Filipino Reporter Maria Ressa on Duterte’s Targeting of the Press & How Facebook Aids Authoritarians
As Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte amps up his attacks on the free press, we speak with renowned Filipino journalist Maria Ressa about Duterte’s deadly “war on drugs,” his affinity for Donald Trump and his weaponization of social media. Ressa is the CEO and executive editor of the leading independent Filipino news site The Rappler, which Duterte has repeatedly tried to shut down. Last week, the Filipino government indicted her for tax evasion in what is widely seen as the government’s latest attack on the website. We speak with Maria Ressa in New York City. She has received the 2018 Knight International Journalism Award and the Committee to Protect Journalists 2018 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we turn now to look at attacks on the press here at home and abroad. The White House is threatening to once again revoke the press pass for CNN’s Jim Acosta, just days after CNN won a temporary restraining order. White House officials have told Acosta he’ll be suspended again once the 2-week restraining order expires. Acosta was initially stripped of his press pass after questioning Trump during a live televised press conference. On Sunday, Trump defended his attacks on the media during an interview on Fox News with Chris Wallace.
CHRIS WALLACE: In 2017, last year, you tweeted this, and I want to quote it accurately: “The FAKE NEWS media … is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American people.”
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: It’s true, a hundred percent.
CHRIS WALLACE: No president has liked his press coverage. John Kennedy, in your Oval Office, canceled the subscription to the New York Herald Tribune. Nobody called it the enemy of the American people.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Chris, I’m calling it—the fake news is the enemy—it’s fake. It’s phony. They’ll take something to—
CHRIS WALLACE: But a lot of times, sir, it’s just news you don’t like.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: No, it’s not. No, no. I don’t mind getting bad news if I’m wrong.
CHRIS WALLACE: But, sir, leaders in authoritarian countries, like Russia, China, Venezuela, now repress the media using your words.
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I can’t talk for other people. I can only talk for me. I will tell you, the news—
CHRIS WALLACE: But you’re seen around the world as—
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Chris. Chris.
CHRIS WALLACE: —a beacon for repression, not for—
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Chris. I’m not talking about you, but you sometimes maybe, but I’m not talking about you. The news about me is largely phony. It’s false.
AMY GOODMAN: While President Trump continues to attack the media, we turn now to look at another world leader doing the same, cracking down on the press. In the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte is attempting to shut down the leading independent Filipino news site the Rappler, which has published groundbreaking work on Duterte’s deadly “war on drugs,” which has killed more than 12,000 people. Duterte has repeatedly described the site as a “fake news” outlet.
PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE: You are a fake news outlet, and I am not surprised that your articles are also fake.
AMY GOODMAN: Philippines President Duterte describing Rappler as a “fake news outlet,” saying its articles are also fake. Last week, the Filipino government indicted Maria Ressa, the founder of Rappler, for tax evasion, in what’s widely seen as the government’s latest attempt to shut down the website. In January, the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission also revoked Rappler’s license to operate, on charges the website is foreign-owned, even though the website is owned by Filipinos. The government then banned the news website from the presidential palace, claiming Duterte had lost trust in the publication, and characterized its coverage as fake news. Duterte has also called reporters who ask him tough questions “spies,” and warned that, quote, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination.”
While the Filipino government has attempted to silence Maria Ressa, her journalism has been praised around the world. Last week, she received the 2018 Knight International Journalism Award.
MARIA RESSA: Our problems are fast becoming your problems. Boundaries around the world have collapsed, and we can begin to see a kind of global playbook. When President Trump banned Jim Acosta last night, he followed President Duterte’s actions against our reporter Pia Ranada and me. I haven’t reported, but I’m banned from the palace, early this year. Of course, when Trump called CNN and The New York Times fake news, a week later—you saw the video—Duterte called Rappler fake news. Power corrupts. It coerces and co-opts.
