‘Democracy at the precipice’: Journalist takes on Rodrigo Duterte

Maria Ressa’s news organisation Rappler is a buffer against dictatorship in Philippines

Maria Ressa feared the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016 would be bad news for the Philippines but even she could not have predicted the toll it would take on her own life.

“I even called him and congratulated him,” says Ressa during an interview on Zoom last week. Whatever her personal feelings, she says she understood why Duterte had connected with voters.

“It was kind of like [Donald] Trump: liberal democracy by elite politicians had not trickled down.”

As one of the country’s best-known investigative journalists, Ressa had spent years monitoring Duterte, from his political rise as mayor of Davao city where he targeted what he called “society’s garbage” – petty drug dealers, young toughs and street children.


In 2015 she conducted a landmark interview in which Duterte admitted shooting three people to death, among the hundreds of summary executions he is suspected of overseeing.

The executions followed a common pattern. Police officers or government officials from barangays – local administrations – approached alleged troublemakers to warn that they had made a hit list known as the “order of battle” or “Duterte’s list” (which he read out on his weekly TV show).

Failure to heed the warning was a death sentence, often carried out by men on motorbikes carrying butcher’s knives and handguns.

This campaign of local extrajudicial killings has since gone national. Some 27,000 people have died in the president’s blood-drenched drug war, according to an estimate by the Philippines’s human rights commission. The actual number may be far higher. “This is horrific,” says Ressa. “We cannot allow any leader to act with impunity.”

Alleged collusion

Ressa made a formidable journalistic foe. She is a former CNN bureau chief and ran the news division of ABS-CBN, the Philippines’s largest media company, before founding Rappler, a start-up news website in 2012. Today it employs more than 100 journalists and is hugely popular, especially with the young.

Soon after Duterte was elected, Rappler began a series of articles on his anti-drug war and its alleged collusion with the police. Duterte reacted in now familiar fashion, branding the organisation “fake news”. In his state-of-the-union address in July 2017, he falsely claimed it was owned by foreigners.

A campaign of online disinformation and intimidation began. Trolls branded Ressa a criminal and a traitor. Hate mail and death threats clogged her inbox. In effect, the government was "weaponising Facebook and the internet", she says. "If you see a lie a million times eventually it creates a bandwagon effect and that makes it a fact."

Duterte’s lawyers trawled Rappler’s website and accounts, looking for problems. Ressa was repeatedly arrested on what her supporters called trumped-up charges for tax fraud and violating laws barring foreign ownership of the media.

In June, this legal work climaxed when a court in Manila found Ressa guilty of "cyberlibel", a newly minted crime that carries a possible jail term of six years. The Alliance for Journalists' Freedom called the conviction an "extraordinarily damaging precedent for press freedom".

Ressa herself said democracy in the Philippines was “at the precipice” and “dying from a thousand cuts”.

Cyberlibel conviction

Another eight arrest warrants have been filed against her, though the legal process has been gummed up by coronavirus. Her legal team will challenge the cyberlibel conviction, she says, all the way to the supreme court if necessary. Victory is uncertain: by the time Duterte’s term ends in 2020, 13 of the 15 sitting judges in the court will be his appointees, says Rappler.

“He’s very powerful,” Ressa accepts. “I have to hope the justices and judges will stick to the spirit of the law.”

Yet, for a woman living under the threat of jail time or death, she is oddly cheerful. For one thing, she says, Rappler began making money last year for the first time, as readers and businesses rally to a trusted source. “We’ve been forged in a fire and proved that the mission of journalism is good business.”

Duterte's handling of the pandemic, meanwhile, is corroding his support, she believes. Last week, the Philippines surpassed Indonesia to become southeast Asia's Covid-19 hotspot, with nearly 120,000 infections. Like all authoritarian regimes, she says, the government appoints incompetent cronies, then tries to demonise critics and pound them into silence.

“It only has a hammer that it uses for the nail that stands up but this is a public health crisis. Our government cannot demonise a virus.”

Raised in the United States, Ressa returned to the Philippines full of hope after the fall of President Ferdinand Marcos in the 1980s. After Duterte’s election, someone asked her if dictatorship could return in the age of social media. “I said no, she recalls. “That was stupid of me.”