Four hundred and twenty-four members of the University community took out a full-page ad in the Tuesday edition of the Washington Post in support of journalist Maria Ressa ’86, who was found guilty of cyber libel in the Philippines over a month ago.
The letter comes a day before a scheduled court appearance for Ressa in the Philippines.
Signed by a number of journalists, multiple former public servants, and two sitting members of Congress, the letter urges the U.S. government to “use its influence” to convince the Philippine government to drop all charges against Ressa, her colleague Reynaldo Santos Jr., and the online news network Rappler.
Ressa, Rappler’s CEO and co-founder, was named a Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2018, and she delivered the baccalaureate address at the 2020 virtual University Commencement ceremony.
On June 15, she was convicted of cyber libel by a Regional Trial Court in Manila, following a May 2012 article published by her news organization alleging ties between a corrupt judge and a wealthy Filipino-Chinese businessman. She was charged alongside Santos — the author of the article in question — and faces both an $8,000 fine and up to six years in prison.
The decision was met with staunch criticism by journalists around the world and has been widely deemed an assault on press freedom and free speech. Ressa’s organization has extensively covered Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s “drug war,” drawing the ire of his authoritarian regime, which has charged both her and Rappler over half a dozen times with fraud and tax evasion.
“Presidents throughout the history of [the United States] have used their leverage against authoritarian governments that violate the rights of U.S. citizens abroad; the current administration should do the same,” the signatories added. “To do otherwise would only diminish America’s role as a leader of the democratic world.”
The letter also urged congressional appropriators to reexamine the hundreds of millions of dollars the Philippines receives each year in U.S. military aid, adding, “Why should U.S. taxpayers underwrite a government that is so egregiously violating our values?”
Spanning nine decades of University graduates, the letter’s signatories include Representatives Terri Sewell ’86 (D-Ala.) and Derek Kilmer ’96 (D-Wash.); former senior White House and State Department officials Mike McCurry ’76, John Bellinger ’82, and Anne-Marie Slaughter ’80; Editor-in-Chief of ProPublica Stephen Engelberg ’79, and Founding Director of the Broad Institute Eric Lander ’78.
Several individuals associated with The Daily Princetonian also signed the letter, including Editor-in-Chief Jon Ort ’21, Managing Editor Ben Ball ’21, President of the ‘Prince’ Board of Trustees Tom Weber ’89, and Trustee Emerita Kathy Kiely ’77.
As of Monday afternoon, five additional individuals signed on after the letter went to press, including Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ben Taub ’14 and humorist Jason O. Gilbert ’09, both of The New Yorker. Other community members interested in signing can find the statement and a “Princetonians for Maria Ressa” Google Form online.
Citing the “absurd number” and “phoniness” of charges against Ressa, the letter also described attacks on the press throughout history by authoritarian regimes as a calculated strategy to “avoid accountability and undermine democracy.”
“Our Princeton education instilled in us an understanding that a government is only accountable to its people when journalists are free to report on its activities without retaliation,” it continued. “That is why we denounce these politically motivated charges against Ressa and her colleagues.”
The letter lauded Ressa, a dual American and Philippine citizen, as having fearlessly withstood a four-year-long “campaign of online and legal harassment blatantly aimed at intimidating journalists and stifling any criticism of the government’s authority.”
“All of us know that the rights Maria is fighting for are not just the rights of journalists. Freedom of speech is a human right; each of us recognizes we must join Maria in this battle,” the letter concluded. “Princeton taught us the importance of intellectual freedom and ‘the service of humanity.’ Maria Ressa is the embodiment of those values. We recommit ourselves to them in standing with her.”
The letter was authored by a group of alumni, including Kiely, McCurry, David Abromovitz ’78, Anne Tergesen ’86, Weber, and Joe Stephens, director of the Program in Journalism and former staff writer for the Washington Post.
In an interview with the ‘Prince,’ Stephens, the Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence, wrote, “Freedom of the press should know no boundaries. Any attempt to suppress free speech anywhere in the world diminishes all of our knowledge, and diminishes all of humanity.”
He added, “It is important for Maria and her colleagues, but also for all of us, that Americans and Princetonians stand as one to support the free exchange of ideas everywhere, and buttress anyone who seeks to hold the powerful to the highest standards of accountability."
The letter joins several other statements of solidarity from the Congressional Freedom of the Press Caucus, National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, the University, the Editorial Board, the Princeton Fillipino Community, and a letter signed in February 2019 by students and alumni.