AMY GOODMAN: On Tuesday, the Committee to Protect Journalists will honor Maria Ressa with its 2018 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award here in New York. Maria Ressa joins us for the rest of the hour here in our New York studio. Prior to launching Rappler in 2011, Maria Ressa worked at CNN and ABS-CBN.
Welcome to Democracy Now!
MARIA RESSA: Thanks for having me, Amy.
AMY GOODMAN: I met you when we were both covering East Timor. You worked for CNN for close to two decades.
MARIA RESSA: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: Congratulations on your work. And how are you operating right now in the Philippines—you’ve also expanded to Indonesia—with these relentless attacks by the president of the Philippines, a close ally of President Trump?
MARIA RESSA: I always say, we hold the line, right? These are all political attacks against us. They haven’t shut us down. We continue operating. But we are fighting many cases, six or seven different investigations and legal cases. And these cases do—it’s like a war of attrition, right? So, our legal fees have gone up, money that I would have wanted to use to expand Rappler, particularly in this age of looking for new business models, looking for new technology solutions. Well, all of that is going to legal fees. So maybe that’s the only place where our government has succeeded. But we continue to do investigative work, and we continue to expose impunity that is happening at all levels.
AMY GOODMAN: So, you just learned that the Philippines government plans to indict you?
MARIA RESSA: Yes. It was actually within 12 hours of getting the Knight International Journalism Award. The Department of Justice gave a press release—just a press release, no other documents—saying that they would indict me, Rappler and our accountant. And what that means is I could, just by being a journalist, face up to 10 years in prison. It is also ludicrous. I mean, I’ve run out of adjectives for the word “ludicrous”—ridiculous—because the basis of this charge is a reclassification of Rappler from a news group to a dealer in securities. So, they’re saying—
AMY GOODMAN: A dealer in securities?
MARIA RESSA: They’re saying we owe them taxes because we are a dealer in securities, so we evaded taxes, because we’re now a stock brokerage firm. We’re not, obviously, right? So, again, if the government pushes through with this, our lawyer, Francis Lim, who is the former president of the Philippine Stock Exchange, has already said there is no legal basis. He’s also stated that it would have impact on the markets, because we’re not the only company that issued this financial instrument. It’s called a Philippine depositary receipt. The two largest television stations have it. The two telecommunications firms have it. So we’ll see. You know, I guess we operate with having a Damocles sword hanging over our heads. And I think that’s the intent of the government, to make us careful, to make us pull back, to intimidate us to silence.
And I think, you know, President Trump and President Duterte have many qualities in common—the bullying aspect of it, the attacking when they don’t like what they’re—when a mirror is being held up to their faces. You know, our response is not to take it personally and to continue doing the reports.
AMY GOODMAN: And his attack on journalists as spies, saying, “Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination”?
MARIA RESSA: Yeah. I like to think it’s hyperbole, but, you know, in October 2015, before President Duterte ran, decided to run for office, he admitted he killed people, in an interview I did with him. John Oliver actually used that clip, because it’s rare that you will have somebody on camera admit they’ve killed three people. This is part of his—I’m going to use the word “charm” in both positive and negative ways—the fact that he says things, like Trump, that you don’t expect to come from a leader, a politician. And that gave permission to others to act in the same way. So we’ve seen an increase, for example, in sexist statements, in misogynistic statements.
AMY GOODMAN: Like?
MARIA RESSA: I mean, on social media. So, the impunity with government goes hand in hand with impunity on social media, on Facebook. And I’ve been very vocal about this, because in the Philippines Facebook is our internet. Ninety-seven percent of Filipinos on the internet are on Facebook. And so, free basics, you know, everyone can get it on their cellphone, but when you click through to read the news article, you have to pay. So people don’t click through. So this whole propaganda machine, which we exposed as early as August of 2016, is very effective. And the impunity and the attacks against women, the misogynistic attacks against women, are a prelude to attacks against any perceived critics of the administration.
AMY GOODMAN: Facebook. I want to go to that issue of how Duterte learned to work Facebook and what happened in the lead-up to the election. And talk to us about the Duterte Diehard Supporters, known as DDS, which happens to be the same initials as Duterte’s infamous Davao Death Squad, which has been thought to have killed hundreds of people.
