‘She just keeps on going’: Duterte critic Maria Ressa’s fight for press freedom

‘She just keeps on going’: Duterte critic Maria Ressa’s fight for press freedom | @TimElliottSMH @GoodWeekendMag

17/09/2021 11:02:00 AM

‘She just keeps on going’: Duterte critic Maria Ressa’s fight for press freedom | TimElliottSMH GoodWeekendMag

The journalist cops plenty for challenging Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime – and what’s alarming is the scale of the online campaign against her.

Rapplershowed how a pro-Duterte network of 26 fake Facebook accounts was influencing millions of Filipinos. The findings were alarming, yet not even Ressa could have anticipated the backlash. “At first the messages attacked my credibility, like, ‘You’re wrong,’ ‘You’re lying,’ ‘You’re a paid hack,’ ” she says in a Zoom interview from her home. “It made me so uncertain that I went back to check all the data in the pieces we’d written, and everything was correct.”

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At first, Ressa tried to respond to the messages in good faith. “But they weren’t actually wanting to talk to me,” she says. “They just wanted to pound me to silence.” Then the nature of the messages changed: as the night wore on, they became more misogynistic and explicit. “Maria, you are a waste of sperm! Your mother should have swallowed you!” read one. “Get a real job, you doggy, dirty, pussy c… motherf…er,” wrote another. “The number of the messages was overwhelming,” says Ressa. Before long, she was receiving 90 hate messages an hour.

The attacks continued for a month, spiking wheneverRapplerwrote anything critical about the President. Ressa was called a bitch, a slut, a dog, a snake, and a witch. She was threatened with arrest, death and imprisonment. In early 2017, a 22-year-old man posted a comment on Facebook, saying that he hoped she would be “raped repeatedly to death … It would bring joy to my heart.” Facebook told Ressa to report the attacks, but the sheer volume of them – more than 2000 a day – made that impossible: Ressa calculated that it would take 108 hours – or four-and-a-half days non-stop – to report just 24 hours’ worth of abuse. headtopics.com

Ressa had received threats before in the course of her job. “But this was something different,” she says. “I knew then that something had fundamentally changed. What I decided to do was take that feeling and do something with it.”Maria Ressa, who turned 57 last year, has short, dark, gamine hair and a large, ready smile. She wears oval shaped frameless glasses (she is short-sighted). She is also tiny – just over 1.5 metres tall – the same height as your average Australian 12-year-old. (One old friend described her to me as “the Energiser Bunny”.) Equal parts earnest and chirpy, she peppers her conversations with Midwest Americanisms, such as “aw shucks” and “oh my gosh”, but has also been known to quote Bono and Holocaust poetry.

AdvertisementBorn in Manila, Ressa moved with her family to America in 1973, when she was 10, a year after martial law was declared in the Philippines by then-president Ferdinand Marcos. She has recalled flying over Alaska as a little girl, seeing snow for the first time, and being thrust, with very little English, into primary school, where, as she tells me, she was “the shortest, only brown kid in my class”.

At Toms River High School North in New Jersey, she played piano, violin and guitar, and won a nationwide debating contest. She went on to Princeton, where she studied molecular biology and English, with certificates in theatre and dance; for her senior thesis, she wrote a play about Philippine politics. Then, in 1986, at the age of 23, she returned to the Philippines to reconnect with her roots.

It was a heady time for Filipinos. The so-called People Power Revolution, a popular, non-violent revolt led in part by the Catholic Church, had just seen the end of Marcos’s 20-year rule and the restoration of democracy.“We were inspired by the Arab Spring and pro-democracy movements in Muslim countries, We were looking at the potential of social media and journalism to bring about social change.” headtopics.com

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Journalism was initially a way for Ressa to understand what was going on while being paid for it. She took a job at CNN as a breaking-news reporter, going on to head up the network’s bureau in Manila and then Jakarta, in 1995. She spent the next 10 years reporting on terrorism in south-east Asia, studying, among other things, al-Qaeda’s presence in the region, before being poached by ABS-CBN, the country’s leading television network, where she became head of news and current affairs. In 2011, Ressa left ABS-CBN and, with five of her former colleagues, started

Rapplerthe following year.“We were inspired by the Arab Spring and pro-democracy movements in Muslim countries,” co-founder Chay Hofileña, who is nowRappler’smanaging editor, tells me. “We were looking at the potential of social media and journalism to bring about social change.”

The nameRapplerwas a statement of intent – a portmanteau of “rap”, meaning to talk, and “ripple”, to make waves. Ressa staffed it with a handful of 20-something, mostly female journalists who practised what was then a very different style of reporting – shooting and editing video in the field, and writing stories on location. (Today the site has more than 100 staff, mostly based in Manila.) The young

Rapplers, as they called themselves, broke stories, most notably about a Supreme Court chief justice being awarded a civil-law doctorate without a dissertation (he would eventually be impeached on corruption charges), and used social media to reach a broader audience and build a community of readers. headtopics.com

AdvertisementOne of the biggest stories at that time was an up-and-coming politician named Rodrigo Duterte. Duterte was born into a political family: his father, Vicente, served as governor of Davao province, a rough-and-tumble region in the country’s south. Duterte also served as mayor of Davao in the mid 2000s, becoming known as Duterte Harry, thanks to his alleged involvement with a vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad. In an interview with

Rapplerin 2015, Duterte boasted to Ressa that he had killed three people himself. When the Philippines general election came around, in 2016, he leveraged his strongman appeal all the way to the presidential palace.Duterte’s style is gleefully offensive: the 76-year-old’s speeches are peppered with random profanities and insults. He has described the country’s elites as

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“motherf…ers” andsworn at the Pope. In 2016, when it was suggested that then-US president Barack Obama might be concerned about the Philippine government’s human rights record, Duterte called him a “son of a whore”. He once wolf-whistled a female reporter, and boasted at campaign rallies about the size of his penis.

