Maria Ressa: “Journalism research has no integrity if it endangers journalists at risk”

Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, who runs the independent news site Rappler in the Philippines and is a former Index Awards judge, has slammed the annual Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism report on digital news for putting independent journalists like her at risk.

The Guardian has revealed that Ressa resigned from the board of the prestigious Oxford-based institution last year after it listed Rappler as the “least-trusted” news source in the Philippines. She had kept her resignation secret but has now gone public after RISJ failed to change its methodology for this year’s report.

She claimed the regime in the Philippines “weaponised” the Reuters report to attack the work of Rappler. In 2020, Ressa was found guilty of “cyberlibel” in a case relating to a Rappler story alleging links between a businessman and a top judge, even though its publication dated from before the legislation under which she was charged. The appeal is now before the Supreme Court. The authorities have also brought a number of other cyberlibel and alleged tax evasion cases against Ressa and she faces years in jail if convicted.

There could not be a more serious charge against RISJ than putting the brave journalists of Rappler at risk and Ressa’s concerns should be shared by every organisation working in the area of free expression. The digital survey is based on an extensive YouGov survey of attitudes amongst randomised participants in selected countries around the world. It has been funded to the tune of nearly £5m by the global information giant Google over the past three years. Ressa said the research failed to take full account of government disinformation campaigns and the influence of the tech platforms.

Ressa took to Twitter after RISJ issued the following apology: “We are sorry our work has been abused and Maria Ressa thinks our methodology risks undermining media in the Global South.”

In response, the author of How to Stand Up to a Dictator said: “It’s not enough to be sorry when your work is used to attack journalists in ‘inconvenient’ countries. Journalism research has no integrity if it endangers journalists at risk.”

Ressa revealed that she had been involved in four years of behind-the-scenes feedback to the Reuters Institute. She added; “With no substantive changes and no acknowledgement of its harms, you have to ask – what is the purpose of this research?”

She quoted from an email she sent on 4 July 2022 that stated: “If you don’t acknowledge your mistake you will repeat it – and other more vulnerable news groups may not weather it as well as we can.” She went on to explain that the Philippines’ government and “propaganda machine” was using the Oxford University brand against Rappler. “When journalists are under attack, it isn’t business as usual for academics studying journalism. This isn’t just bad actors manipulating the study; the flaw is in the study itself.”

Branko Brkic, editor-in-chief of South Africa’s independent Daily Maverick, said he shared Ressa’s concerns about the Reuters Institute study and particularly its failure to distinguish genuine journalism from misinformation in his country.

It is difficult to overstate the significance of Ressa’s intervention. Emily Bell, director of the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia, told the Guardian that the RISJ methodology was open to question: “If you only take an audience view of the threats to journalism, specifically in markets where you do not have strong protections for a free press, you are at high risk of ending up with a distorted picture.”

Rasmus Kleis Nielsen, the director of the RISJ, said he deplores the abuse of Ressa and the way the research has been misrepresented. But the real question is what he is going to do about it. Ressa has described the survey as “giving a loaded gun to autocratic regimes”. Her words are a devastating rebuke to Nielsen and RISJ. But they should also give pause for thought to all western actors in the field of human rights and press freedom, Index on Censorship included. Those working to support dissident writers and independent journalists around the world must first listen to those working on the ground.

‘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?”

We stand with Rappler as they are ordered to shutdown

Dear readers and viewers,

We thought this day would never come, even as we were warned in the first of week of December last year that the Securities and Exchange Commission  (SEC) would be handing down a ruling against us. Because we have acted in good faith and adhered to the best standards in a fast-evolving business environment, we were confident that the country’s key business regulator would put public interest above other interests that were at play in this case. We were, in fact, initially relieved that it was the SEC that initiated what appeared to us as a customary due diligence act, considering our prior information that it was the Office of the Solicitor General that had formed, as early as November 2016, a special team to build a case against us. We were wrong. The SEC’s kill order revoking Rappler’s license to operate is the first of its kind in history – both for the Commission and for Philippine media. What this means for you, and for us, is that the Commission is ordering us to close shop, to cease telling you stories, to stop speaking truth to power, and to let go of everything that we have built – and created – with you since 2012. All because they focused on one clause in one of our contracts which we submitted to – and was accepted by – the SEC in 2015. Now the Commission is accusing us of violating the Constitution, a serious charge considering how, as a company imbued with public interest, we have consistently been transparent and above-board in our practices. Every year since we incorporated in 2012, we have dutifully complied with all SEC regulations and submitted all requirements even at the risk of exposing our corporate data to irresponsible hands with an agenda. Transparency, we believe, is the best proof of good faith and good conduct. All these seem not to matter as far as the SEC is concerned. In a record investigation time of 5 months and after President Duterte himself blasted Rappler in his second SONA in July 2017, the SEC released thisruling against us. This is pure and simple harassment, the seeming coup de grace to the relentless and malicious attacks against us since 2016:

