Maria Ressa interview: You can’t negotiate peace if you don’t agree on the facts

Interview/ Maria Ressa, CEO, Rappler

PHILIPPINES-POLITICS-CRIME-AFP PICTURES OF THE YEAR 2016 Blitz and tears: A woman in Manila hugs the body of her husband next to a sign that says “I’m a pusher”; the Duterte government has been accused of using state force to kill those it suspects of being involved in drug-related crimes | AFP

You have become the first person from the Philippines to win a Nobel Peace Prize. What does this mean for your country? Usually, a journalist winning such an honour would indicate that something is wrong in the country.

Well, for us, it’s been a very tough few years since 2016 (Rodrigo Duterte became president). [I’ve] had ten arrest warrants in less than two years. I’ve fought cases in court; we’ve fought getting shut down. Rappler has those same ten cases. It was incredible to realise that we weren’t alone, and for that I profusely thank the Nobel committee. It was a shot in the arm not just for me, but for all Filipino journalists. Rapplers were overjoyed because it is difficult to keep doing what we’re doing. But I think one of the things it accomplished in the Philippines was that it united Filipino journalists. Because everyone has a different risk appetite; some people were quiet and some people were not. We had no choice, I had no choice (laughs). Beyond that, outside, this was an acknowledgement globally for all journalists [of] how difficult it has been to do our jobs. To hold power to account. The last time a journalist had been given the Nobel Peace Prize was in 1936, and he languished in a Nazi concentration camp. So, this is part of what I realised, that the Nobel committee looked at the world and I think they’re saying we’re at the precipice of something like 1936. What happened after that? World War II. And after World War II, the world came together to create a new world, to prevent the worst of human nature from ruling us. And that’s I think the moment we’re living in.

The last thing I’ll say is [about] how our governments reacted. Dmitry and I had similar experiences; his government reacted quicker than mine. The Kremlin and Putin congratulated him; had some nice words for him the first day until Putin then threatened him. In my case, what the government did was radio silence, I guess stunned silence. As stunned as I was. [There was] silence Friday, Saturday, Sunday. On Monday, we had kind of like a strange statement where, it kind of goes against your question. The government said, “We congratulate Maria Ressa, the first Filipino to win the Nobel Prize. It proves press freedom exists in the Philippines.”

You said in an interview that you are idealistic. Most journalists are when they start out. But despite the threats and court cases, what are the challenges that you have to go through to hold on to your ideals?

Conquering your fear. Because in the end, the government went after Rappler. And the first question every news head has is, do you talk to power? In general, news organisations around the world have a direct line. When I was heading ABS-CBN, I had a direct line to the president. Because you want to make sure you’re fair. In this case, the idea of negotiating with the government didn’t really appeal to me in any way because we work too hard at Rappler. Rappler is independent; this is the startup of my adult life. And if we were going to be independent, then it’s not worth it to not work hard. You don’t do the easy thing, but I didn’t realise how hard it was going to get. Because I didn’t realise that the government would go so far. And that all shattered when the government arrested me in February 2019. When there were just cases being filed, I thought they were just trying to intimidate us, we won’t get intimidated. I’m too old, I’ve been doing this for a long time, and so we continued. When they arrested me, and they did it to make sure I was detained overnight; they arrested just at the court’s closing time, that’s when I realised, oh, well, now I have evidence of how this government will abuse its power in order to intimidate. I don’t have to ask anyone else, it happened to me. And I came out of that night stronger. I’m lucky compared to others, I’m a high-profile journalist. I spent nearly two decades of my career working with CNN; I set up the Manila and Jakarta bureaus. And when I came back to head the largest news group in 2005, I was high profile. So the goal of the government in doing that to me was to make me an example to everyone else, so that everyone else is scared. “If we can do this to her, what can we do to you?” And that’s exactly the kind of Mafioso mentality that the government has exuded. Imagine if you’re a journalist in the provinces walking home at night. Do you get the warnings that I’ve gotten? At least not for 19 journalists who were killed under this administration. There’s one journalist, 23 years old, who’s been in prison for more than a year—Frenchie Mae Cumpio. So, this is not a surprise, but I think, as time went on, it just got exhausting and then we realised, these are new normals. And that’s when I just said, when I was convicted last year in a cyber libel crime—[for] a story that was published in 2012, before the law that we allegedly violated existed—[that] we’re bending the law to the point it’s broken. And that’s where it’s the weaponisation of the law. So, first weaponisation of social media, then weaponisation of the law. Having said that—and here’s the other part with Dmitry [Muratov]—is the Philippines now Russia? I remember when I was still with CNN and I would visit Russia and [see] the kind of duality of what the facts are. How things aren’t what they seem. The weaponisation of social media was as early as 2014; it’s in the Russian military doctrine. I used to think, this is great, we’re not Russia. Sorry Russia, sorry Dmitry. It wasn’t as tough, but now it is. But I think the difference is that we have a chance to regain our democracy. We’ve held the line and now we’re at the tail end; we’re in the fifth year of a six-year term of President Duterte, and we have elections in May next year. We’ve carried it this far, we’ve survived. And now I hope we’re able to have elections and Filipinos will choose well. The biggest problem, of course, is that, whether we have integrity of elections will depend on whether we have integrity of facts. And with social media platforms, that is impossible unless they change it.

