Nobel Winner Maria Ressa On Embracing Fear And Standing Up To Strongmen
In January 2018, when the Philippine securities commission revoked Rappler’s registration and said it would be shut down, Maria Ressa and her co-founders held a “general assembly where we explained what the shutdown order meant and how we would demand accountability”.
They told the young journalists working at Rappler, the investigative news organisation Ressa co-founded in 2012, that they could leave if they wanted and that they would help them find alternate employment. Everybody said they wanted to stay. It’s another matter that Rappler challenged the order and never did shut down, but everyone in the newsroom did something else that day.
They all posed for a picture, where you can see many of them smiling. “The photo was for us,” says Ressa. “Often times, when you’re under attack, you forget to lift your head, you forget to smile, you forget the joy.”
When she sent the photo to her publisher to be included in her forthcoming book How to Stand Up To A Dictator, she captioned it: ‘Adversity becomes us’.
When Ressa first saw the cover of her book she felt awkward that her publisher had thought fit to include ‘Nobel Prize Nominee’ prominently on the jacket. “I wondered if it was necessary,” she tells me over the phone on Oct. 10, two days after she found out about her big win.
As Ressa’s book cover was updated, there had still not been any official acknowledgment of her award from the Malacañang Palace, the official residence and office of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte. “After years of trying to silence Maria Ressa, it is Duterte who has been silenced by her Nobel Peace Prize,” physician and writer Gideon Lasco tweeted.
Ressa, the first Filipino Nobel laureate (and only the 18th woman) to win the Nobel Peace Prize, shared the honour with Russian Dmitry Muratov, a first for journalists since 1935. “They are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Nobel Committee said. Watch Ressa’s first reaction:
For global independent media struggling to survive in a world governed by “press freedom predators” (that’s how Reporters Sans Frontiers described 37 heads of state in July 2021), journalism’s surprise big win is a much-needed shot of hope. The leaders of the Philippines and India made it to the RSF list.
If one country used the global pandemic to spread Islamophobia, another used it as a cloak to further extrajudicial drug killings. If one has ‘godi media’ (government propagandists disguised as journalists) another has ‘envelopmental journalism’ (a term to explain press corruption, derived literally from the envelop stuffed with cash). Both countries mishandled the pandemic—and both are grappling with rising unemployment.
Ressa’s story is well known. After she co-founded Rappler—from ‘rap’ (to discuss) and ‘ripple’ (to make waves)—which pursued the truth about Duterte’s drug executions, exposed official corruption, and fought disinformation, she faced multiple criminal charges, arrest warrants, attempts to shut down the website and even a conviction. Through this ordeal, she never stopped speaking up.
Remember to lift your head—and smile (at the start of this piece) was one of Ressa’s responses to my question on how journalists can stand up to their unfriendly neighbourhood strongmen. While she’s saving the best ideas for her book, she did share some important tips.
Prepare For The Worst
Ressa and her co-founders at Rappler are always “nailing down the worst-case scenario” and conjuring an action plan. Like the time Rappler correspondent Pia Ranada was banned from entering Malacañang Palace in February 2018, a day after the Senate questioned an official closest to Duterte about corruption in a navy warships deal.
“Before my reporter was banned from the palace, we had run through drills on what happens if you get harassed, or if someone tries to prevent you from covering the story,” says Ressa. “You turn your cellphone on and go live.”
Ranada’s “muscle memory” kicked in and that’s exactly what the reporter did that day. Rappler immediately released a story with the video.
“Embrace your fear,” says Ressa. “When you think through the worse case scenario and imagine it, you rob it of its power.”
Tell People What’s Happening
Ressa has been sharing her story for five years—on every available platform. She’s articulate, empathetic, and has been a leading champion of press freedom for a while now.
That same day they were ordered to shut down Rappler, Ressa and her co-founder Chay Hofilena held an impromptu press conference. Another co-founder, Lilibeth Frondoso, transmitted it live. “At first, we forgot to tell our lawyers who tuned it,” says Ressa. “But we are old, we’ve been through this before. We knew what we could and shouldn’t say.”
The purpose of the press conference? To make the charges understandable to the wider audience.
Build Communities Of Action
“We are four co-founders, all really different,” says Ressa. “We run in four different directions, but all aiming for the same goal.” When the older folks lose steam, she says, their newsroom of mostly 20 somethings supply “indefatigable energy”.
Rappler actually began as a community page on Facebook, and has always offered its platform to communities that work towards change.
Now Ressa is co-chair on a new independent initiative, The International Fund For Public Interest Media, to support independent journalism around the globe. “Globally, only 0.3% of development funds go to media,” says Ressa. “We want to bring that number up to 1%.”
Work With Those You Criticise
Ressa has always said the Facebook algorithm is “biased against facts”. She believes that we need “legislation that puts guardrails on technology companies”. Her critique of the social media platform is blistering and she even has a chapter on it in her book. Yet Rappler has partnered with Facebook since 2018 to review news stories on Facebook, check their facts, and rate their accuracy, and will do so in the run-up to the 2022 Philippines election too.
This tie-up didn't exactly spread joy in Malacañang Palace when it was announced. “[Facebook’s] chosen partner also has a reputation of being predisposed against majority, if not all, of the policies of this Administration, as can be easily gleaned through the form of its published articles,” a spokesman said in 2019.
Work Hard, Every Day
When Ressa started writing her book earlier this year, she stuck to a daily ritual that she continues to follow. “I wake up early, around 5:30 am, right before the sun rises and start the coffee,” says Ressa who drinks four or five cups a day. “I try really hard to clear my head, that first jolt of coffee helps. I write until 10 or 11 a.m., and stop half an hour before the first meeting of the day.”
From her kitchen, she can look at the sunrise and “watch the sky colours changing”.
Morning is also the time she calls close friends who live in different time zones. “I have a writing partner since college who lives in the U.S. We are both writing non-fiction.” After Ressa logs in a few hours of writing, she turns to her Rappler work. On days she’s not doing back-to-back interviews for winning the most prestigious Nobel prize or fending off another crisis, she’s in bed by 10 pm.
Priya Ramani is a Bengaluru-based journalist and is on the editorial board of Article-14.com.
The views expressed here are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views of BloombergQuint or its editorial team.