Maria Ressa: the battle for truth is the battle of our generation

“In about 13 months, the Philippines government filed at least 11 cases and investigations against me and Rappler. I was arrested twice in a five-week period this year. I have posted bail 8 times in about three months, and I’ve done nothing but be a journalist. I have committed no crime,” said Maria Ressa, the CEO and Executive Editor of the Filipino news agency Rappler, at the 2019 Global Investigative Journalism Conference (GIJC) in Hamburg, Germany, “but it’s now a crime, and it’s coming soon to a democracy near you.”

Maria Ressa on stage as keynote speaker of the 2019 Global Investigative Journalism Conference (Photo by Nick Jaussi)

Ressa, who is out on bail and has to post a travel bond to leave the Philippines, was the keynote speaker at GIJC. For the over 1000 investigative journalists present in the auditorium at the University of Hamburg on 28 September, who she called the “special forces,” Ressa’s speech was a call to arms and a call to join forces to “protect the facts.”

“The battle for truth,” Ressa said, “I think this is the battle of our generation.”

Newsrooms are being systematically attacked, she said. Ressa herself, along with Rappler, the news agency she co-founded, have faced not only legal prosecutions but also online hate messages. In the Philippines, Ressa said, Rappler is a cautionary tale. When she was arrested, one of her arresting officers told one of the Rappler reporters who was livestreaming: “be quiet, or you’re next.” 

For Ressa, this is the cost of standing up for what is right, and it creates fear. 

Information from elsewhere backs her up. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), 84 media workers, professional journalists, and citizen journalists were killed on duty in 2018. In February, Slovak investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová were murdered in their own home, while in June five reporters were killed in a mass shooting at the offices of the Capital Gazette, a local newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. In October, Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was assassinated at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

As of October 2019, the RSF website barometer said that 38 journalists, citizen journalists, and media workers have been killed, while 393 remain imprisoned. 

Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters journalists who reported on the Rohingya massacre in Myanmar, spent over 500 days in jail before being released earlier this May. 

Meanwhile, in Thailand, now ranking 136th out of 180 in RSF’s 2019 report, outspoken journalists faced censorship, intimidation, and arbitrary detention during the NCPO era. Dissident journalists and bloggers face the threat of the cyber-security law adopted in February 2019 and of lèse-majesté charges which carry a possible 15-year prison sentence.

Just before the 2019 general election in March, the national broadcasting regulator attempted to suspend the opposition TV Channel Voice TV for 15 days. The suspension order was ruled invalid after Voice TV’s executives took the case to the Administrative Court. Only two weeks ago, Belgian journalist Kris Janssens was detained by the Thai immigration police for around five hours for simply scheduling an interview with ‘Red Shirt’ activist Anurak “Ford” Jeantawanich.

Ressa (second from right) with the organizers and participants of GIJC at the Global Shining Light Award ceremony (Photo by Nick Jaussi)

“When journalists are under attack, democracy is under attack,” Ressa warned. “Without facts, we don’t have truth. Without truth, there is no trust. Without all three, you can’t have democracy. This is why democracy is broken around the world.”

“I’ve seen social media and our legal system weaponized against those who ask questions, who stand up for value, who demand the rights that are guaranteed in our constitutions.” For Ressa, social media platforms and online disinformation networks allow “lies laced with anger and hate [to] spread faster than facts”.

“This micro-targeting online ad-driven business model structurally undermines human will. Our personal experiences are sucked into a database, organized by AI, then sold to the highest bidder. It is – as it has always been – about power and money. That has also siphoned money away from news groups, and if nothing is done, this represents a foundational threat to markets, election integrity, and democracy itself.”

Citing philosopher Hannah Arendt, Ressa also warned against acting without conscience and without asking question. The first time Ressa was arrested, her arresting officer told her “ma’am, I’m only doing my job,” calling to mind Arendt’s writing on the banality of evil and her description of the men who carried out Hitler’s orders in Nazi Germany without conscience and who justified their actions by claiming that they were only following orders.

“This is how a nation loses its soul. So you have to know what values you are fighting for, and you have to draw the lines now,” Ressa said.

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“I am not going to leave you with a problem,” Ressa said at the beginning of her speech. We need to collaborate, she told the roomful of journalists who had been spending the previous four days at GIJC learning about the latest methods of investigative journalism and forming new connections. And not just with each other, she said, we also need to bring in academia, tech, civil societies – those she called “the truth-tellers.”

“We have to join forces to protect the facts,” she said. “We have to fight now, while we’re strong – because, as we have learned, you only get weaker over time because this virus of lies saps civic engagement. If you have no facts, civil society becomes apathetic, and the voice with the loudest megaphone wins.”

“Protect the rights guaranteed by our democracies or watch them slowly erode in plain sight. This is the challenge for all of us today – for next year’s Global Investigative Journalism Conference. What can we put in place today to protect our tomorrows?”