Maria Ressa, a prominent critic of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, says it’s easier to be on the frontline as a war correspondent than to fight for press freedom, because “you don’t even know where the enemy is here.”
“At least when you’re in a war zone, the gunfire’s coming from one side and you know how to protect yourself,” she told CNN.
Three years since her legal battles with strongman leader Duterte made her the face of the fight for media freedom, the veteran journalist faces attacks on a number of fronts.
Rights groups have long alleged that she has been targeted by authorities as part of a campaign to silence and intimidate Rappler, her upstart media company which has reported extensively on Duterte’s deadly war on drugs.
Ressa, a TIME Person of the Year and former CNN bureau chief, has posted bail eight times and faces trial on a litany of charges from cyber libel to tax evasion – which she has slammed as an “absurd” effort to halt her reporting.
Despite appearing in court up to four times a week and admitting she doesn’t sleep as much as she used to, Ressa has continued to serve as Rappler’s CEO – overseeing a now sizable team of reporters who she says face intimidation on a daily basis.
“They’re in the trenches,” she said. “They have to wear disguises to go to some election rallies because President Duterte doesn’t want them there.”
“If you’re a reporter in the Philippines, this is part of daily life. It’s like pollution in the air,” she added.
While Ressa admits she feels “uncomfortable” serving as a global figurehead for the fight for a free press, she is acutely aware of the importance of the cause. “When we look back a decade from now, we at Rappler will know that we have done everything we could,” she said.
But her concerns stretch well beyond her own country.
This week, Ressa will attend the first global conference on media freedom in London. Co-hosted by UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and his Canadian counterpart, Chrystia Freeland, the event will bring together representatives from leading democracies and states in which press freedom comes under attack on a daily basis.
Ressa, who had to ask for court permission and post sizable bonds to be allowed to travel to Britain, will bring a stark warning to the event: that the rise of populist leaders, the rapid spread of disinformation, and increasing distrust of the news media have created a perfect storm that leaves no country immune from the potential collapse of media freedom and independence.
“Look how quickly my country has turned from being a very robust democracy to one where you have to have tremendous resources and courage to be a journalist. It shouldn’t be like this,” she said.
“We need to sound the alert to every person in a democracy,” Ressa added. “These freedoms are being eroded in front of our eyes.” And the consequences of that are dire, she noted. “Facts are the cornerstone of all of public discourse,” Ressa said. “If you don’t have facts, you can’t have truth.”
‘Strongman model’ spreading across the world
Ressa is not alone in her concerns. 2018 was one of the deadliest years on record for journalists. In its annual index of press freedom around the world, watchdog Reporters Without Borders warned of “an intense climate of fear” against reporters in leading democracies.
The US slid three places to 48th in those rankings, dropping below Botswana, Chile and Romania and into the category of regions classed as “problematic” for press freedom for the first time.
Just one in four countries was classed as having a good or satisfactory situation for the media, according to the study, while journalists faced a difficult or very serious situation in 71 nations.
Few countries have improved since the release of the index. “In many places we’re continuing to see a decline,” Rebecca Vincent, director of the UK bureau of Reporters Without Borders, told CNN.
Vincent noted the extent to which the “media-bashing rhetoric” of US President Donald Trump has been replicated worldwide. “We have seen a number of other leaders emulate that strongman model,” she said, name-checking the Philippines, Brazil, Serbia and Malta as examples.
Her organization has sounded the alarm as media ownership has been consolidated by populist governments in Poland, Serbia and Hungary. It has campaigned for justice for Maltese investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia, killed in a car bomb in 2017, whose suspected killers could soon be released on bail. It reacted in horror when Miloš Zeman, who styles himself as the “Czech Donald Trump,” infamously waved a mock assault rifle bearing the message, “For journalists,” at a press conference in 2017.
“We’ve seen a blurring between this kind of rhetoric and actual, real-life violence,” Vincent said. “This is possibly something that, in the pre-Trump era, we wouldn’t have accepted as normal.”
At its most bloody extreme, that culture has resulted in tragedy in places once considered safe havens, Vincent said.
The United States was recently added to the list of the world’s deadliest nations for reporters, while Northern Irish writer Lyra McKee became the first journalist to be killed in the United Kingdom since 2001, according to nonprofit organization the Committee to Protect Journalists.
And on a daily basis, an industry already crippled by economic struggles has seen reporters battling harassment and distrust, Vincent noted. “The overall effect is that it is more difficult to do your job as a journalist in many countries.”
‘We cannot fathom the importance of this moment’
But those involved in the battle for media freedom feel the tide may slowly be turning.
In addition to Ressa’s court battles, the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul and the arrest of two Reuters journalists in Myanmar led a series of high-profile cases of violence or persecution against reporters in 2018.
All three cases have reverberated worldwide, and were referenced by Time Magazine when it named “The Guardians” as Person of The Year.
Nishant Lalwani, from philanthropic organization Luminate, which is supporting the conference, said leadership on the issue is badly needed.
“Former champions of media freedom, like the US government, are actually falling away in terms of the stands that they used to take in protecting the integrity of journalism,” he said. “So now we need new leaders on the global stage to step up and keep championing this cause.”
Even amid her unending legal saga, Ressa is hopeful.
“So many countries around the world have watched in silence while people have been killed, while rights have been eroded,” she said. “Silence is complicity.”
“But this is one of those times when people with power are saying we cannot look away, and that is very welcome.”
Like others, she hopes to see concrete proposals to fight the spread of misinformation on platforms, increased accountability for big tech platforms like Facebook, and better protections for journalists facing intimidation.
But Ressa also hopes the urgency of the moment can be seized at the conference, which organizers intend to become an annual event hosted in a new country each year.
“I’m going to be optimistic,” she said. “It’s a different world today. And we need to wake up.”