Maria Ressa on indignation, survival, and defiance
At the time this interview was conducted, she hadn’t yet heard a documentary about her, A Thousand Cuts, would win an Emmy for best documentary; she was in a kind of state of legal limbo, waiting to hear how her appeal would be decided on by the courts (negatively, as it turned out). It was a typical yet untypical news day, because she was, as usual, holding the line. She was also still in the midst of finishing her book, How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future.
Q. You’re part of the diaspora; what drew you to come back and how how much of what you have to come to discover proved or disproved the things that brought you back?
A. Oh my gosh. Well you know, this is kind of what I wrote this entire book about, but I mean part of it is I guess like what is being hammered on social media? It’s trying to figure out who you are, right? Like when I was I was born in the Philippines. I grew up here till I was 10 years old and then my family left for the United States. All of a sudden I saw snow for the first time, landed in New Jersey and then spent my life there. It was like opening and sliding doors, you know, it’s like 1, I didn’t know that. I was leaving the Philippines, then we land in a completely new world and everything I knew was thrown out the window. So you so I had to learn a new language, a new country, we spoke Filipino at home and so I think growing up in the U.S. I think it was the best time. What I learned it was kind of great foundation, you know, the Philippines. I went to Saint Scho and it t aught me discipline, to work hard. The values were great that I got from St. Scho. And then when I got to the United States, I was shocked at how house the kids were.
Anyway. So what made me decide? I think, you know, at that point People Power was a big thing. It was the first time that I even thought about being Filipino. I mean, being Filipino was always part of who we are because my mom is Filipino. My dad — my stepdad, my real dad died when I was a year old. But my step dad is Italian-American. So we had a very Multicultural household but, you know, when we spoke my mom would get mad at us in Tagalog (laughs), and I could understand, but I didn’t know how to speak.
When I graduated, before I was pre-med, I was pre-law, I did all of the things I was supposed to do, but I wanted to know what being Filipino meant because I understood America. I believed in the best of America, you know, that’s what happens when you’re an immigrant, right? I knew that if I worked hard, it was a meritocracy. You know, I had scholarships to Princeton, imagine? And so after I graduated, I got a Fulbright coming back the other way. And that was one year because there’s no way we could have afforded sending me here for pleasure. And so, when I came in 1986, I thought, oh my gosh, I really must be Filipino because I went where I went to school, you know, I was pretty quiet. I’m, I’m an introvert — really!– but part of the reason is I listen first because, you know, there was so much I had to learn. And then, after I graduated, I landed in the Philippines and the thing I loved the best about it was the lack of cynicism, You know, It was I went and worked. I worked in New York City during the summers and sarcasm was something I never really understood.
After I came back in 1986 I went to see my grandmother for the first time and you know, in my memory my grandmother, my father’s mom– I guess I thought she spoke in English or my memories were in English. But then when I first when I re- met her again, you know, it was The world shifted your childhood memories are different. So the whole the book is about really memories and how our memories have now been turned against us, right?
Anyway. So when I got here after a while, I loved the lack of cynicism and part of it was I landed when you know the country had just gotten rid of a dictator and there was the feeling of such possibility in the air. Twink Macaraig was my classmate. Through pre-kindergarten one, two and three When I came back, she brought me in. She was an anchor in PTV4 at that point. And I walked in and I was watching everything and I had done television in the States, but this was so much fun. First of all how weird to walk into PTV4 and you know, your go into these dark hallways with the stench of like cat urine, you know what I mean? Like you just go and then Judith Torres. I mean, these are the people Judith and Twink, Judith was an anchor as well. And just going there, I watched this director for their late evening newscast falling asleep. So at some point, I just walked in and started directing because no matter how bad I could be, I was awake! And that is how I learned the history of the Philippines, right?
And then, I spent that time period from my 20s 30s 40s, I fell into journalism, I didn’t do it by design. In fact, I thought I was going back to med school. I had a corporate job waiting for me and after the Fulbright it was Che-Che Lazaro, who asked me to stay after the fellowship. Like when I was supposed to go back to New York for good, she gave me funds to buy a camera for Probe. So I bought the editing deck I bought the camera. We were the first group to use Ikegami cameras because this is such a Sony country. I mean talk about like you know what kinds of monopolies you get right? The quality of an Ikegami was so much better at that point in time.
I wanted to learn and I always knew because of who I was and being born here and being an immigrant in the U.S. I knew that there was more than one way to see the world. And I think the difference for me at that point was I wasn’t very demanding because I was trying to find my seat at the table.