MARIA RESSA: Well, that’s a perfect example of how you can use social media to turn the world upside down. Davao Death Squad, instead of actually denying it, like a normal politician would—right?—instead of saying, “Oh, no, I didn’t do that,” they owned it—Davao Death Squad—and then pivoted it. So now it is—instead of a negative of the Davao Death Squad killings, it becomes Duterte Diehard Supporters. It’s pivoted. That’s exactly what’s happened with the attacks on traditional media on Facebook, beginning in January this year. You have—there was a survey—Pew Global Attitudes survey said that for people in the real world, they actually trust—86 percent trust traditional media, but for the survey on social media—and this is the Edelman trust survey—for those on social media, 83 percent distrust traditional media. How are they able to do that? It’s precisely because of the information warfare on Facebook that’s happened. It’s—sorry, go ahead.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me go to right before Duterte was elected. He admitted he was linked, as you said, to the death squad in Davao in the Philippines, speaking on a local TV show in a mix of English and—
MARIA RESSA: Tagalog?
AMY GOODMAN: —Visayan.
MAYOR RODRIGO DUTERTE: [translated] To me, they are saying I’m part of a death squad.
HOST: So, how do you react to that?
MAYOR RODRIGO DUTERTE: [translated] True. That’s true. You know, when I become president, I warn you—I don’t covet the position, but if I become president, the 1,000 will become 50,000. I will kill all of you who make the lives of Filipinos miserable. I will really kill you. I won because of the breakdown in law and order.
AMY GOODMAN: “Kill all of you.” He was the mayor of Davao for many, many years.
MARIA RESSA: On and off since 1988, yeah. This is the rhetoric of the president.
AMY GOODMAN: And so, now explain DDSs, Diehard Supporters, and what happened in the lead-up to the election and how he worked with Facebook.
MARIA RESSA: So, Facebook—let me start with, Facebook and Rappler are partners. We know the best and the worst of what can happen. In 2012, we used social media for social good. We helped Filipinos get on Facebook. So it’s partly our fault, I suppose, along with Facebook. But in 2016, when the anger was used in the campaign—right? So there was a campaign machinery that helped Duterte win, and then, after he won, in July of 2016, when the drug war began, that was when it was weaponized, and weaponized using—
AMY GOODMAN: And before the election, Facebook employees came to the Philippines to work with the candidates on how they can use Facebook.
MARIA RESSA: Absolutely. And this is, I think, something Facebook did not understand, did not—didn’t realize the connection between what they were doing in the virtual world and the real world, but they offered their services to any political campaign. And just like in the United States Trump took it up, Duterte took it up. Right? Another thing that we have in common: Cambridge Analytica. The most compromised accounts are here in the United States. The country with the second most compromised accounts are the Philippines. I always used to say that the Philippines is the cautionary tale for the United States. We are the canary in the coal mine. As early as—
AMY GOODMAN: And explain what you mean by the compromised accounts.
MARIA RESSA: Well, Cambridge Analytica had access to these accounts. They were able to get the private data of these accounts and manipulate them. I mean, that’s by—if you look at what they were able to do, right?
AMY GOODMAN: That Steve Bannon was involved with, and other groups.
MARIA RESSA: Yes, of course. I think, for me, the most interesting part of this is that I always think, what you’re looking at now in the United States, old hat to us in the Philippines. The president of Cambridge Analytica came to the Philippines and had a photo with the social media campaign manager of Duterte in 2015. This is global, I think, what we’re seeing, the disinformation that is using hate to incite violence, that is using the algorithms that are actually dividing us, that is tearing down our democracies.
And, you know, as early as—so we had all of this data that we had pulled down because we were Facebook partners. And in August of 2016, I gave that to Facebook, and I said, “This is really alarming. You have to do something about this. We’re going to do a story.” Didn’t get any response back. At the end of that meeting, as a joke, I said, “You know, you have elections in the United States. Trump could win!” And we all laughed. Two of the three people I was talking with in Singapore are no longer with Facebook, but in November, after Trump won, they asked me for the data again.
