Editor’s Note: Steven Butler is the Asia program coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Last September, I met Maria Ressa, founder and CEO of the Filipino news site Rappler.com, in a hotel in Washington, DC. We discussed preparations for an award that the Committee to Protect Journalists, for which I manage the Asia program, would give her in November.
It would be CPJ’s highest honor: the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award, in recognition of extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom.
The conversation took an unusual turn. With the government readying tax evasion charges against Rappler and with potential criminal liability against Ressa, would she be allowed to exit the country again if she returned home before the award? She looked at me and, in an unusually sad voice, said, “Steve, I don’t want to go to jail.”
It was unusual because Ressa is one of the most optimistic and energetic people I’ve ever met. She conveys an infectious enthusiasm for her craft and profession – digging deep and reporting the news.
As I write this, she’s in jail. Police in plainclothes raided Rappler’s Manila office and hauled her away. The only night judge available then denied her bail. This time she’s being held on cyber libel charges under the Cybercrime Prevention Act. Rappler says it’s for an article about an allegedly corrupt businessman that was published even before the law went into effect.
It’s an absurd case. And the precarious state of Ressa and her news operation is not likely to improve better unless you and I, people who believe in the power of a free press, make a big noise about it – and get our governments to put pressure on the Philippine government.
And we should not stop there. We must put pressure on governments across Asia, where press freedom is in retreat. From Pakistan, where pressure on journalists from the military has led to an alarming degree of self-censorship, to China, which is the world’s second biggest jailer of journalists, with 47 behind bars in CPJ’s latest survey, there is much work to be done.
Then there’s Myanmar, where Reuters journalists Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo were sentenced to seven years in jail in September while in the process of exposing a massacre by the army of Rohingya Muslims in the Rakhine state – a crime for which the perpetrators have been separately tried, convicted and sentenced to 10 year terms.
And Vietnam is imposing harsh sentences for citizen journalists who report on the environment and political corruption.
In other words, Ressa’s story, while deeply troubling, is not isolated. And as my exchange with her last November indicated, it’s also not her first run in with her government. In the case of the tax evasion charges last year, Rappler was hauled up over a common investment scheme used to bring foreign capital into the country, a lawyer involved in the case told me.
The case is still pending, but the lawyers connected to Rappler say they are confident the charges won’t hold up in court. Still, defending against them is costly and time-consuming.
It’s also certainly no accident that the charges – both tax evasion and cyber libel – were selectively leveled against a highly professional yet critical journalism outfit and journalist who has been a thorn in the side of the government for revealing corruption and government brutality.
If you want to see the kind of journalism that gets people in trouble, see this in-depth and brave coverage of killers in the President Roderigo Duterte’s drug war, the first in a five part series that took six months to report.
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Ressa is a unique character in the Philippines. As a longtime CNN correspondent, she brought deep experience and credibility back home when she launched Rappler in 2011 as an innovative and forward-looking digital enterprise.
As Marcus Brauchli, former executive editor at the Washington Post and an old Asia hand put it to me: “Maria has set an incredibly high standard for journalism in the Philippines and has raised a generation of younger journalists who now aim at that same level.” (Brauchli is co-founder and managing partner of North Base Media, which holds financial instruments issued by Rappler.)
It seems inescapable: good journalism puts reporters and editors in the crosshairs. But it’s not just a problem generated locally, but in America, too.
Ressa said it best in November: “Our problems in the Philippines are partly caused by yours. American social media technology platforms, once empowering, now weaponized against journalists, activists, and citizens, spreading lies across borders; and, a president so much like ours whose attacks against the press (and women) give permission to autocrats (like ours) to unleash the dark side of humanity and extend their already vast powers with impunity, especially in countries where institutions have crumbled.”