Things like that, work to your advantage because then I got good grades. I did a lot of stuff, things that I think things that, you know, in a place of searching or insecurity, when you’re trying to figure out who you are and this is the reason I’m so worried about this generation because all of that discovery, all of that, insecurity of discovery is getting thrown here right, which, which doesn’t give them anything back, right? This is a Time suck, and it teaches you that that there is always a mob to feast on any mistakes you make. And for a young kid I worry about this.
Q. When did the cynicism kick in?
A. I really would say, I think it was manipulated. I really focus a lot on the impact of technology because I think that without the technology, the pendulum swings would be slower and we, as a society, as a democracy would have time to catch up and course-correct. A market can course correct. In this day and age with the pace of the tech and the pace of wrong information, whether it is misinformation or disinformation, even more if it’s information operations or information warfare, the targets don’t have a chance to fight back, right? There’s no defense against disinformation right now. It’s kind of like the tech that molds genetics, right? Crispr technology has been banned in some countries because literally you play God, you can create that embryo, but you don’t have the wisdom of God.
So anyway, so how did it change? I believe and I will show the data from our mood meter and our mood navigator in Rappler. I think about it as a pendulum swing and I’ve seen this in all the countries that I’ve reported from. You can see the pendulum swing right? In the Philippines. Indonesia, the same. You held this in a authoritarian dictatorship for almost 21 years in the Philippines, almost 32 years in Indonesia. And then when you released it, it swings wildly. And then it slowly will find its equilibrium right? At human pace. And we did find that equilibrium.
One of the last things President Aquino III said to me in our last interview actually haunted me, and I put it in the book. He said, “Maria is this real?” He was seeing how quickly the attacks came.
At that point we hadn’t come under attack yet. And so only the target actually sees all of the attacks. Everyone else sees different things which is also the fragmentation of this online world. And, you know, my answer to him was, it is real. But you know what I believe now, when we look back at all that research, is that they had an AI, they had an automatic alert for when a name is mentioned, whether it’s Duterte or Aquino and then they came in.
Q. So when did we change?
A. It’s really a perfect storm that let us here, right? I think the failed promises of People Power; many administrations where the promise of People Power didn’t trickle down enough. All I can say is based on the data that we see the perfect storm of failed promises, a trickle-down effect that didn’t trickle down enough, the feudal patronage-driven politics that has always been there, and then the alliance of Duterte and Marcos together because Marcos on his own couldn’t have won. I mean if all three of them had run, then Robredo, could have won, right? But the critical factor, and this is why I focus on this far more, is technology. The insidious manipulation of what we think. Because take a look at what it’s done to a far more developed democracy, whose institutions are far stronger than the Philippines: the United States. That kind of relentless attack and it’s not disinformation: it is information warfare against its citizens that led to January 6 and it is the same thing that we have seen here. The same thing we see in Crimea then Ukraine. It is bottom up exponential attacks which is like fertilizer: it seeds the ground and then that same lie comes top down and you know, in Tagalog, bibinka, luto ka na talaga!
So back to the data of when it changed in 2016 around the presidential elections we saw our mood meter shift. Every year, we do the year and moods, and the top mood for Filipinos every year was happy. Happy or inspired. Anger was always number two, right? It shifted in 2016, like a spike, And you can see how unnatural it was. It’s like Pavlov’s dogs. If you keep feeding, you know, anger to hate somebody, that is the way they react. So 2016 to me is the shift and it hasn’t changed. And then a fact I will say, post the Marcos win, the attacks have increased on Twitter, for sure. On Facebook, they’ve rolled out a policy called Brigading but it, they ‘ve not implemented it.
So, anyway, to pull back out, big picture, I chose the Philippines because when it was time, I gave myself a deadline, I decided by 40 years old, I would choose my home and being a journalist, it taught me everything, I know and I always loved that it tested you physically, intellectually, spiritually. I mean Ormoc, I don’t know if you remember I was like a young kid and there were 600 bodies being buried in a mass grave and I was like, oh my gosh, you have to believe in God, this is not just a heap of dead tissue, right?
So I chose when I was 40, and I chose the Philippines, because I felt as a journalist, it was far more exciting to be part of building something rather than covering the breakdown of a democracy, which I felt was what the U.S. was, the Western World. I was still very optimistic.