I think it’s very different now. You know, obviously, they’re on the hotspot, and they’re taking some action. Still, too little, too late. But hopefully now that they know it, we’re pushing very hard for them to do more.
AMY GOODMAN: So, once Duterte takes the presidency in 2016, you say he weaponized Facebook. How?
MARIA RESSA: Absolutely. This is taking the campaign machinery and then using hate. Right? That is, they pounded on the fracture lines of society. For us, it is the gap between the rich and the poor, the gap between the capital—Imperial Manila—and the countryside. And they incited hatred.
The first targets of attacks were anyone who questioned the killings in the drug war. The second targets were journalists. The third were perceived critics of the government. And, you know, it happened so quickly that we did not understand that we were being manipulated. When we came out with our series—in October of 2016, we came out with a three-part series, “Propaganda war: Weaponizing the internet”—we became the target of attack. And that was when I realized—I didn’t even realize, even while we were doing the story, how horrific it could get. Because after we came out with that three-part series, we were bombarded. And “bombarded,” I mean, you know, at the beginning I was still trying to respond to people. Forget it. They weren’t responding back. They just meant to pound me into silence. And so, at one point, I just started counting how many hate messages I was getting.
AMY GOODMAN: You were making a database.
MARIA RESSA: Ninety hate messages per hour, and it lasted exactly a month, meaning like a payroll, a month. And this continues. And that is meant to cripple belief, truth, right?
AMY GOODMAN: One of these messages was “I want Maria Ressa to be raped repeatedly to death.”
MARIA RESSA: Yes. That’s actually tame compared to some of the other ones. I think this is where they all come together. When people see this, it impacts values. And the target, which is this—a middle class that really doesn’t know—it’s called Astroturfing, right? They don’t know what they really think, and so when they think that an overwhelming number believes in President Duterte, believes in President Trump, then they follow, and they jump. It’s a bandwagon effect.
I think the problem for us is, when you take this exponential lies on social media, and then you take the presidential megaphone, the vast powers of government, and you combine them, a lie told a million times is the truth. And then when it is reinforced by the vast powers of government, we have no defense. You can keep doing the stories, but the question there is: Will the community believe you?
AMY GOODMAN: And you believe that possibly these were also bots? There were so many attacks, in general.
MARIA RESSA: I think in the Philippines they use bots as alerts. And labor is so cheap that it’s all largely fake accounts. I mean, even if you look at the Facebook disclosure last year, there’s a little footnote that says the Philippines has a higher than average number of fake accounts.
AMY GOODMAN: One of the messages, one of the more aggressive messages, was a fake endorsement by Pope Francis with the words “Even the Pope admires Duterte” beneath the pope’s image. The Catholics Bishops Conference in the Philippines posted a statement, “May we inform the public that this statement from the Pope is not true. We beg everyone to stop spreading this.” But it just became a kind of truth.
MARIA RESSA: Yeah, absolutely. And that’s part of the reason that the support—well, President Duterte has high popularity ratings, at one point up to 88 percent. And part of that is because of this groundswell of social media. And people can’t tell the difference between fact and fiction. That’s the other casualty. What is truth? If you have crippled all of the truth tellers, then who will people believe?
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break for 30 seconds. When we come back, why you’re under attack. We’re going to talk about your explosive series on the war on drugs. Maria Ressa is our guest, under attack by the Philippines president but here nonetheless to receive major journalism awards in the United States. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: “Tatsulok” by Noel Cabangon, performing in the Rappler studios in the Philippines. This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, as we continue our discussion with Maria Ressa, the founder, CEO, executive editor of Rappler, an acclaimed Philippine news website that’s been repeatedly attacked by the Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. Last week, the Filipino government indicted Maria Ressa, at least announced their intention to indict her, for tax evasion in what’s widely seen as the government’s latest attempt to shut down the website. Rappler has helped to expose his deadly war on drugs. I’d like to turn to a clip from Rappler’s Impunity Series, which documents the drug war in the Philippines and its impacts. The video is titled Day of the Dead. Cecilia Discargar, whose daughter Jennifer was killed in October 2016.
