‘We won!’ Maria Ressa’s victory is a win for global media freedom

“Today, facts win. Truth wins. Justice wins,” Maria Ressa tells the cameras. The Nobel prize winner and CEO of news network Rappler stands outside the court in Manila, after she and Rappler were acquitted of tax evasion charges. As she speaks, she is hit by a wave of emotion — a combination of tears and laughter as the relief takes hold following a four-year court battle.

“These charges were politically motivated, they were incredible to us, a brazen abuse of power, and meant to stop journalists doing their jobs,” she said.

This case has not just been about fighting a dubious accusation from Rodrigo Duterte’s former government in the Philippines, but about free journalism.

“The charges were based on a concocted theory, never before applied in the Philippines, that a news organisation was a ‘dealer in securities’ and had to pay additional taxes that apply only to such bodies,” Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC and Amal Clooney, who represent Ressa’s legal team, said in a statement. Ressa and Rappler had been accused of evading tax payments from foreign investments.

“The case against Ms Ressa was announced just hours after she accepted a prestigious journalism award, and was clearly a political act designed to silence her,” the legal team said.

Even with this victory, Ressa is still facing three more charges, which could carry prison sentences of up to 50 years. The battle is not over. Managing editor of Rappler and Index contributor Miriam Grace A. Go spoke to Index after the court decision.

“In all the cases Rappler faces — all politically motivated and trumped up by the past Duterte government — I’ve always stressed that the persecution, the attack, isn’t just against Rappler,” she said.

“If any government succeeds in crippling or shutting down a fairly big and financially independent newsroom, then it will be easier for them to go after the smaller newsrooms, and even individuals.”

If the ruling had gone the other way, Go said, there would have been far-reaching repercussions, preventing the media from asking hard questions and holding the powerful to account.

“We are just thankful the tax court justices didn’t play along with the past administration’s warped line of reasoning.”

Ressa is now in her fourth decade as a journalist, after starting her career at CNN and eventually setting up Rappler in the Philippines, where she was born. She won the Nobel Peace Prize for her work holding the Duterte government to account — the first journalist to win since 1935 — and joined the judging panel at Index’s 2019 Freedom of Expression Awards. She has even negotiated hostage releases. Her latest book is aptly titled, How to Stand up to a Dictator, where she begins by recounting how the Philippines government issued 10 arrest warrants against her in fewer than two years. She writes, “The breakdown of the rule of law is global, but it had become, for me, personal.”

Ressa explains in her book that she is targeted online every day, with online violence spilling into real-world violence: “In 2018, I began wearing a bullet-proof vest on the road.”

In 2018, Go wrote about attacks on the Rappler newsroom from President Duterte. She described how the president himself ordered a ban on one of their reporters, Pia Ranada, entering the presidential compound. That ban extended to Ressa. Just months after Duterte won the 2016 election, Rappler had a body of evidence showing the “administration was engaging in systematic disinformation.” Ressa was targeted with personal attacks online, as were other staff members.

“There was one time when a proclaimed Duterte supporter got a photo of our office building on Google Maps and posted it, telling other diehard supporters of the president that this was where they should go in order to harm Rappler employees,”  Go wrote.

The attack on Rappler had begun, and what followed was a slew of cases filed against the company, an attempt to revoke its licence and reporters being turned away from press conferences. Rappler was singled out again and again, but global media organisations stood together in solidarity.

“The administration may think that it can slow us down with these distractions – yes, the cases are distractions – but what it didn’t realise was that, by targeting Rappler, it had roused a bigger enemy. #StandWithRappler has quickly given way to #DefendPressFreedom,” said Go in the article.

Today’s victory is felt just as keenly by human rights organisations, journalists and readers around the world, who stand with Ressa and Rappler, and who speak up for press freedom.

Go told Index today: “I had Rappler readers messaging me today, “We won!” Did you read that — WE. They consider this their victory. How can we drop what we’re doing if these people are, as we say, holding the line with us?”

