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Despite Official Threats, Toxic Social Media, Journalist Sees 'A Battle We Can Win'


Time magazine recognized killed and imprisoned journalists as Person of the Year for 2018, singling out several in particular on their covers. Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post columnist who was killed in October, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, two Reuters journalists arrested in Myanmar for reporting on the killings of Rohingya Muslims, journalists at the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Md., where five employees were murdered in June and Maria Ressa, chief executive of the Philippines news website Rappler, who was indicted last month. Maria Ressa is one of a few of those honored who has not been imprisoned or killed. She joins us now from Manila. Thank you so much for being with us.

MARIA RESSA: Thanks for having me, Scott.

SIMON: Are you concerned this recognition, this honor, makes you more of a target?

RESSA: I had mixed reactions, right? - because, precisely, of what you said. But at the same time, it helps shine the light not just on what we're doing but also how what's happening in the Philippines is a global problem and how, in many ways, as journalists, we're facing an existential problem. And because we're the first line of defense in a democracy, democracies also face that same problem.

SIMON: You offer this quote in the Time magazine article. Quote, "I think the biggest problem that we face right now is that the beacon of democracy, the one that stood up for both human rights and press freedom - the United States - now is very confused." What are the values of the United States?

RESSA: It's really a problem when there are no deterrents to such horrendous behavior. And that is what the butchering of Khashoggi has shown us. The Myanmar - Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo - that they are - have been in prison for a year. And while Reuters pushes for it, you know, there is no voice. There is no power that is pushing for safety for journalists, for the rights of journalists. There used to be a voice of accountability. And now that the United States seems to say it's alright, who takes over, right? The best thing I know is from personal experience. When President Trump called The New York Times and CNN fake news, a week later, President Duterte called Rappler fake news. They're learning from each other. In our country, the numerous legal cases that I'm facing show you that the law has been weaponized. And not enough are standing up against this abuse of power.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of your work there at Rappler. You've gone into President Duterte's war on drugs, for example, haven't you?

RESSA: Yes, absolutely. We have a series it's called the Impunity Series. And this drug war started in July of 2016. By December of 2016, the number of people killed became the first casualty in the war for troops. As of November this year, the police now admit that they've killed 5,000 people in the drug war. But the 5,000 isn't the only one. There are more than 30,000 people. They're killed. And they're bucketed under this HCUI, this acronym - homicide cases under investigation.

SIMON: You've also been reporting on Facebook, haven't you? - how they've been used by the government against some critics?

RESSA: Yeah, absolutely. Again, that's the second. So impunity, first, is that the violence of the drug war, right? - that is spreading fear. But that's also mirrored online on Facebook. Free speech is being used to stifle free speech. They're using anger and hate to incite violence online against any perceived critics of the government. And the first targets were any person who talked about extrajudicial killings. Second targets were journalists.

SIMON: Government of the Philippines has charged you and the website Rappler with tax evasion.

RESSA: Ludicrous - Rappler has always paid all of its taxes. And the reason why the government claims we've evaded taxes is because they classified us as a dealer in securities. And they've turned an investment into income.

SIMON: So you believe these charges are politically inspired?

RESSA: I don't believe. I know.

SIMON: Ms. Ressa, I have to ask you, in this day and age of interconnection on the Web, why aren't you running Rappler from Los Angeles? Why are you there in the Philippines?

RESSA: Because to do the job well, I have to be in the Philippines. And because I think this is a battle we can win. And you cannot lead if you're not present. I have a team, many of them young reporters who are very aware of how important our work is now. I mean, in a way, this is the best time to be a journalist. We know that we need to stand up for these values.

SIMON: What would you say to journalists who might be listening?

RESSA: As journalists, we need to work together. Collaboration is far more important today than it ever has been because you're fighting disinformation that is crippling the credibility of the groups. And then on top of that, we have leaders who are then using their vast powers to reinforce the disinformation that is being used to attack us. The second is to demand accountability from platforms like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter. Ask them to clean up the toxic sludge. Facebook is now the world's largest distributor of news. What we human journalists used to do as gatekeepers - well the, social media platforms are going to have to learn to do that. Otherwise, this toxic sludge will weaken democracies all around the world.

SIMON: And why is this important to people who might be listening?

RESSA: I think that's the kind of world we live in, right? It goes down to the values and principles and the type of communities we want to build. The reason I continue to fight from the Philippines is I think Filipinos value human rights. I don't think they want to see innocent people killed. And I believe that, in the end, the principles of democracy is we fought hard for it. And this disinformation that's clouding our world today - I think when that's done, when that's gone, we'll be able to strengthen our democracy again.

SIMON: Maria Ressa in Manila, speaking with us over Skype - thanks so much for being with us.

RESSA: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF FULGEANCE'S "OH! (CLAUDE REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.