Q&A with Maria Ressa ’86, Filipina journalist and Time 2018 Person of the Year| Apr 8, 2019
Maria Ressa ’86, the chief executive officer for Rappler, has been named Time’s Person of the Year for 2018 for her work in defending press freedom in the Philippines under the Duterte regime. In the past 14 months, she has had to post bail 11 times for charges that include tax evasion and cyber-libel. Recently, she was arrested when deboarding a plane at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila.
At the University, she majored in English with certificates in theater and dance. She was also a pre-med student.
On Monday, April 8, she sat down with the staff of The Daily Princetonian in an on-the-record interview. Below is a lightly edited and condensed transcript of the conversation.
The Daily Princetonian: Since we’re at Princeton, your alma mater, can you describe your Princeton experience and how you made the leap into journalism?
Maria Ressa: I didn’t think I was going to be a journalist when I was at Princeton, and I had only visited The Daily Princetonian once and it was near graduation. So I was pre-med — a good Asian-American — and then I did English with a certificate in theater and dance. I fell into journalism when I had a Fulbright [Fellowship] after I graduated to go to the Philippines. I didn’t know what home was, and so I wanted someone to pay for me to go home. Then that was 1986 — the year of the People Power Revolt — and I just never left. My boxes with my notes from college are still at my parents’ house, and I haven’t opened them since then.
When I graduated from Princeton, I felt like I could do anything, I could go anywhere, and it was about clarity of thought. It was about untangling what was front of me that could be messy, and finding the thread and pulling it out. I had applied to law school, I had jobs coming home, and I stayed in Southeast Asia and that determined my life.
It doesn’t matter whether you are Slavic or whether you are pre-med or [have] a certificate in journalism. I think the key thing is that you have to look at the world around you today, look at the discipline of teaching that this institution teaches you, and look at the opportunities around you … the most exciting thing is that technology has turned the world upside down … journalism as it is right now — the business of journalism — is disintegrating. Your generation will come up with this new form and substance that journalism will become. Your Princeton education — you won’t know how much you love it until you’re gone from Princeton, and, inevitably, whenever I’m confused about what the next step is, I come back.
DP: What was the moment for you where you knew you wanted to spend a career in journalism?
MR: It’s like a relationship if you think about it. I was doing breaking news for CNN, which meant almost every major story broke up a relationship. I was asking a good friend: “How could you commit to someone? How do you commit?” When you have so many opportunities, you sometimes don’t commit. The answer is similar to how I fell into journalism and how journalism is such a large part of who I am: I love you today, I promise to love you tomorrow … when I fell into reporting, I didn’t set out to be a journalist. I was just at the right place at the right time. It was an exciting time when I became a reporter — it was People Power in the Philippines that sparked all these other movements all around the world. Certainly, the beginning part about my career was about covering countries that used to have authoritarian, one-man rulers. It was like they were released, and it was like the pendulum swung. In many instances, it would swing wildly because if you had an authoritarian-style ruler, it swings loudly. Slowly, a lot of my career, then, became [about] how democracy worked.
You don’t have to make a choice. You just have to say: I love you today, I will love you tomorrow. And guess what? That becomes years and years and years.
DP: What moment of Duterte’s regime thus far has shocked you the most?
MR: Impunity. The reason Rappler became targeted is we did a series on the drug war — it’s called The Impunity Series. The UN [High Commissioner for Human Rights] Michelle Bachelet actually estimated that … 27,000 people [were] killed in this brutal drug war from July 2016 until December of last year. 27,000. The Philippine police will say that they killed 5,000 people, and they have 30,000-plus other homicide cases under investigation, so they splintered it off. That’s 35,000 other people.
I’m shocked at the brutality of the drug war, the violence in the real world. The underpinning is violence in the virtual world, and that virtual world is social media. Information warfare against its own citizens. We were targeted because we reported the drug war, and we were the only news group to report on the information operations on Facebook. Facebook is our Internet. Ninety-seven percent of Filipinos on the Internet are on Facebook … In January 2019, the Philippines is … number one in terms of time we spent on social media, which is essentially Facebook.