CECILIA DISCARGAR: [translated] At 6:00 this evening, she said, “Mother, mother, can I have 50 pesos?” I asked her why, and she said she was just going to eat. When I when upstairs to take a bath, one of the neighbors came. She said, “Celia, your daughter is dead.” “What?” I told her she should surrender. She said, “I’m not a dealer. I just use because of my friends.” She said, “I’m going to stop soon, now that Duterte is in power.”
AMY GOODMAN: That video, again, titled Day of the Dead, just a clip of your series. Maria, talk about what you’re doing in the Philippines and your coverage of the war on drugs and how many people have been killed since Duterte took power as president.
MARIA RESSA: So, the total number, we will never know for sure, because that is the first casualty in our war for truth, right? Right now the Philippine police claim that they have shot or killed 5,000 people. I mean, just for reference, in nine years of martial law under Ferdinand Marcos, there were 3,200 people killed, right? So 5,000 people killed since July of 2016. But if you go by—you know, in January, they carved out a number of people, a larger number of people, saying they were not drug deaths; they were deaths under investigation. If you carve that out, you’re talking about an additional 20,000 people killed. So, is it 12,000? Is it 5,000, 12,000, which is what human rights groups say, to 20,000, which is what other human rights groups say, or 30,000?
The problem is, it doesn’t matter what the number is. One should be enough, right? One. And I think what human rights groups have pointed out is, the people who are being killed are the people who are the poorest, the people who cannot defend themselves. And these are extrajudicial killings. They don’t have a day in court. What if they’re wrong? What if these are just witch-hunting lists? Which, again, we’ve seen.
We’ve done a whole Impunity Series from the eyes of the victims, their families. And most recently, we finished a seven-part series from the killers’ perspectives. And the killers we interviewed—this took six months to do—the killers admit that they were paid by the police to kill. Impunity.
AMY GOODMAN: Maria, in the last minutes we have left, it’s a group of women reporters who founded Rappler. Is that right?
MARIA RESSA: And Rappler is about 63 percent women. We keep looking for men.
AMY GOODMAN: What gives you the strength and the courage to continue? After you receive these awards, you’re headed back to the Philippines?
MARIA RESSA: I think our line is we hold the line, hashtag #HoldTheLine. The thing that’s great about Rappler is that the founders are older—I’m in my fifties—and we have experience. We’ve lived through many different things. Our reporters are in their twenties, and they have this fresh idealistic energy. The sense of mission in Rappler has never been higher. The reason why they’re going there, day after day, is because, now more than ever, the mission of journalism is necessary. And it’s this combination, trying to figure out what the future of journalism will look like. I’m proud, and I love being part of Rappler, because it takes what we’ve learned over the years—
AMY GOODMAN: Where did you get the name?
MARIA RESSA: Rappler is—we made it up. “Rap” from the '80s, let's talk, plus “ripple,” to make waves. We wanted to build communities of action, because in our country institutions are endemic—there’s endemic corruption, and the institutions are weak. So what we wanted to do was stop waiting for government and help build communities bottom up using technology. That dream is still there. We succeeded at it for up until 2016.
AMY GOODMAN: And how do you protect yourself?
MARIA RESSA: Experience from the past helps. Right? But now what we’ve done is the first new threat is actually the psychological threat—the attacks against our reporters, the people on the front line on social media. You have to deal with that, and it’s something that is completely new. So we send our social media team, our reporters on the front lines to counseling. But then the counselors also need to learn how to do that, so we helped bring in the Dart Center to help the trainers, right?
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, but we’re going to continue our discussion and post it online at democracynow.org. Maria Ressa, founder, CEO, executive editor of Rappler, leading independent news website in the Philippines. I’m Amy Goodman.