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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.
“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?”
[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.”
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[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Editor-in-chief of Index on Censorship magazine Rachael Jolley quoted on BBC News about Maria Ressa, CEO of Philippine online news organisation Rappler, and her recent sentencing of up to six years in prison after being found guilty of cyber libel. Index has previously published work by Miriam Grace Go, news editor at Rappler.
“Rachael Jolley, editor of the Index on Censorship magazine, recalled meeting Ms Ressa at a journalism festival before her name was widely known. Even then, she says she quickly came to view her as an “extraordinarily strong individual to be able to stand up to the government pressure”.”
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