We are a Petri dish. What we’re living through is a bottom-up attack, triggered by fake accounts, astroturfing perspective that comes up months later top-down. The attacks against Rappler came up as early as [January and February 2017] when the pro-Duterte bloggers began talking about how Rappler is foreign-owned. That is the charge. There are now 11 cases that we are facing. I’ve posted bail 11 times. I’ve had one criminal arraignment already, Wednesday last week … You never think that you’d sit in court and you go, “Not guilty.” When the judge asked me, “What’s your plea?,” I stepped on what he was saying, and I said not guilty. My friend, who was sitting next to me, said, “Maria, you smiled after that.” I said [that] I have to smile because if I’m not smiling, I would be yelling.
11 cases in 14 months that’s filed by the government and arrested twice in five weeks.
DP: Going off of that, 11 cases, 14 months — are you afraid at all of further escalation? What keeps you going?
MR: What keeps me going is I have the data. I know how we are being manipulated. Number two, we have a constitution. The constitution is patterned after the United States. There is a bill of rights. My rights have been trampled upon, me personally. Freedom of the press, freedom of expression, right?
Yes. Of course, I get frightened at times, and I sit there — of course, you have parents, right? My parents, they’re like “don’t go back to Manila.” “Mom I have to go back.” But, why? Because this is the time that matters. We have a very strong authoritarian-style leader. He’s probably the most powerful man. He is popular. The most recent survey [shows] 80-plus percent popularity, unlike Trump here. But it’s also, the astroturfing on social media, with people — is this real, or is this manufactured, number one. Number three? The statistical surveys that are done. They are done in the homes of people. If you’re living in a rural area where law and order is weak, would you really say you’re against Duterte?
I’m a cautionary tale for journalists who talk too much and who question too much. That doesn’t mean I’m going to change who I am. That’s our job, and as long as our constitution holds, we’ll continue exercising these rights. If the constitution changes, then easier for me. It’s — we got to fight. Standards and ethics … when no one is attacking you, it’s easy to follow your standards and ethics, but when you’re under attack is the time when you must live by these values. You must model them, because it is for your community. It is for your publication.
DP: As CEO of Rappler, you’re not merely a journalist. You’re a leader for all your staffers, younger journalists. So what do you say to them, your manager editor recently being arrested?
MR: Rappler started with 12 people. There were four or five of us above 40, so we started in 2012. The rest were the smartest 20-somethings I could find. And right now, the energy and the mission of our young reporters and our staff — we’re about 85 or 100 people now, we vacillate between those numbers, they have free reign to continue doing stories that need to get done. They look at that as a privilege, cause other news groups won’t touch the stories.
Why? I’ll tell you one story we did on vigilantes who were told, given a list of people to kill, and were paid by the police to kill these people. It was a seven-part series. No other newsgroup touched it because the threat — it’s an existential threat. They’ll file cases against you. The thing is, I have nothing else to protect. The largest group of shareholders in Rappler are the journalists and we’ve been journalists our entire lives, so it almost feels like if we don’t stand up now, if we don’t do these stories, then we lost the window to fight for the democracy we have. I think that’s similar here in the United States, you know? We are a cautionary tale for you. Not saying that you should want to be arrested.
What do I tell our team? Our team has workflow. They’re the ones who protect me. I mean in many ways, what do I do? I can talk really fast. I can articulate what needs to be said … But these values and principles, they’re through our entire organization. There’s no better time to be a journalist in the Philippines than today because this fight matters, and the mission of journalism has never been as necessary as it is now. Because not only are you fighting against an authoritarian-style ruler who’s chipping away —think about it like termites. If this was a wood floor, tons of termites are eating the floor. You don’t see them, but at one point you’ll just drop.
We’re also fighting for the form of journalism … What about the form, the substance, the style, the diction, the monetization of journalism — our whole industry is in creative destruction. There’s a part of me that’s excited … and then there’s the other part that knows that if we don’t fight this battle, then our system of democracy, our democracy, will fundamentally change.
DP: You’ve talked a lot about home in this interview and I’m just curious: what does home mean to you?
MR: For me, how do you define home — I still don’t know in the sense that, when I’m with Filipinos, I’m American, [and] when I’m with Americans, I tend to be more Filipino. I think that used to be called ‘third culture kids …’ I think that helped make me a good journalist because I know that there isn't one version of reality, and I know that glass half-empty and half-full is exactly the same thing, and your stories can have more nuance.
Identity is everything. The information operations in the United States on social media are happening with identity politics. It’s happening. You know the way it’s working, right? They’re taking fracture lines of society until it splits open, and you have probably been subjected to information operations, perhaps without you knowing.
Anyway, so, home. Where is home? I gave myself a deadline: I need to make a choice when I turned 40. And I chose the Philippines.