Duterte critic Maria Ressa says attacks on press freedom come from all sides


London
CNN

Maria Ressa, a prominent critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, says it’s easier to be on the front line as a war correspondent than to fight for press freedom, because “you don’t even know where is the enemy here”.

“At least when you’re in a war zone the shots are coming from one side and you know how to protect yourself,” she told CNN.

Three years after her legal battles with strongman Duterte made her the face of the fight for media freedom, the veteran journalist faces attacks on multiple fronts.

Rights groups have long claimed she was targeted by authorities as part of a campaign to silence and intimidate Rappler, her upstart media company which has reported extensively on the war Duterte’s drug murderer.

Ressa, a TIME Personality of the Year and former CNN bureau chief, has posted eight bail and faces trial on a litany of charges ranging from cyberlibel to tax evasion – which she has called it a “stupid” effort to shut down his reporting.

Despite appearing in court up to four times a week and admitting she doesn’t sleep as much as she used to, Ressa continued to serve as CEO of Rappler – overseeing a now sizable team of reporters who, according to her, are intimidated daily.

“They’re in the trenches,” she said. “They have to wear fancy dress to go to some campaign rallies because President Duterte doesn’t want them there.”

“If you’re a journalist in the Philippines, it’s part of everyday life. It’s like pollution in the air,” she added.

While Ressa admits she feels “uncomfortable” serving as a global figurehead in the fight for a free press, she is acutely aware of the importance of the cause. “When we look back a decade from now, we at Rappler will know that we did everything we could,” she said.

But his concerns extend far beyond his own country.

This week, Ressa will take part in the world’s first media freedom conference in London. Co-hosted by British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his Canadian counterpart Chrystia Freeland, the event will bring together representatives from major democracies and states where press freedom is under daily threat.

Ressa, who had to seek court clearance and post large bonds to be allowed to travel to Britain, will bring a stark warning to the event: that the rise of populist leaders, the rapid spread of misinformation and the Growing distrust of the news media has created a perfect storm that leaves no country immune from the potential collapse of media freedom and independence.

“Look how quickly my country has gone from a very robust democracy to a democracy where you have to have enormous resources and courage to be a journalist. It shouldn’t be like that,” she said.

“We have to give warning to every person in a democracy,” Ressa added. “These freedoms are eroding before our eyes.” And the consequences of that are dire, she noted. “Facts are the cornerstone of any public discourse,” Ressa said. “If you don’t have facts, you can’t have the truth.”

Ressa is not alone in her worries. 2018 was one of the deadliest years on record for journalists. In its annual index of press freedom around the world, the watchdog Reporters Without Borders warned of “a climate of intense fear” against journalists in major democracies.

The United States slipped three places to 48th in this ranking, falling below Botswana, Chile and Romania and into the category of regions classified as “problematic” for press freedom for the first time.

Only one in four countries were ranked as having a good or satisfactory situation for the media, according to the study, while journalists face a difficult or very serious situation in 71 countries.

Few countries have improved since the publication of the index. “In many places we continue to see a decline,” Rebecca Vincent, UK bureau chief for Reporters Without Borders, told CNN.

Vincent noted how US President Donald Trump’s “anti-media rhetoric” has been replicated around the world. “We have seen a number of other leaders emulate this strongman model,” she said, citing the Philippines, Brazil, Serbia and Malta as examples.

His organization has sounded the alarm as media ownership has been consolidated by populist governments in Poland, Serbia and Hungary. She campaigned for justice for Maltese investigative journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed in a car bomb attack in 2017, whose alleged killers could soon be released on bail. He reacted in horror when Miloš Zeman, who calls himself the “Czech Donald Trump”, infamously brandished a fake assault rifle bearing the message “For journalists”, during a press conference in 2017.

“We saw a blur between that kind of rhetoric and real, real violence,” Vincent said. “That may be something that, in pre-Trump days, we wouldn’t have accepted as normal.”

At its bloody extreme, this culture has brought tragedies to places once considered havens, Vincent said.

The US was recently added to the list of the world’s deadliest nations for journalists, while Northern Irish writer Lyra McKee became the first journalist to be killed in the UK since 2001, according to the non-profit organization Committee to Protect Journalists.

And on a daily basis, an industry already crippled by economic struggles has seen journalists struggle with harassment and mistrust, Vincent noted. “The overall effect is that it’s harder to do your job as a journalist in many countries.”

But those involved in the battle for media freedom feel the tide is slowly changing.

In addition to Ressa’s court battles, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul and the arrest of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar have led to a series of high-profile cases of violence or persecution. against journalists in 2018.

All three cases reverberated around the world and were referenced by Time Magazine when it named “The Guardians” as Person of the Year.

Nishant Lalwani, of the philanthropic organization Luminate, which is supporting the conference, said leadership on the issue was badly needed.

“Former champions of media freedom, like the US government, are moving away from the positions they used to take to protect the integrity of journalism,” he said. “So now we need new leaders on the world stage to step up and continue to champion this cause.”

Even amid her endless legal saga, Ressa remains hopeful.

“So many countries around the world have watched in silence as people are killed, rights are eroded,” she said. “Silence is complicity.

“But this is one of those times when people in power say we can’t look away, and that’s very welcome.”

Like others, she hopes to see concrete proposals to tackle the spread of misinformation on platforms, increased accountability for big tech platforms like Facebook, and better protections for journalists facing intimidation.

But Ressa also hopes the urgency of the moment can be captured at the conference, which organizers aim to become an annual event held in a new country each year.

“I’m going to be optimistic,” she said. “It’s a different world today. And we have to wake up.

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