The dangers of “red tagging” and other lessons from the Philippines

On the face of it, Ferdinand Marcos Jnr, the son of the late dictator of the Philippines, won a substantial democratic mandate in the presidential elections on 10 May. The president-elect, better known as Bongbong, will assume office at the end of June, having polled twice as many votes as his nearest rival. He will be joined in office by running mate Sara Duterte, who is the daughter of the outgoing president, Rodrigo Duterte, who has attracted international condemnation for his brutal war on drugs. The alliance of the children of two authoritarian leaders has raised serious concern among human rights activists in the country.

Rey Valmores, chair of Bahagari (Rainbow), a leading LGBTQ+ organisation in the Philippines, admits she is still reeling from the result of the election. She cites Amnesty International on the scale of abuse under the previous Marcos regime: an estimated 3,200 extra-judicial killings, 35,000 cases of torture and the incarceration of over 70,000 political opponents. Now, 36 years on from the popular revolution that ousted the Marcos family from power, she says Marcos Jnr is re-writing history and whitewashing the past with a vast campaign of denialist propaganda.

“You can imagine just how ironic it is for us,” said Valmores. “The man was ousted by millions of Filipinos taking to the streets and now his son is the frontrunner who has refused to acknowledge that crimes were committed.”

Marcos inherits a country devastated by the effects of years of corruption and cronyism — a situation exacerbated by the Covid pandemic — with nearly a quarter of the population below the poverty line. Terrorism legislation introduced in 2020 allows 14-day detention without an arrest warrant and has been used to target the opposition. The war on drugs has left thousands of alleged dealers dead as a result of extra-judicial summary executions. The media in Philippines remains vibrant despite an onslaught from Duterte since 2016, including judicial harassment, cyberattacks and many slurs from Duterte himself.

Valmores challenges the idea that the election of Marcos Jnr was genuinely democratic: “If you say, a country is democratic, that means that the will of the people genuinely gets followed. That means that you have democratic institutions upholding democratic values.” Instead, she and other activists claim the Marcos family has used its vast wealth to fund troll farms pumping out a campaign of disinformation to rewrite history and vilify opponents.

Of particular concern to activists like Valmores is the practice of “red tagging”, which has come about as a consequence of the seemingly interminable civil war between the Philippine state and the Communist Party of the Philippines which started in 1972. Indeed, the country faces a civil war on two fronts with its struggle against Muslim separatists in the south of the country. If a political opponent is “red tagged” it means they are linked, often via social media, to the New People’s Army, the military wing of the Communist Party. “This has repercussions, we have seen it time and time again. A person gets red-tagged and suddenly they have all these trumped-up charges filed against them. They are arrested or even murdered.”

The real test will come after Marcos Jnr officially takes office on 30 June. But the prospects for transparency are not good. He refused to participate in presidential debates, for example. “He did not want to face people,” said Valmores. “He was basically someone who… was just fuelled by no doubt billions of pesos in terms of lies and historical revisionism and that’s how he became a contender. That is hardly democratic to me. We already see the kind of presidency this is shaping up to be.”

With the daughter of the outgoing president as his running mate, it seems unlikely that Marcos Jnr will be able to distance himself from the abuses of the previous incumbent. Estimates vary on the number of deaths in Duterte’s drug war, but the International Criminal Court has said it could be as many as 30,000 people. These are mostly people from poor, urban communities suspected of being drug dealers, or sometimes just users. Human rights organisations have voiced concerns about the number of people, in particular children, killed as a result of police anti-drug operations.

Valmores is not optimistic: “The fact that Marcos is willing to consort with Duterte, the fact that Marcos does not recognise the crimes of his father, the fact that Marcos is not prepared to pay back all the ill-gotten wealth, the fact that he is prepared to bend history to put his family back into power. All that is a clear indication to me that the things we’re facing now, the poverty, the hunger, and the killings… will most definitely continue.”

Meanwhile, despite its reputation as a gay-friendly country, Valmores points out that the Philippines still has no legislation to protect her community against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. “Ferdinand Marcos has remained completely silent on the LGBT issue,” she said. “He has refused to comment on what laws he is willing to support for the LGBT community. Which tells us we are most definitely not a priority for him.”