You mentioned how some journalists could have succumbed under pressure. For you, getting arrested made you a stronger person and more committed to the cause. In India, five years ago, there were 10.3 lakh journalists; today it has come down to 2.3 lakh. Around 70 per cent either lost their jobs or left the industry. What do you say to that section of disillusioned journalists?

This is a disruption of our industry. So here’s the biggest problem. To paraphrase the Nobel committee, they said freedom of expression is necessary for a democracy, [and that] the quality of journalists of a democracy is indicative of the quality of its democracy. (Sighs) the problem is, the business model of news has crumbled. And that goes hand in hand with the rise of the technology platforms, which are the very same places that are tearing down the credibility of news. It’s a virtuous horrendous cycle. Part of the reason journalists have been laid off globally is that news organisations have lost their revenue stream, the advertising revenue stream. And where did they flock to? They flocked to the technology platforms that have enabled the attacks against journalists. And yet, as the Nobel committee pointed out, you need journalists to get the facts, especially in conflict areas, especially when authoritarian governments growing into dictatorships, growing into fascism, need to be curbed. I go crazy when people call journalists content creators, because we’re not! It would be very easy to just create content. It isn’t easy to be a good journalist. To stake your life at times if you’re in a war zone, [to stake] your reputation when you’re challenging power. It isn’t easy to go up to somebody who has all the power in your world and demand answers. That takes courage. And that is the commodity that no one can really pay for. That is what the mission of journalism creates. So I worry… sorry, I’m hyper, I’ll tone it down (laughs).

No, no, it’s perfect. We need voices like yours at this point in time. You were talking about tech companies. How has your confrontation with Facebook influenced you as a journalist?

I think Pandora’s Box has opened. Technology will be part of our lives, we can’t go backwards. And that’s why I think more journalists have to embrace technology. And technology [companies] have to embrace the fact that they are now the new gatekeepers. And they cannot treat lies the same way they treat facts. That’s really where everything begins, right. The data points of lies and facts are identical, and you can actually say that the lies have preferential treatment in the algorithmic distribution. Because lies, laced with anger and hate, spread faster and further than facts. So the world’s largest distribution platforms for news are biased against facts and journalists.

Our future, both of journalism and these tech platforms, are intertwined. I’m crossing my fingers. We’re building a tech platform now for Rappler because, for our elections, we want our people to have a place where they can have fact-based, evidence-based discussions. Because it is in the listening that you get compromises, which is what democracy is all about. It shouldn’t be about who shouts loudest or who has a bigger troll army. It should certainly not be about insidious manipulation. I think the time of surveillance capitalism, where these platforms made a lot of money, is going to end. And I hope that they end it. In their self-interest, they can’t live in a world where democracy doesn’t exist anymore. Who would want to do that?

You said the media lost its gatekeeping powers to technology. How do you take back control and regain the trust of people?

