Maria Ressa, the founder of Rappler, arrives at the National Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Manila on January 22, 2018. Ressa says she believes the news website is being harassed because of its critical coverage of the President of the Philippines. (AFP/Noel Celis)
Maria Ressa, the founder of Rappler, arrives at the National Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Manila on January 22, 2018. Ressa says she believes the news website is being harassed because of its critical coverage of the President of the Philippines. (AFP/Noel Celis)

Rappler fights to survive amid rising threats to journalists in the Philippines

On January 15, the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission ruled that online news group Rappler had violated laws barring foreign ownership and control of local media, and moved to revoke its registration.

The ruling was based on accusations that Rappler received funds from the Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder and entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar to promote open societies.

Maria Ressa, Rappler’s founder and editor, has challenged what she and others at Rappler see as a politicized decision aimed at stifling critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s government and policies, including a lethal “war on drugs” campaign that has resulted in thousands of deaths.

Rappler, renowned for its unflinching coverage of Duterte’s many controversial policies, actions and utterances, continues to operate while the Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision is under appeal. [EDITOR’S NOTE: Duterte denied to the press that the action against Rappler is political.]

In an email interview with CPJ, Ressa spoke about the state of press freedom in the Philippines and the harassment that she says Rappler’s reporters continue to face.

The Philippines has long been one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a journalist. How has the press freedom situation changed under President Duterte?

It’s gotten significantly worse. In more than 30 years that I’ve worked as a journalist in Southeast Asia, I haven’t seen a rollback of press freedom in our region as much as we’re seeing today.

American tech platforms, which once promised greater freedom and civic engagement [in the Philippines,] are now being used to stifle dissenting opinions and legitimate questions.

Even worse, hate is being used to pound fracture lines in society and target those who ask the questions, helping to create a spiral of silence.

In the Philippines, social media was weaponized about a month after President Duterte won the elections, and the first targets were people who questioned the drug war and [its] extrajudicial killings.

Artificially manufactured narratives aiding strongman rulers are seeded and […] spread on social media to cripple already weak institutions and erode press freedom. That forms the foundation for the government’s own attacks against news organizations and journalists.

From banning reporters from coverage–a right guaranteed by the Philippine Constitution–to numerous harassment suits against us, the government’s goal is clear: It wants journalists to align with its narrative or bear the consequences of having massive state resources trained against it.

Why, in your opinion, has Duterte’s government singled out Rappler for harassment and retribution?

We’re young, we’ve scaled [in size of staff and coverage], and we’re aggressive. We’re a startup that has no traditional media products, [is] guided by the standards and ethics of traditional journalism, [and uses] technology to reach new audiences.

Duterte and the bloggers who helped his campaign know first-hand the power of our community, which is younger and more millennial-focused than our peers in traditional media.

We punch above our size, a 100-person strong organization competing against newsrooms of more than 1,000 people, but our size also makes us vulnerable.

Since we live online, we saw the scorched earth tactics on social media, using disinformation to rewrite history and to reframe narratives. We gathered the data and exposed the growth and tactics of the propaganda machine. That was when we became a target.

The attacks by government against Rappler were first seeded in social media nearly a year before President Duterte attacked us and cases were filed.

Ironically, the first salvo was fired by the now head of social media at the [Presidential] Palace, who posted that Rappler was “allegedly funded by the CIA”, while another content creator for the propaganda machine alleged foreign ownership, a charge that months later was officially taken up by President Duterte himself.

How has the Securities and Exchange Commission decision against Rappler impacted your organization’s ability to cover the news?

The Palace has effectively banned Rappler from access to President Duterte, seeming to prove this government doesn’t want to answer hard questions. [Editor’s note: A presidential spokesperson told reporters in February that Rappler was banned from covering official presidential events and a reporter was barred from entering the Presidential Palace over claims that the outlet publishes “fake news.”]

This move was triggered by an anomalous purchase for the Philippine Navy that involved the quick firing of its head. Until now, the Palace has refused to answer substantial questions. At the Senate hearing, it side-stepped by calling Rapplerfake news.”

This is the first time this has happened after the 1986 people power revolt that ousted a dictator [Ferdinand Marcos]. Despite that, there is a lot of work to be done and we continue to do investigative reports and focus on under-covered issues.

Have you and your reporters been harassed or threatened since the commission’s ruling?

The online harassment has been going on for more than a year and a half, but most journalists seem to now take these attacks as par for the course. Women, of course, are attacked more frequently with an exponential rise in sexist and misogynistic attacks.

The difficulty, of course, is knowing when it crosses the line from the virtual to the real world. When does inciting to violence, exponential now through technology, lead to violence? We’ve had more cases filed against us, which has added to our workload and expenses.

As of March 30, eight government agencies have either cut access or filed cases, most of them trumped up and ludicrous.

[CPJ could not verify the number of cases filed against Rappler.]

Are you hopeful that Rappler will win its appeal against the commission’s decision?

There’s no doubt this will be an uphill battle. As many have told me, “You can’t fight City Hall.” We didn’t choose this. We are only doing our jobs: to hold government accountable to the people. While the political motive is clear, I have to believe there are good men and women who will hold the line with us.

Do you think that by targeting Rappler the government aims to send a warning to other Philippine media against critical news coverage?

Absolutely, that’s the primary purpose. The government’s tactics and intent are clear: follow, stay silent, or face the consequences. It chose to target an example in business, politics, and media.

How has the rise of pro-government online trolling under Duterte changed the reporting environment for Filipino journalists?

It’s a whole new world that cuts down institutions and news organizations systematically, creating and hammering narratives that erode trust in everyone and everything, giving the voice with the loudest megaphone incredible power.

In this case, it’s President Duterte who effectively controls all three branches of government. Technology has enabled autocratic regimes around the world to roll back democracy.

Do you think the online threats represent a concerted government campaign to instill a culture of fear and self-censorship among reporters? If so, is it working?

Yes. And it’s working.

[EDITOR’S NOTE: CPJ has previously received financial support from the Omidyar Network]