You know, I get mad. (laughs) I tell Che-Che that it’s her fault. All these cases. Che, It’s your fault. You convinced me. But then I look at my late friend Twink. Look at what she wrote. She was still defending me online when she was dying. When she wrote that piece for the Star, she sent me to draft and I swear, thinking about it, I cry, right? And that’s my model.
As long as you can, you fight.
Q. There were two Marias, before, the expert on terrorism; then you decided to come home and became the Maria you are now, battling this technological hydra. Are they all one seamless Maria or was that period a different life already?
A. No, I would say seamless you know, coming home and heading ABS news took all of the lessons I had learned in almost two decades of CNN. Watching nations develop watching leaders lead; watching the decisions that they make and the impact on the people, right? Ah, it was like, you know, getting a PhD in leadership and I got to ask the leaders, the questions, right? And after you cover, so many different leaders with so many different styles, you begin to know what works and what doesn’t work.
Coming home, my second time coming home was really me at that point, I was old enough to have real experience, but young enough to still want to make a difference.
And I figured I was going to retire in the Philippines and since I’m going to retire here, I might as well help make it better. That was my kind of simplistic thinking and ABS was my attempt at taking all the lessons I had learned from different parts of the world, you know, I had covered Korea, India, Pakistan, I had done the the U.N. because of East Timor. And I knew Southeast Asia very well.
And the other part is because ABS is a thousand journalists, right? So, I went from cover from managing 5, 6 people, and then, which grows to about 40 people during breaking news, these were the bureaus I managed at CNN. I went from that to managing a thousand people and I got to actually play with things. Like, when I walked into ABS-CBN, I had industrial engineers and industrial engineering students follow every single position.
So I could see a Gantt chart because when you’re managing a traditional news organization, it’s about efficiency. So I was actually able to map it out. I was able to implement good practices or my best lessons that I had learned and you know something like –oh my gosh– even the former Indonesian minister of Tourism who was a fantastic analyst of mine during the fall of Suharto, Marie Hotomo, she had lived in as an academic in the United States for decades. And then at the fall of Suharto, she took over as the minister of trade and industry. And I asked her, you know what what’s the best advice you can give and she said, “be careful, don’t bring in too many new people.”
So out of 1,000 people I managed, I brought in four total including myself: So, I got to play at an experiment with what leadership means, what building an organization means and Rappler was my second startup from scratch. Probe was my first one. You know, Rappler was all of our best practices. Look who were the four founders right there. All people had worked with in ABS-CBN so ABS-CBN gave me the ability to take the largest network in a country, think about it a s a closed system and have that network embrace technology and the impact we have together when you empower citizens to help you which, which we really did do, and those were the experiments that we took forward in Rappler.
I don’t know if you remember this, but you know, the Maguindanao massacre demonstrated this. Our Boto mo, Ipatrol Mo campaigns, which made every citizen with a cellphone part of democracy. When the Maguindanao massacre or Ampatuan Massacre happened in 2009, the very first photo, the very first reports about what exactly happened, came from a citizen journalist and much, much later, I found out that that citizen journalists was a soldier: this guy sent three messages, two were text, the third was a photo of a Hi-Ace van with these bodies spread-eagled.
It is a progression of everything I have learned. By the time Duterte attacked me and Rappler I had tried to put together the best journalists that we could find. You have to have a combination of two things: strategic and tactical. You can have great ideas, but if you cannot execute them in a bureaucracy, it doesn’t matter. What we learned in ABS-CBN is how to do both, right? So, the strategic goal and then, the tactical execution, and that is workflow processes.
So, by the time Duterte attacked us in Rappler, I felt like I’d spent my years as a journalist before that going to the gym. We had no problems. We understood standards and ethics. I had helped write four standards and ethics manuals, including for Probe through the years, including some for CNN. So it was never an issue for me. And in fact I am just shocked that the world is so far upside down that we are where we are today, which is you know, indicative of the state of the world as well.
And then I’ll say one last thing I think what I learned from being a reporter is the idea of living breaking news, right? Which is that you have imperfect information. You’re walking into a danger area. You don’t know where the danger necessarily is, but you need to be there, right? So this is kind of how I’ve learned to live my life.
So when we came under attack by the Duterte administration, these things don’t faze me. And the founders of Rappler –there are four of us so we can run in four different directions all at the same time– we live breaking news, we are comfortable with uncertainty, but we know the standards and ethics. We know the Constitution. so we keep going.
I guess, the reason why I say breaking news is what this kind of War of Attrition that the media has been under since 2016. is that when you’re in a breaking news mode, then it doesn’t intimidate you, right? Because you know this is what you’re meant to do.
