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Tue 31 March 2020
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Fiona O’Connor reports on the threats being faced by women journalists around the world and how one of the loudest voices against the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte is standing firm.

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Journalism is more dangerous, and more under threat, than at any point in the past decade. Across the globe, the rise of populism – fuelled on an internet of industrialised hate and fake news – puts journalists at unprecedented risk. Women journalists, in particular, are under siege of misogynistic attack.

Nicknamed ‘the Punisher’, the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has warned that “just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination”. Human Rights Watch estimates that there have been 7,000 extrajudicial killings since Duterte took office in 2016, leading the French newspaper Libération to depict him as the ‘serial killer President’.

One of the loudest voices against Duterte has been the eminent journalist and broadcaster Maria Ressa. Twice arrested and subject to eight different charges, Ressa’s rights as a journalist and a citizen have been curtailed by the Duterte regime. “The nail that stands up gets the hammer,” she has said. “I’m the cautionary tale.”

Born in the Philippines and educated in the US, Ressa spent 20 years as CNN‘s lead investigative reporter and foreign correspondent, becoming bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta. In 2012, she co-founded Rappler, a Philippines-based online news website. Time magazine named her as its 2018 ‘Person of The Year’, alongside the murdered writer Jamal Khashoggi.

In the first three months of Duterte’s term of office, more than 3,000 bodies were piled up on the streets following his campaign vow to “litter Manila Bay with the bodies of criminals”, with US President Donald Trump congratulating Duterte for the success of his efforts. Rappler identified the Duterte-led Government as behind the post-election killings.

From the start of his presidency, a particular focus for Rappler was the growth of fake news related to Duterte in state media outlets, private entities and being spread on Facebook.

The Philippines tops the world internet usage index and most Filipinos who are online are also on Facebook. “It’s extremely powerful,” Ressa says, pointing out that the now defunct data analytics firm Cambridge Analytica led the manipulation of public opinion via social media during Duterte’s election bid.

“Essentially, [Cambridge Analytica] used the Philippines as a ‘dry run’ for its mechanisms for undue electoral influence in the United States. The rules of engagement with power, all of those rules were thrown out of the window in May 2016 when Duterte came to power. A month later, you had Brexit and then, like dominoes falling, you go all the way to Trump’s election in the US.”

The weaponisation of social media in selling a ‘law and order’ narrative packaged in the macho language of revenge proved irresistible to the Filipino electorate. Duterte’s foul-mouthed remarks against women and the country’s elite positioned him as a ‘man of the people’. In January 2018, Rappler had its licence revoked by the Securities and Exchange Commission of the Philippines – a move which prompted widespread condemnation by journalists’ associations and from members of the Philippines’ Senate and House of Representatives. It was described as “pure harassment” and “straight out of the dictator’s playbook”. 

Further charges against Rappler followed. In 2018 and 2019, Ressa was arrested after the website reported that there had been more than 20,000 killings in Duterte’s ‘war on drugs’. She now requires permission to travel.

Judicial harassment is a popular instrument of ‘prior restraint’ used against women journalists, in particular. The Maltese investigative reporter Daphne Caruana Galizia was facing 48 lawsuits at the time of her assassination in a car bomb in 2017. The award-winning British journalist Carole Cadwalladr is being sued by the businessman Arron Banks following her investigations into Cambridge Analytica and the Leave.EU Brexit campaign.

Leading NGOs are urging the European Commission to “take action to deter strategic lawsuits against public participation (SLAPPs)”. According to Greenpeace, “lawsuits of this kind aim to pressure, financially weaken and isolate journalists, whistleblowers, human rights defenders and civil society organisations that try to shed light on questionable activities”.

In the weeks before her arrest, Ressa and other – mostly female – Rappler journalists were targeted with onslaughts of online hate. Ressa calls this method “patriotic trolling”, which she says has emerged as a new weapon of “state-sponsored online hate and harassment campaigns to silence and intimidate”. It is a form of viral rape, she believes, designed to intimidate women. At the height of the mobilisation against her, Ressa received 90 hate messages an hour. 

Ressa has presented research on the mechanics of information warfare currently being deployed. The statistics are alarming. Extensive data examination shows that just 26 fake accounts can influence three million others. In the age of social media, Ressa says “a lie told a million times becomes a fact”.

To combat the next stage of authoritarian attack on press freedoms, the journalist believes it is essential to “combine investigative follow-up with technology and create communities of action… We can’t just play a defensive game. We have to create a new information eco-system”.

Maria Ressa is a tiny woman with immense courage. “Hold the line” is her rallying call. “In the battle for truth, you have to say who lies”.


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