activism and journalism are inextricably connected. Which, I believe, is why she has campaigned so fiercely for people to be more aware of what goes on in the virtual space. Elections were won online long before anyone lined up at a polling booth - and companies like Facebook were using the Philippines and its people as a test site for disinformation. If she could, she would end surveillance capitalism and stop coded bias.