Peter Pomerantsev’s illuminating study of disinformation, This is Not Propaganda: Adventures in the War Against Reality (2019), first alerted me to the ‘new breed of digital-era manipulation’ in the Philippines – in particular, the problems faced by Maria Ressa, an award-winning journalist, and Rappler, the independent online news outlet she founded. Pomerantsev believes that the phenomenal popularity of social media in the Philippines has allowed fake news to flourish and provided new ways to stifle free expression and crush dissent.
Rodrigo Duterte, the populist president elected in June 2016, made considerable use of social media in his election campaign. One of his main ‘selling points’ was ‘busting drug crime’. According to Pomerantsev, Duterte ‘vowed to kill so many drug dealers it would fatten the fish in Manila Bay, and joked that he would sign a pardon to forgive himself. He boasted of having killed someone over a “look”, that the lives of drug dealers meant nothing to him.’ After he came to power, both state forces and vigilante groups began ruthlessly to kill anyone suspected of having connections to the drug trade.
Amnesty claims that between July 2016 and January 2017, over seven thousand people were killed in Duterte’s brutal ‘war on drugs’. The human rights group has condemned Duterte for denying citizens the right to life, as well as the right to equality before the law and a fair trial, for sanctioning murder and for bragging about killing. Pomerantsev claims, ‘At one point thirty-three were being killed a day. No one would check if the victims were actually guilty, and there were frequent reports of drugs being planted on the victims after they were dead. Fifty-four children were executed too.’
Ressa and Rappler have faced severe repression for daring to criticise Duterte, his vocal support of the extrajudicial killing of drug users and other criminals, and government corruption. Ressa was educated in the United States but returned to the Philippines in 1986. She worked for CNN before moving in 2005 to ABS-CBN, the country’s largest television network. In 2012, she created Rappler. According to Pomerantsev, the aim was to ‘not merely report on current affairs, but engage a greater online community … Rather than old school hacks, Maria hired twenty-year-olds who knew more about social media.’ They became known as the ‘Rapplers’. Initially Rappler supported Duterte. But as his popularity grew and his sinister side emerged, the news outlet began reporting on the extrajudicial killings and corruption with which he was associated.
According to the International Center for Journalists, the Philippines is one of the most dangerous countries in the world in which to practise journalism. When Duterte was asked by a reporter in 2016 what his incoming government would do about the high rate of journalists being murdered with impunity in the Philippines, he answered, ‘Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a bitch.’
Since it began criticising Duterte’s presidency, Rappler has been deluged with online threats and accused of spreading fake news. When the hashtags #ArrestMariaRessa and #UnfollowRappler began to trend, Rappler’s team studied the data traffic and realised that bogus accounts were being used to spread false information about the platform. Then the government started bringing legal cases against Rappler. Despite condemnation from the United Nations, the government has also launched a systematic campaign of legal harassment and intimidation against Ressa in an attempt to silence free expression.
Currently, Ressa is facing several spurious charges, ranging from libel to tax evasion, for her journalistic work, which has exposed numerous examples of government corruption and the horrific human cost of Duterte’s war on drugs. On 15 June 2020, Ressa and a co-defendant were found guilty of ‘cyber libel’ over an article that was published several years before the law under which they were prosecuted even existed. On 3 December 2020, she was charged with libel again over an article published by Rappler in 2012. If convicted of all the charges, Ressa faces life in prison. At the same time, she continues to suffer online attacks, is threatened with rape and death, and endures racist, sexist and misogynistic abuse. She is represented by a high-profile international legal team including Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher, QC.
Readers might like to send appeals expressing serious concern at the ongoing persecution of Maria Ressa, urging the authorities to immediately withdraw all charges against Ressa and her colleagues at Rappler and to cease the intimidation and legal harassment of government critics.
Appeals to be addressed to:
Rodrigo Roa Duterte
President of the Philippines
Menardo I Guevarra
Secretary of Justice, Department of Justice
His Excellency Antonio Manuel R Lagdameo
Embassy of the Republic of the Philippines
6–11 Suffolk Street
London SW1Y 4HG
Fax: 020 7930 9787