The reporter has become the most prominent critic of the excesses of the Philippine leader in the fight against drugs. María Ressa (Manila, 1963) could enjoy a peaceful life in the United States, which has recognized her journalistic work with prestigious awards such as the Knight Prize for International Journalism and the Gwen Ifill for Freedom of the Press. But this petite and vivacious woman with dual Filipino and American citizenship don’t even think about it.
“I wish I could dedicate myself to travelling and reading books, but if I made my career would not have been of any use,” she assured EL PA<2MASCULINE>S last December. Then Ressa was already pessimistic about the course of a judicial process against her – one of several – for “cyber defamation”. Time proved her foreboding correct, and a Manila court found her guilty last Monday, sentencing her to a maximum sentence of six years in prison.
Ressa left the court faithful to her style: calm, eloquent and combative. “We will continue to fight, it is not something unexpected considering that we are going to raise our voice against any attack on press freedom,” she assured the media at the gates of the court. The journalist, named Time Person of the Year in 2018 by Time magazine, defends her innocence and her legal team, in which the lawyer Amal Clooney participates, has affirmed that they will appeal in a case that could take years to reach the Supreme Court of the Philippines.
The journalist and a colleague of Rappler, the medium co-founded by the reporter in 2012, were denounced for an article published in May of that year that links the Philippine businessman Wilfredo Keng with drug trafficking and human trafficking. However, the allegedly violated “cyber defamation” law was passed without retroactive approval four months after the report came to light. It is just one of the inconsistencies for which Ressa and groups for the defence of press freedom consider that this and seven other judicial proceedings initiated against the journalist and her environment, including for tax evasion, are “politically motivated.”
The animosity of the Philippine President, Rodrigo Duterte, towards Rappler in particular, and towards the free press in general, is not a secret. Shortly after winning the 2016 election, he made it clear. “Just because you are a journalist, you are not exempt from being assassinated if you are a son of a bitch,” proclaimed the leader, who started a war on drugs that has left 27,000 dead since then, according to Amnesty International. However, the Philippine police only admit 6,600.
If there is any way that has denounced the excesses of the battle against the drugs of Duterte, it has been Rappler. Angry, the president prohibited his staff from covering official government activities, in addition to once revoking his license. In 2018, while talking to a reporter from this outlet, Duterte rebuked her: “If you try to throw shit at us, then the least we can do is try to find out. And what about you? Are you clean? “
Ressa has been the main target of these “inquiries”. The journalist, who emigrated with her family to the United States as a child, when the dictator Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the early 1970s, has a long history with Duterte, whom he met shortly after his return in 1986. The return of Ressa to his native country, after studying molecular biology at Princeton University, coincided with the popular revolts that overthrew Marcos. In the midst of the whirlwind, the young woman – who did not feel “neither Filipino nor American”, as she assured the BBC, began journalism to learn from a country from which she thought she had distanced herself.
And so it was that beginning her career as a reporter, she first interviewed Duterte in the late 1980s, when he debuted as mayor of Davao (on the southern island of Mindanao), where he earned the nickname of Harry The Dirty for their violent methods. The two met again in 2015, in the middle of Duterte’s electoral campaign for the presidential elections. Then, the procacious future Philippine president confessed to the journalist, with more than three decades of experience on CNN and the Philippine chain ABS-CBN, that he murdered three people. The confession, published in Rappler, triggered the popularity of the digital medium, which has continued to scrutinize the actions of the president.
She believes that what has made her the “number one enemy” of the president, as they have come to identify her, is having disputed “her impunity in the war on drugs and her propaganda campaign.” Rappler, one of the most influential media in the country, has published award-winning reports in which hitmen confess to having been hired by the police to murder drug addicts, in addition to exposing the false accounts allegedly used by the environment of the president in the networks. Social to gain popularity by manipulating the information space.
Coverages that have caused countless problems for Rappler and Ressa, something that ensures that it never deterred her. “It is at times so that journalists become journalists.” By “moments like this” he refers above all to the situation in the Philippines, where, in just four years in power, Duterte has taken virtually all control of the executive, legislative and judicial organs of one of the oldest democracies from Asia.
It is one of the reasons why Ressa was already cynical when a few months ago, this newspaper asked him if he expected a fair process. “Let me explain it this way. When Duterte leaves office in two and a half years, he will have appointed 13 of the 15 Supreme Court judges. He is the most powerful president we have had, perhaps even more than Ferdinand Marcos (1965-1986),” he lamented.
Although pessimistic about his fate, Ressa has not stopped wanting to fight to defend his innocence and warn about the threats hanging over Philippine democracy. As he continues his battle in the courts and fights from the Rappler newsroom, he has assured that he is also preparing “mentally” for the possibility of going to jail. And he is clear – he has told the Hong Kong South China Morning Post – what is part of that preparation: “We have to have a plan.