Maria Ressa: Declining Press Freedom in Asia Threatens Democracy

Since his inauguration in 2016, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has presided over a campaign of state-sanctioned violence against suspected drug users and dealers. Rights groups believe more than 20,000 people have been killed (including children, and primarily the very poor). One of the chief chroniclers of the brutal drug war is Maria Ressa. A Princeton-educated journalist, Ressa is the founder and executive editor of Rappler, an independent publication whose fearless reporting on the "vigilante-style killings" has led to her arrest on multiple occasions.

Ressa has emerged as a symbol of the forces threatening press freedom in Asia and throughout the world. In addition to persecution from ascendent authoritarian regimes, independent media organizations are undermined by a fusillade of lies, half-truths, and obfuscations published on social media platforms. 

On Tuesday, Ressa delivered introductory remarks at an Asia Society ceremony presenting the 2019 Osborn Elliott Prize for Excellence on Journalism in Asia to a team of reporters from the Associated Press. A petite woman with short-cropped hair, Ressa's slight stature belies an enormous inner strength; a fierce determination to press on with her work in spite of daunting pressure.

You can watch a video of Ressa's speech above, while the video of the complete Oz Prize award ceremony is presented below. Here is the full text of Ressa's remarks, which have been lightly edited for clarity:

The Valentine's Day gift from my government to me was allowing me to post bail. In the last five weeks, I've been arrested twice and detained once. It's actually been eight times that I've had to post bail in three months. From January 2018, the Philippine government has filed 11 cases and investigations against me and Rappler. Our only crime is to speak truth to power. 

There are two levels of impunity that we're fighting in the Philippines, and it's very similar to many parts of the world. The first is in the drug war: The U.N. estimates that there have been at least 27,000 people killed in the Philippines since July 2016. The second level of impunity is familiar to Americans: The exponential attacks and lies on social media. The pattern is very clear in how journalists, activists, lawyers are attacked. It's bottom-up astroturfing; It's lateral, transfusing into media, co-opted by the state; and finally, top-down by President Duterte himself. These were the attacks against Rappler, against journalists.

Most recently, a month ago Rappler, along with other independent newsgroups, were on a list called "the matrix." We're supposedly plotting to bring down President Duterte. I've run out of synonyms for the word ludicrous. It's this. This is what we all have in common, regardless of which country you report from. Exponential attacks on social media are very personal. Your organization can no longer protect you from that. You say a lie a million times, that lie is truth. Right? And that's really it. That's kind of the virus that's going through all of our democracies. When the lie becomes truth, without facts — which is where journalists are really the gatekeepers — lies become truth. Without truth, we don't have trust. That's our biggest challenge — this battle for truth. And increasingly, we are all under attack in many parts of the world. 

I don't want to take up more of your time, except to say: These are all battles that require not just courage from journalists but everyone on social media. The social media tech platforms have taken away the gatekeeping powers of journalists, and we need to demand that this poison — the virus that has infused the body politic, that has weakened our democracies — this poison be taken out. I won't mention Russia. I'll just end with this one thing. This shows us how important the mission of journalism is. It shows us how important independent journalism is and how digital journalism needs to not just learn from tech but take from tech and force tech to take the gatekeeping responsibilities. We are going to have to do it with them.

Congratulations to both the Asia Society for 16 years and to the winners this year. More than ever the world needs investigative journalism. It's the survival of our democracies.

About the Author

Profile picture for user Matt Schiavenza

Matt Schiavenza is the Assistant Director of Content at Asia Society. His work has appeared at The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, The New Republic, Fortune, and strategy + business among other publications.