The hard part for journalists is that that’s not within our control anymore. In this new world, you say a lie a million times, it’s a fact. In the old world, you say a lie ten times, journalists can catch up, facts can catch up. But when it’s a million times, exponentially pounded, we don’t stand a chance. If you don’t have facts, you can’t have truths. Without truth, you can’t have trust. The incentive schemes of the internet and social media don’t encourage facts and journalism. They encourage information operations. This is why it’s not a surprise that your government, my government, Russian disinformation, Iranian disinformation, Saudi Arabia… there have been many countries. Oxford University’s computational propaganda research project said, at the beginning of the year, that there are at least 81 countries where cheap armies on social media are rolling back democracy. Meaning, they are insidiously manipulating their people. In which democracy is that okay?

These tech platforms tell us, “Well if you don’t like it, mute it or block it.” Can you imagine a journalist saying that? If you don’t like a fact, ignore it, but the rest of the world can still see it. This is why our public sphere is so broken. The idea behind a tech platform is that we can all have our own realities. It's like we’re living in the matrix, or in our own illusions. This is what is tearing down democracy. You go to the Nobel Peace Prize; you can’t negotiate peace if you don’t agree on the facts, if you don’t agree on your shared reality. I’ll shut up, I think I’ve had too much Coke Zero.

So how do you deal with this cyber bullying? What’s the worst personal attack you have faced in your career?

I can’t even quantify them anymore. I will say that the International Centre for Journalists, University of Sheffield and UNESCO, working with Rappler, analysed almost half a million social media attacks against me. They found that 60 per cent of those were meant to tear down my credibility, and 40 per cent were meant to tear down my spirit. You haven’t torn down my spirit.

How do you deal with that?

You understand the data. This is what gives me power to cut through it. I know what they’re after, I know why they’re doing it. One of the attacks, for example, name every animal, and I’ve been called it. I used to be sensitive about my dry skin, because I have eczema, atopic dermatitis. And what the propaganda machine did was take photos and put deep cracks in my face. They took my head and put it on top of human genitals because they called me scrotum face. I am no longer sensitive about it. Or maybe I’m just an optimist and I look at the upside, because there is always an upside. It’s not going to work [on] me. Once you know the ‘why’ and then you have the ‘what’, then you can tell the story. And we expose it, that’s what we do.

You talk about getting trolled. I don’t think I can name a journalist who has been trolled as much as you and some others in the industry. What’s your message to journalists around the world who are trying to fight?

You are not alone. And this is a tactic of power. Here’s the part I don’t like, and worry about the future of humanity. In a way, the types of leaders we have today give people the permission to be their worst selves. This is how these digital authoritarians came to power, using us against them. In the Philippines, women are attacked at least 10 times more than men. The kinds of gains we’ve had for feminists have all been rolled back. So, look, you’re not alone, we are going to get through this. We will demand that guard rails be put in place.

Here’s the last part. All of these attacks are also meant to create an enabling environment for government’s actions. In my case, in May 2017, the government tried to trend #ArrestMariaRessa. It didn’t trend, so they waited another two years until they actually arrested me. It’s like the harbinger of what the government wants to do. So I actually look on social media [to see] where the government is headed.

If you are under attack, don’t be ashamed of it. It’s not about you, it’s about your job. They want to sap your energy so that you stop doing your job. Don’t let them.

Courting trouble: Ressa after posting bail in a trial court in Pasig City, the Philippines; she has had 10 arrest warrants in less than two years | Reuters Courting trouble: Ressa after posting bail in a trial court in Pasig City, the Philippines; she has had 10 arrest warrants in less than two years | Reuters

In your speech at Harvard last year, you said the assault on facts around the world has shifted journalism’s role to one of advocacy. This goes against the traditional understanding of the role of journalists. Why is this shift necessary?

It’s because of technology. The technology that delivers our news is not neutral. It’s not like the medium. Marshall McLuhan said it, the medium is the message. Television could be more emotive, but at least we all saw the same screen. We weren’t being manipulated by the messages in the way social media now allows. In that sense, social media has become this behaviour modification system and every user is Pavlov’s dog. They’re A/B testing to see whether or not it works. And what’s their goal? To keep us scrolling. Your biology is being used against you. It’s mildly addictive. You have increased levels of dopamine, of oxytocin. And beyond that, everything you put on any digital platform is gathered by machine learning to create a model of you that knows you better than you know yourself. And then it takes your most vulnerable moment to a message and serves it—that’s the new advertising—to a corporation, and then to a government. The new propaganda is far more insidious than radio, than Joseph Goebbels was; that was the last time a journalist won this Nobel Prize.

