This Filipino journalist is fighting for press freedom in COVID-19 lockdown

press freedom 2020

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This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Kate Whiting, Senior Writer, Formative Content


  • Journalist Maria Ressa is on bail after being found guilty of cyber-libel in the Philippines.
  • She spoke to the World Economic Forum about press freedom and the threat misinformation on social media poses to democracy.

On 15 June, journalist Maria Ressa was found guilty of cyber-libel in the Philippines, which could carry a jail sentence of up to seven years.

In 2012 – the year she founded her news website Rappler – she published a story that alleged a businessman had links to illegal drugs and human trafficking. This was two years before cyber-libel laws were passed in the country. A correction made to the article after the law came in was seen by law enforcers as amounting to a republication, and she and the writer were arrested.

Ressa is appealing her conviction, which her lawyer Amal Clooney described as “an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines.”

But there are still seven other cases against her.

In another blow to press freedom in the country, on 30 June, its top broadcaster ABS-CBN Corp was ordered to stop transmitting satellite and digital television weeks after its free TV and radio operations were stopped.

Speaking at the World Economic Forum’s International Media Council, Ressa, the Executive Editor and CEO of Rappler, and former CNN bureau chief, said press freedom is under attack increasingly as social media is weaponized by state actors.

What is the World Economic Forum doing to measure the value in media?

The Fourth Industrial Revolution has changed the way content is produced, distributed and consumed for media companies, brands and individuals.

The media industry today is characterized by so-called “destination” and “ecosystem” media. The former are content destinations for consumers, while the latter use content as a strategic asset in a bigger portfolio of products and services. They offer relatively low-price media services as drivers to monetize other parts of their business, such as e-commerce, transactions, live experiences, affiliate sales or branded media.

Media production and distribution creates economic value along its sectoral production chains. It also does so through these ecosystems, increasingly owned and managed by “supercompetitors”. How should society measure and value their impact?

This project, Value in Media, has spent a year looking at how individual consumers value destination media. It has analyzed business model strategies in the media industry, studied the extent to which these strategies align with people’s preferences around payment and data management, and discussed areas for the industry to focus on in improving its value proposition to society.

Building on this research, the project is now in a second phase that attempts to measure the value that ecosystem media generate in society. It will look specifically at:

  • A cost-benefit analysis of ecosystem economics in media
  • Developing a framework for new indicators of value such as quality, innovation and consumer welfare
  • Identifying metrics that better represent the value of media to society, including its contribution to related activities such as retail, e-commerce and consumer industries

“In 2016, this narrative that Maria Ressa is not a journalist, she’s a criminal was seeded [on social media]. And the first time, people can laugh it off because it’s so ludicrous. But on a social media platform, a lie told a million times becomes a fact and facts are debatable.”

“Now more people began to believe this. And then in 2017, the government began saying the same thing.”

‘Lies spread faster than facts’

Ressa’s case has drawn international condemnation for its attempt to silence Rappler, which scrutinizes the Filipino government.

The way misinformation on social media – and harassment and trolling – has worked against her is by no means exclusive to the Philippines. Disinformation and misinformation campaigns are surging globally, and they threaten democracy.

“[On] every social media platform that we are using globally, we journalists have given up our gatekeeping powers to tech and tech has taken it. On all social media platforms, lies laced with anger and hate spread faster than facts. [It means] you can’t have trust. You can’t have democracy. You can’t have integrity of elections.”

But in lockdown, Filipinos are beginning to wake up, she said.

“We’ve lived under an atmosphere of violence and fear in the last few years. And now Filipinos are at home, there’s a lot more introspection. They’re realizing their rights are being taken away.”

Rappler’s reporters have inspired her to fight for what’s right. Of the 100 members of staff, 63% are women and their median age is 23.

“Our youngest reporters are the ones really in the front line. And they inspire me. We are forged in fire. What’s pushing us through is knowing that we’re holding the line, where our constitution defines our rights.

“It feels like the government is trying to bulldoze us off of it and we’re just holding firm. And I hope that as we hold firm, the Filipino people will wake up and join us.

“I’m absolutely certain that we are on the right side of history. All I am doing by going through the legal process is to make sure every chop, every gash has a signature attached to it because there will be accountability, I hope soon enough, to prevent me from going to jail.”

‘Speak out and step up’

She urged journalists to speak out about press freedom and the mission of journalism to help her cause.

“I don’t think enough of us are talking about the values. There’s a phrase in Indonesia, that the nail that stands up gets the hammer. Well, I’m already standing up and the hammer has already come down, and I’m just hoping that’s enough.

“In the end this is still a democracy and Filipinos will be the ones to determine where this democracy goes. Are we going to swing to fascism? Or are we going to stop and say no?

“We need moral guidance again. I think every generation creates its own democracy and our generation needs to step up.”

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