Maria Ressa holds firm to her convictions despite being convicted

Rappler chief executive and executive editor Maria Ressa during a news conference in Manila on Monday. (Aaron Favila/AP)
Rappler chief executive and executive editor Maria Ressa during a news conference in Manila on Monday. (Aaron Favila/AP)

On Monday, a court in Manila convicted Filipino American journalist Maria Ressa of something called “cyber libel.” Her case will have severe ramifications for press freedom not only in South Asia but around the world.

“Today a court in the Philippines became complicit in a sinister action to silence a journalist for exposing corruption and abuse,” Amal Clooney, Ressa’s London-based lawyer, said in a statement with co-counsel Caoilfhionn Gallagher. “This conviction is an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines.”

Clooney also called on the U.S. government to “take action to protect their citizen and the values of their Constitution.”

The U.S. government would normally be swift in responding to such a clear affront to press freedom — especially against one of our fellow citizens.

But these are extraordinary times, and the Trump administration’s message to journalists has been clear. According to the president — and so many other leaders with authoritarian instincts — journalists are the problem, and we will not be protected.

Law enforcement seems to have taken Trump’s comments as a cue to crack down on reporters who have been trying to cover the protests following the police killing of George Floyd late last month. Sadly, such treatment is nothing new for our colleagues in many parts of the world.

Ressa is one of many journalists who have become targets of illiberal leaders in countries where democratic traditions and institutions are under threat. Once home to a free and thriving press, the Philippines has become — under the thuggish leadership of President Rodrigo Duterte — yet another very dangerous place to be a reporter.

Ressa remains free on bail for the moment, but she faces seven other indictments. All of them are similar in that there is scant evidence to support the charges against her. Rappler, the news organization founded by Ressa, has conducted relentless investigative reporting into corruption by Duterte’s administration, and this appears to have motivated the authorities’ moves against her.

The cyber libel law under which Ressa and colleague Reynaldo Santos Jr. are being prosecuted falls into the category of so-called fake news legislation that is being passed around the world, especially in countries where authoritarian-minded leaders are trying to retaliate against a critical press that exposes official misdeeds.

While it is relatively unlikely that Ressa will ever be forced to serve jail time, these sustained attacks on her and her work still serve two useful purposes in the eyes of the government. First, they are designed to exhaust her. Mounting legal bills and the psychological toll of constant legal pressure make it far harder for her to continue her work.

Second, her case is meant to deter other truth-tellers from pursuing careers in journalism. That is a trend we are increasingly seeing around the world. Officials accuse journalists of crimes against national security. Pro-government media — sometimes including online “militias” — expose reporters’ private lives to public scrutiny, while their families are often threatened. Such pressure can be extremely hard to resist.

In the case of Ressa, this strategy has always backfired. She simply refuses to back down, and in the process she has gained a vast and growing support network around the world.

“For years I have been targeted by the authorities, by bot armies, paid trolls and fake news websites,” Ressa told reporters following news of the conviction. “But I will not be silenced. I will fight this conviction, and I will continue to do my duty, to speak out and report the truth.”

Earlier this year, Maria and I both took part in a conference on the state of the media held in an idyllic port town in Maine. We are often invited to speak at the same events. And it’s always a pleasure.

I say pleasure not only because Maria Ressa and her optimism are a joy to be around, but also because she is someone from whom we can all learn a great deal — not only about the demise of democracy in the Philippines, but, even more important, about the repressive tools that Duterte and others like him are sharpening to use against the free press.

Government attacks on journalists are not going away. In fact, they’re likely going to get much worse. Maria Ressa’s fate, and how the international community responds to it, will be an important predictor of the state of press freedom in the years ahead.

Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post's correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.

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