Asked what the international community can do to help bring attention on the Philippines, Valmores says it is important not to forget the country’s troubled history, especially during the Marcos years. At the same time, she believes the world has a responsibility to get the truth out about what is really going on. “The troll farms I mentioned that Marcos uses to manipulate public perception: it’s absolutely not a joke. There are instances where I just create a post that criticises Marcos, and it gets flooded by dozens and dozens of accounts that are very clearly automated and following a script. I think the only way out of that is by countering those views with the truth. Even just sharing what is happening in the Philippines on the ground right now. I think it makes a huge difference when it comes to combating this narrative, this alternative history that they’re creating.”

The world will do well to watch carefully what develops here when Marcos Jnr takes power at the end of this week. Watch and learn. The Philippines is not alone in facing this kind of democratic crisis fuelled by propaganda, fake news and the rewriting of history.

#HoldTheLine Coalition calls on Philippines authorities to drop Maria Ressa charges ahead of 22 July hearing

Index and the other 77 civil society and journalism organisations that make up the #HoldTheLineCoalition demand that the Philippines authorities drop a barrage of bogus tax and foreign ownership cases against journalist Maria Ressa and Rappler – the news organisation she founded. 

“The prosecution of baseless financial charges and cases represents an attempt to use tax law and foreign ownership regulations as another weapon to criminalise journalism and silence Ressa and Rappler as threats to press freedom and democracy escalate in the Philippines,” said the #HoldTheLine steering committee. “We urge the government to drop all charges and cease and desist its orchestrated harassment campaign.”

The Coalition was formed after Ressa, a prominent Filipino-American editor, was convicted on a trumped-up criminal cyber libel charge in June.   

The Coalition’s call for the dismissal of all tax and foreign ownership cases and charges comes as Ressa prepares to return to court in Manila on 22 July on a baseless criminal tax charge, amid concerns about a suspected Covid-19 outbreak involving the death of a worker at the Pasig Regional Trial Court where the hearing will take place.

Ahead of this appearance, this Court has an opportunity to quash the criminal taxation charge on which Ressa faces arraignment. The #HoldTheLine Coalition urges the state to immediately drop this charge and end the prosecution of the other charges and cases associated with it.

Convictions against Ressa in three related tax cases cumulatively represent prison sentences of 44 years. They hinge upon the bogus notion that Rappler’s parent company, Rappler Holdings Corporation (RHC), is not a holding company for a news organisation but rather a ‘dealer in securities.’ 

“Legal acrobatics – that’s what all these cases show. In order to charge me with tax evasion, the government reclassified Rappler as a ‘dealer in securities’ – we’re obviously a news organisation. It’s absurd!” Ressa said. “From inciting hate on social media to weaponising the law to using the full force of the state against journalists trying to hold power to account … it’s a war of attrition, tearing down trust and credibility. This is how democracy dies by a thousand cuts.” 

The tax-related cases and charges are predicated on another suite of charges and cases connected to alleged foreign media ownership breaches designed to shut Rappler down. They cumulatively represent maximum prison sentences of up to 36 years. 

Together with the criminal libel conviction, which is currently under appeal, and a second pending libel action, convictions in all these cases could theoretically lead to a century in jail for Ressa.

Further, the Coalition calls on the Pasig Regional Trial Court to conduct proceedings remotely on 22 July to ensure the safety of Ressa, her legal representatives, media and court staff amid the coronavirus pandemic. We note that in addition to this court being associated with what appears to be a deadly Covid-19 outbreak, Ressa was forced into lockdown following her appearance in June before a different court which was also the subject of a COVID-19 scare

More than 10,000 people have signed a petition calling on  the Philippine government to drop all cases against Ressa, her former colleague Reynaldo Santos Jr, and Rappler, and to cease attacks on independent media in the Philippines.


International media groups denounce Ressa, Santos’ conviction (Rappler)

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Philippine online news organisation Rappler quoted Index on Censorship editor-in-chief Rachael Jolley discussing the implications of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa’s sentencing to up to six years in prison.

““This campaign is a frightening indictment of the pressures on journalists to stop reporting. We call on those who care about media freedom globally to stand up and take notice. This is not just about one journalist in one place, this has significance for journalism everywhere as part of a trend where we see reporters put under enormous pressures to stop covering stories,” said Rachael Jolley, Index on Censorship editor-in-chief.”

Read the full article here[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]