So that’s why I feel like we are prepared for the dangers today and we are able to not just respond but to call it out because I think that’s the most important thing. You have to call out every single cut, I call it, you know, a Thousand Cuts to our democracy and each cut, some of them can be thin like a paper cut, right? But that still hurts. And then there’s some that are deep gashes, I mean, you know, quo warranto of Sereno Lila De Lima is a like, that should be like, spewing blood. So for me it’s like how many of these cuts can we can our democracy take and survive? Or is it going to be like, we will slowly bleed out to death. Well, the key part is that you have to keep calling out the cut, so you can bandage it and then keep going.
Q. Inquirer was attacked through its owners. ABS-CBN was attacked through its franchise. You were attacked through the SEC. It was like a train wreck in slow motion. Could there have been more solidarity on the part of media?
A. Absolutely. I don’t know if you were there at Media Nation in 2016 but I actually did an appeal at that point, and it was an appeal because I was worried about where this would go because we could see the data and the response of the heads, because these are already the news heads, right? They didn’t believe it because again, it’s a failure of imagination.
So in 2016, we weren’t prepared to see it and by the time you see it, it’s too late, right? So yes, the media should have come together, we should have done that far better even than the United States because we came from a nearly 21 year dictatorship, right? We live through this –so painful– and every year media Nation, nothing really happened. Although some of the guys the broadcasting guys who told me in 2016 that “oh it’s not really it’s not a problem for us!” They they’ve later on said “yeah, yeah, yeah you’re right” –but it doesn’t help to be right if we’re not prepared.
We did in this last elections –too late 2022!– 16 newsgroups did come together.
It’s the people who have power, who have the ability to actually fight back: they need to realize the threat. Because if they don’t realize the threat, you can’t deal with it.
I think it took us too long to come together to realize that the enemy is not each other, but that’s part of the way media was set up.
And then, Tech. Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. They were the ones who got us all together, right? Like lambs to the slaughter. Didn’t realize that this is our downfall because essentially these platforms will not only crumble our business model –advertising, because micro-targeting is so much better than anything media does– but they will also be the venues for killing what we hold dear: credibility trust, right?
Q. Each branch of traditional media, papers, TV then you, were attacked by financial means… Who thought it up?
A. So you see that the attacks against media, hit money first. In 2015 I asked Duterte in an interview… He was very expansive and, you know, when the camera was off, we were talking. He said “I’m going to do this, they’re not going to like it but I can lead this nation.” and I was like so many people, so many leaders have tried, you know, this is a tough area. How can you simplify it this much?
And he just said, “Hay naku, Maria alam ko yan, yang BIR na yan,” you know? it’s the levers… President Duterte when he was mayor –and he was mayor on and off since 1988– use the levers of power to get what he wanted and to stay in power and in many ways, what he did is he brought it to the national stage, right? These types of mafioso tactics. But what happened is within, I think six months you had probably the most powerful executive that we have ever had. Even, I would say more powerful than Marcos because he never had to declare martial law, right? And he actually just did it.
It’s such a complex question.
We were attacked –traditional media, and I would say mainstream media was attacked in two ways and it’s very similar to the tactics of martial law, right? The first was easy access, right? That’s the way you deal with the journalists. That’s where journalists can be like piranhas at each other, right? So you try to get access then you realize that that access comes with strings attached.
But then in addition to that, you then have the attack on power and money on money and power, right? So the attacks on the news organizations. Rappler is not a large organization and we were the third to be attacked.
Inquirer was the first money, right? It was money, and it was attacking a family, right? And it was intimidation. So it’s power and money, right? And the family was pushed to say they would voluntarily sell. I don’t think they ever did, but, you know again, why? Because of the kind of relentless intimidation tactics, and with government agencies involved, then the targets had no choice, right? When it’s the business attacked those with other businesses are extremely vulnerable. That’s what happened with ABS-CBN as well, right? Their business was first attacked and then President Duterte said this repeatedly, even though it wasn’t his to take away, that franchise wasn’t going to happen.
Now, you know, go to little Rappler. The reason why we created Rappler and we have a clause in our shareholders agreement that gives not just editorial control to journalists, but Money control. We control Rappler, right? Because I had already worked for a tycoon. We know when you don’t have economic power, you don’t have power. That’s why we created Rappler. In that sense, independence is really built into our DNA and I think that’s something that they didn’t count on.