Philippine politics has always had a showbiz quality, with choreographed dance routines and candidates who croon on stage, including former president Joseph Estrada, who sometimes sang at rallies backed by a 72-piece orchestra.But Duterte has also made it a blood sport:

in 2016, he told a crowd that he “should have been first” to rape Jacqueline Hamill, an Australian missionary who was gang-raped and murdered in Davao in 1989. (He later claimed that his language reflected his disgust at the incident.) He harbours a special loathing for journalists, whom he regularly describes as liars and prostitutes, and prime candidates for assassination. “If you end up dead, it’s your fault,” he told

Rapplerreporter Pia Renada. “It means nothing to me.”Duterte’s hatred of the media sharpened after becoming president, when journalists began focusing on the drug war, which had become one of his signature policies. In 2016, he, “The funeral parlours will be packed … I will supply the bodies.” Some sections of the media, including

Rappler, ABS-CBN, and the left-leaningPhilippine Daily Inquirer, claimed that the authorities were understating the number of people being killed, and questioned the level of impunity afforded the police.Duterte attackedRappler, accusing it of being owned by Americans and funded by the CIA. In March 2017, during an official ceremony at Malacañang, the presidential palace, Duterte described the

Inquireras “bullshit”. “You are sons of bitches,” he said. “You went too far.” In May the same year, he also targeted ABS-CBN, which he claimed was “full of shit” in a speech.“Press freedom,” he said, flashing his middle finger, adding, “You want to know my sentiments? F… you.” The government’s anti-communist body, the National Task Force to End Local Communist Armed Conflict, subsequently expressed concern about the network, suggesting it might have broken the law, without specifying how. (Such a tactic is known in the Philippines as “red-tagging”.)

AdvertisementBy July 2017, after a sustained campaign of harassment, theInquirer’sowners announced they were selling their majority stake to businessman Ramon Ang, a friend of Duterte’s and one of his campaign donors, for an undisclosed sum. ABS-CBN fared worse: in July 2020, the congress voted against renewing the network’s broadcast licence. (It remains off-air.)

Rapplerwas still standing. But by then, another, more sinister front had opened up in the battle for press freedom.Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte told a journalist, “If you end up dead, it’s your fault.”Credit:Filipinos are the world’s heaviest internet users

– they spend more than 10 hours a day online, according to theWe Are Social communications agency, and that was pre-COVID. “In a country with weak institutions, social media networks and the internet are the way things move,” Ressa says.“There are also about 10 to 12 million Filipinos working overseas, and social media is how they stay in touch.” Facebook is by far the most dominant platform in the Philippines, with 96 per cent of internet users accessing it.

After the attacks on Ressa in October 2016,Rapplerlaunched Sharktank, a social media monitoring tool that began collecting data from thousands of Facebook pages and Twitter accounts. According to Ressa, “Sharktank maps the information ecosystem of the Philippines.”

As the data accumulated,Rappleridentified several Duterte propaganda networks. At the centre of one of the most prolific was a website called Trending News Portal (TNP), launched in 2014, which produced mainly entertainment news and viral videos. But as the 2016 elections approached, it became increasingly political, posting stories, for example, that the Philippines was ranked among the world’s fastest-growing economies, and unsubstantiated claims that Duterte’s political opponents had taken part in election fraud or been linked to the drug trade.

AdvertisementIt soon became apparent that TNP, which had 4.3 million followers in 2019, was connected to nine other pro-Duterte websites, some of which also had followings in the millions. (It’s impossible to tell how many of these followers were real.) Most of these sites had no known authors or owners and no contact details. Fake stories posted on TNP would find their way onto these sites within minutes, or even simultaneously, suggesting they were being administered by the same people, a phenomenon known as sock-puppeting. This kind of orchestrated disinformation is what Facebook has dubbed “coordinated inauthentic behaviour”. (It banned the practice in 2018, and the following year removed Twinmark Media Enterprises, the company that owned TNP, from its platform.)

Coordinated inauthentic behaviour is not uncommon on Facebook, but it is particularly egregious in the Philippines. Katie Harbath, who was until March this year Facebook’s public policy director for global elections, has described the Philippines as “patient zero in the global disinformation epidemic”. In 2019, Nic Gabunada, Duterte’s former social media manager, was found to be operating 200 fake Facebook and Instagram accounts spreading pro-Duterte messaging. (Facebook, which also owns Instagram, removed them in 2019.)

Clusters of phony pro-Duterte accounts have recently come out of China, and a small number from Saudi Arabia and India. “It’s no secret that the government’s information arm, the Presidential Communications Operations Office, [also] has very close ties with Russia,” says Danilo Arao, an associate professor at the University of the Philippines Department of Journalism, who has himself received online death threats for criticising the President.

But the vast bulk of the disinformation is home-grown. Manila alone is thought to harbour hundreds of so-called “troll farms”. “You get a bunch of students in a room, casual workers, who could be paid $1000 a month or maybe $1 a post,” says Ross Tapsell, researcher at the Australian National University who interviewed trolls in the Philippines while studying the country’s disinformation industry. “Commonly they will be given a script or messages they can cut and paste.” When a newspaper writes an unflattering story about Duterte or a government project or policy, the trolls will bombard the comments section, a practice known as “brigading”. “They will post hundreds of comments attacking the journalist who wrote the story or the publication itself, in order to hijack or co-opt the discourse around it.”

Some of the social-media messages attacking Ressa.Credit:Loading Read more: The Sydney Morning Herald »

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