We intend to not only contest this through all legal processes available to us, but also to fight for our freedom to do journalism and for your right to be heard through an independent platform like Rappler. We’ve been through a lot together, through good and bad – sharing stories, building communities, inspiring hope, uncovering wrongdoing, battling trolls, exposing the fake. We will continue bringing you the news, holding the powerful to account for their actions and decisions, calling attention to government lapses that further disempower the disadvantaged. We will hold the line.  The support you’ve shown us all this time, and our commitment to tell you stories without fear, give us hope.  You inspire courage. You have taught us that when you stand and fight for what is right, there is no dead-end, only obstacles that can only make us stronger.  We ask you to stand with us again at this difficult time. –

This statement was originally posted here on the Rappler site

Daphne Caruana Galizia: Four years on from her murder, Malta must be held to account

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”117699″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]The following remarks were made by Caoilfhionn Gallagher, QC of Doughty Street Chambers, a member of the international legal team for the family of Daphne Caruana Galizia at a vigil on Friday 15 October 2021 at the Maltese High Commission to mark the fourth anniversary of Daphne’s assassination.

“We gather today in London to pay tribute to Daphne Caruana Galizia and honour her memory, and to stand in solidarity with her bereaved family in Malta. On this, the fourth anniversary of her assassination, I wish to say four things.

“First, it is now ten weeks since the independent public inquiry in Malta published its detailed 437-page report, finding that the Maltese State should shoulder responsibility for her death. The damning report concluded that a culture of impunity was created from the highest echelons of power within the Castille. Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was singled out and identified as enabling this culture of impunity, and his entire cabinet was found to be collectively responsible for their inaction in the lead up to the assassination.

“The State, the report held, ‘created an atmosphere of impunity, generated from the highest echelons of the administration inside Castille, the tentacles of which then spread to other institutions, such as the police and regulatory authorities, leading to a collapse in the rule of law.’ The report laid bare endemic corruption and fundamental structural failures, the very subjects of Daphne’s reporting.

“The Government created a ‘favourable climate’ for anyone seeking to eliminate Daphne to do so with the minimum of consequences, giving a green light to her being treated as a target. The State also failed to recognise the real and immediate risks to Daphne’s life, and failed to take reasonable steps to avoid those risks. And a myriad of other systemic failings were identified which failed Daphne, failed her family, failed journalists, and failed the Maltese people.

“And yet, 10 weeks on, we remain without a meaningful response to that report by the Maltese Government. The Government has not even released an English translation of the 437-page report – what translations you have heard or read have been provided by the bereaved family and their lawyers, not the State. Even this basic step, to commit to transparency and enable the international community to understand what happened and hold Malta to account, has not been taken.

“Second, it is now four years since Daphne was brutally murdered, in an assassination which sent shockwaves across Europe. Daphne was a brilliant, brave, dogged investigative journalist, who honed her craft over decades, often sitting at her kitchen table where she spent her last few hours with her son Matthew.

“She was isolated in those final months and years, facing multiple oppressive law suits, threats of financial ruin, abuse on the street and online, dehumanising and misogynistic images circulating. And yet, there has still been no unequivocal acceptance of the horrors that she faced, let alone an unequivocal apology for it, from Malta.

“Third, I ask what should Malta now do? Daphne’s assassination followed decades of abuse. It occurred within a climate of impunity and negative rhetoric directed against Daphne and other journalists in Malta. Today, her family calls upon the Government of Malta to unequivocally condemn the climate of impunity and negative rhetoric identified by the public inquiry, which dehumanised her and fuelled her murder.

“There must be root and branch political and legislative reform.

“And above all, Daphne’s family must have meaningful involvement in what comes next. The family counts on the Prime Minister to consult with them and civil society on the foundational principles for the independent committee of experts due to be appointed following the inquiry report, and on Terms of Reference to implement those principles. This consultation process is an essential first step before the proposed roles of committee members are formulated.

“Fourth, I ask what should the international community now do? It is fitting that we are standing here in central London. Many of those threatening legal letters which bombarded Daphne in the final months and years of her life came from London law firms. Whilst that climate of impunity festered in Malta, the world stood idly by. The UK and other countries across Europe ignored what was happening under their noses, and left Daphne to her fate.

“On 6 October 2017, weeks before her death, Daphne wrote on her blog, ‘in journalism, as in many areas in life, you sometimes find the back-up you need a little too late.’ Well, one week ago the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to two investigative journalists, one of whom, Maria Ressa, I am honoured to represent. The Norwegian Nobel Committee recognised their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, ‘a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.’

“The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to journalists is a welcome recognition of the bravery of journalists doing what Daphne Caruana Galizia did so brilliantly – holding the powerful and the corrupt to account. This is important back-up from the international community, albeit far too late for Daphne. In the decades leading up to her assassination, the world failed to act. They failed to act in 2017. Four years on, it is long past time for other States who clam to believe in the importance of freedom of expression – the UK, Council of Europe Member States, EU Member States, every single country which has signed up to the Media Freedom Coalition – to act. They failed Daphne then. Now, they must hold Malta to account and ensure the change Daphne’s family and Malta need and deserve comes to pass.”

The vigil for Daphne was co-sponsored by the Maltese community in London, ARTICLE 19, the Association of European Journalists, the Commonwealth Journalists Association, Index on Censorship, PEN International, Reporters Without Borders, and Transparency International-UK.