Our biggest crisis is our Palaeolithic emotions, how our biology is being manipulated; medieval institutions, which are just starting to get it; and Godlike technology, which is being exercised by human beings without Godlike wisdom.

You were born in the Philippines and were raised in New Jersey in the US. Having seen both the east and the west, how has that shaped you as a journalist?

I’m used to being on the outside. When I’m in America, I feel most Filipino. When I’m in the Philippines, I feel most American. You realise that there is more than one way of looking at the world, and that these kinds of judgments that a dictator or a fascist tries to [make], this us against them, is actually the worst of leadership. Unity in diversity, right? A lot of different countries have that, including India. We need to come together. Look at the coronavirus. The best leader unites, explains, [and] brings out the best in human nature instead of dividing and using violence and fear. When people are afraid, it’s almost like every man for himself, and that means democracy splinters and there is no pushback against this growing power. I continue to hope. I believe in the goodness of human nature; isn’t that insane? I haven’t given up, I know we can get through this. And I guess that’s the faith I have.

You said that while writing How to Stand Up to a Dictator, you went through a lot of emotions. Can you touch upon that?

I grew up at a time when journalists weren’t the story. I spent most of my career telling other people’s stories. We now live in a time where social media pushes out authenticity and the journalists growing up in this generation have different incentives. What I hope stays is the standards and ethics, and the mission of journalism. The form may change, but I hope the substance stays the same. When I was writing this book, I went back over all of that. My career went from dictating your story on a public payphone to going live every hour, on the hour. And I knew the impact of technology, but I didn’t really realise it until the internet. And what I worry about the internet is the commoditisation of news. Because when news is commoditised, you reduce something that takes so long to do—you can take eight months to do an investigative report that will hold power to account because you need to be absolutely certain or you’ll be sued—to page views. And you’re going up against the latest entertainment story of the night. The story is devalued, meaning is devalued. Everything is like sugar. I think that’s wrong.

I went through a range of emotions while writing, and I’m still writing. I just got my editor’s notes back, and I will spend another month doing my rewrite. I know we’ve lived through some incredible times, but I do know that it is important that journalism survives. What we give is not just the discipline of journalism, and that part of what is journalism; it’s the process of the newsroom that makes sure that you have the context of the story, the facts. What journalists bring to it that is bigger than any content creator is the courage to challenge power. We carry that from the power we get from the people.

You have written two books on terrorism. Do you think there’ll come a time when there is a united fight against terrorism?

That’s tough to answer. I was in Delhi for the 1999 hijacking of the Indian Airlines flight. Omar Sheikh was flown to Afghanistan and released (one of the three terrorists India released in exchange for passengers on the hijacked flight). [Later] he’s in Pakistan, and I was in New Delhi when he called me. [This was] right around the time that the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl [was beheaded]. Atlanta (CNN headquarters) wouldn’t let me go to meet him (Sheikh). Later, after Daniel was kidnapped, I realised that my desk saved me because I was going to go meet Omar Sheikh.

I look at India and terrorism and I follow trails. Omar Sheikh was directly connected to Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was probably the guy who beheaded Daniel Pearl. And I followed Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the Philippines when he lived here in 1994 and they tested these tactics, along with his nephew Ramzi Yousef, the guy behind the first (1993) World Trade Center bomber. They tested how to get through airport security in Manila, because we have the same machines as the United States.

In the past, terrorism was used as a form of asymmetrical warfare. And it used to be for state to state. Then it wasn’t that anymore. I think 9/11 was a big signal for how it’s no longer nation to nation fighting. It comes out of a lot of things—injustice, when a state abuses its power. Certainly that’s happened here in the Philippines and in Indonesia.

I don’t think that’s ever going to go away, unless we have great governments who will provide for the people. If anything, we’re getting worse. But here’s the last twist: Today, it is the government exploiting these tactics of asymmetrical warfare against its citizens. And it is doing it insidiously. Those are the two biggest stories of my career. The 9/11 attacks, which were a memory for me because probably the first pilot recruited by Al Qaeda was arrested in the Philippines in 1995. And then now, finding these information operations; I call them the new terrorists.