On March 29, 2019, journalist Maria Ressa was arrested for the second time in two months. Following the official indictment, your digital media company, rappler, had foreign owners – violation of Philippine laws. But everyone knew the real cause was because his group had the courage to criticize President Rodrigo Duterte, hold him responsible for the nearly 30,000 deaths in the so-called “war on drugs”, investigate corruption charges in his government, and publicize how the government was using machinery to trolls, bots and fake news on the internet. The arrest, and the years of threats of harassment that went before, were meant to inject fear into everyone who said things that the Duterte government found inconvenient.
fake news, and its destructive and polarizing effect on politics and society, is not limited to the “uncles of Zap” that we face in Brazil. It’s a tool that the current wave of authoritarian leaders – and those aspiring to be authoritarian – around the world is used to manipulate citizens and erode democracies. Official censorship divisions that were integral to past dictatorships – just like in the Filipino dictatorship as in Brazil – are no longer the preferred way to control perceptions and instill fear and hatred. These days, governments twist seemingly benign laws to harass unfavorable media while their trolls attack and drown legitimate journalism, science, and opposition voices. Hangover and rappler they are facing more than ten lawsuits, which include tax evasion and electronic libel. The comment areas of your articles are full of bots and fanatics insisting that any criticism of Duterte is a lie and threatening Ressa and others with rape and murder.
:: Nobel Peace Prize awards journalists for defending freedom of expression ::
Before the Duterte government, Ressa did not have a reputation for being especially progressive. she was the head of CNN in Manila and Jakarta and wrote to The Wall Street Journal. In 2012, she founded rappler with other veteran journalists: Glenda Gloria, Chay Hofileña, and Lilibeth Frondoso. The purpose was to establish a suitable media company to deal with changes in electronic communication and technology. While the other founders lived under military rule in the Philippines (1972-1981), Ressa grew up in the United States from the age of 10 and did not have a particularly strong relationship with left-wing or democratic movements. Since its beginning, rappler published several articles and op-eds both criticizing and praising actions by the government and other public figures. What was important was editorial independence and in-depth investigations.
This obligation with independence and in-depth investigation placed rappler in direct conflict with the Duterte government (2016-present). The then-candidate’s campaign was the first to massively take advantage of a movement on social media that spread lies and hatred, particularly against then-president Benigno Aquino and his party. Much of the infrastructure for this movement was built by the family of dictator Marcos, who since at least the 2000s have invested in videos, memes, blogs, and other tools to blur the legacy of corruption, torture, and murders that took place during the dictatorship and, instead, introduce it as the “golden age” of the Philippines. At the same time, he presented the post-Marcos period, represented by the Aquino family (Benigno’s mother was the first president after the dictatorship), as a huge failure. Their narrative didn’t even attempt to discuss the values of democracy versus dictatorship. Rather, he presented the struggle for democracy as if it were a personal struggle between two families and their tribes.
:: New Nobel Prize in Economics showed that increasing minimum wage does not mean increasing unemployment ::
Rodrigo Duterte’s campaign and eventually presidency took advantage of this “tribalism”. Anyone who was not of the Duterte tribe was an enemy, not only of him, but of the Filipino nation. The cornerstone of Duterte’s public policy is the so-called “war on drugs” which killed some 30,000 people, the vast majority poor, unarmed, and without formal charges. When journalists and civil society criticized this, the government called us enemies of the state, protectors of drug trafficking, and obstacles to the country’s development. When journalistic investigations uncover millions of dollars lost to corruption by Duterte and his allies, these journalists are called in as agents of some communist-international collusion to overthrow Duterte and the sovereignty of the Philippines. The threat of violence remains real and present.
Hangover and rappler they are not the only ones who criticize the Duterte government, nor are they the only ones to be persecuted. The newspaper The Daily Inquirer maintained a list of confirmed victims of the “war on drugs.” He also published the famous cover featuring a photo of a woman embracing her dead husband, like the Virgin Mary embracing Jesus in Michelangelo’s Pietá. The photo resulted in a documentary on New York Times on the human rights atrocities in the Duterte government. Duterte threatened to sue the owners of the inquire for tax fraud, and in 2017 the owners sold the paper to an ally of his. In 2020, Duterte’s allies in the chamber refused to renew the franchise for ABS-CBN, closing the largest media and journalistic production company in the country.
:: Duterte and Bolsonaro: the far right Siamese brothers ::
Ressa is not the only one, but is visibly the most vocal and effective figure resisting the fake news and attacks against free media nationally and internationally. She actively advocates independent fact-checking on large network platforms. Search done by the website rappler exposed as blog networks, pages of Facebook, and accounts in Facebook and Twitter are organized to distribute ftake news and contributed to the deactivation of thousands of accounts, pages, and web sites. Until now, the rappler he did not give up or become less intense in his criticisms and investigations.
Maria Ressa’s struggle is important for all who want a world where abusive governments cannot threaten or harass their critics into silence and where reality means more than a shapeless mass that can be distorted and manipulated. But this world needs a coalition that crosses borders to hold governments and tech giants accountable. It needs a movement even more powerful than the wave of mini-fascists that feeds on hate – a movement that supports and protects independent media and objective truths. We need to hold the bar, #HoldTheLine.
*Cecilia Lero was born in the Philippines, is a political scientist from the University of Notre Dame and a postdoctoral fellow at the Center for Metropolis Studies at the University of São Paulo (USP).
**This is an opinion piece. The author’s vision does not necessarily express the newspaper’s editorial line Brazil in fact.
Edition: Vivian Virissimo