We have no other businesses, you know, what are you going to do? You’re going to put me in jail? Okay, what if I’m not afraid ? Frankly we weren’t going to buckle because we know this is right. And we also saw that at a certain time, the world was switching so much that it was really important to hold the line.
Because the minute you give up, then that line gets bulldozed over and you lose your rights.
And so I think that’s what’s important. It became about power and money but who has the most power and money? Government, right? Who are these censorship laws against government, right? Not against private individuals, not against citizens, not against media.
This is the time when you began to see the Constitution turned upside down and these decisions where they had to go through so many legal cartwheels to be able to find me and Rey Santos Jr. guilty of cyber libel by retroactive application, right? Anyway, let’s not dive into that rabbit hole.
What happened was three-pronged. The Duterte administration was very systematic. They made examples of three. In business was Roberto Ongpin. Leila De Lima was politics. And then when we refused to buckle, me, right. That’s okay. I would do everything we would continue doing what we’ve been doing and who knows what will happen next right?
What, this tactics show, what they actually demand to succeed is that we voluntarily cave in and give up our rights. You’re not going to get that with Rappler. They’re going to have to be draconian, dictatorial. The very things, I believe they do not want to be right now.
So let’s see. You know, we have a Marcos presidency. And yes, there is a whole history: Milan Kundera’s quote, the struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting. And this technology allowed that to happen instantaneously.
I mean beyond that, it’s not even that you forget, memory is replaced, right? The tactic is the same Russian or Filipino or China, you suppress, and then replace. And here, perfect example, in terms of the elections. So many Filipinos who live in poor neighborhoods, who’ve watched YouTube believed that they were going to get gold for voting for Marcos. In addition to the vote buying that was rampant, right?
I’m banking on, I’m hoping that Marcos Junior –that President Marcos, I must use the honorific– will want to vindicate his name, will want to be different from his father, will admit the mistakes of the past so that he could build a better future. I mean his main problem is inflation and the economy and he can get that on track.
Q. And if not?
A. I don’t predict for the Philippines as much because there’s both good and bad things, right? But look here’s my thing for the world.
I think. We have two more years before democracy dies before, and I’ll use Madeleine Albright’s words fascism wins. Right? And the reason why is, because, in the Nobel lecture, I talked about how you can’t have integrity of elections, if you don’t have integrity of facts, right? So if people are being insidiously, manipulated, and the people they vote for are illiberal leaders.
The Philippines is an example and hopefully our this administration will prove its critics wrong because that’s to all of our advantage.
But the May 9th elections in the Philippines is a cautionary tale there. More than 30 elections this year, critical elections, in Kenya critical. In Brazil, you have Bolsonario, who just like Marcos travels with a cadre of vloggers and bloggers and is already like Trump seeding election fraud, right? And then you have the midterm elections in the United States. We did a scan of the U.S. social media landscape and it is worse than the Philippines!
And then next year, what do you have? You have Africa. You have Turkey the year after that in 2024, for Indonesia, the world’s largest Muslim population, India, the world’s largest democracy, and then you have presidential elections in the United States…
By 2024, if nothing significant changes in our information ecosystem, there will be enough. Illiberal leaders elected to shift the world geopolitical power balance away from democracy to fascism. These Us against Them ideas, these are all connected to this grab for power and if you look at 1930s, Germany, leading up to the rise of Nazism it was a collapse of the economy, it was the same Us against Them. And look at where the world went.
I am deathly afraid that this is what we’re seeing. And in this scenario where the world is slightly worse than where we are right now…
The Philippines can actually play a global role, right? Like if only, we have decent, if we have good, managers, right?
Q. Of all the things, then, why a book?
A. I’m turning 59. (laughs) One of the things I realized is that everyone always asks this question. So why? Why are you not afraid? Why are you doing this? Why are you staying?
I am a Science Fiction fan. There’s this great quote from Ursula Le Guinn, who talks about the Mage and that the older you get, more and more, you only have one choice you can make, right?
The book is about values. You know, these things we don’t talk about. Values, are critical because for everyone rich or poor, it is about meaning still. How do we give our lives meaning. Why do we care about our democracy? Right? And journalism, its place in a democracy. Why were news organizations attacked first, right?
We did it with all good intentions of trying to make this country perform the best they can. It’s a check and balance of our systems. All those ideas are gone. These kinds of values that keep us on track that give you a leader who will voluntarily handcuff himself because it is the right thing to do! Those things. So that’s why I wrote a book. Because remember, we can’t forgive.