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FREEDOM OF THE PRESS. Maria Ressa (pictured), the award-winning head of a Philippine online news site, Rappler, talks to the media after posting bail at a Regional Trial Court following an overnight arrest by National Bureau of Investigation agents on a libel case in Manila, the Philippines, in this February 14, 2019 file photo. A Thousand Cuts, a new documentary by Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz, tracks Ressaís dual life in recent years. (AP Photo/Bullit Marquez, File)

From The Asian Reporter, V30, #10 (September 7, 2020), page 13.

"Donít shut up!" film spotlights Filipino journalist

By Ryan Pearson

The Associated Press

LOS ANGELES ó Maria Ressa says she didnít take Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte seriously when he declared four years ago that "corrupt" journalists werenít "exempted from assassination."

"In 2016, it was really, really laughable. And I thought, ĎOh, doesnít matter.í I laughed," said the countryís most well-known journalist and leader of the independent Rappler news organization.

Grim reality set in as Ressa was arrested and thrown in jail, targeted in a series of criminal cases, and convicted this summer on libel and tax evasion charges seen widely as attacks on press freedom. She now faces six years in prison.

A Thousand Cuts, a new documentary from Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz, tracks Ressaís dual life in recent years. Sheís seen smiling while accepting international media awards and praise from the likes of George Clooney, then grimly facing down online harassment, legal action, and real-world threats for Rapplerís reporting on extrajudicial killings in Duterteís drug war.

The film argues that Americans should learn from the recent history of the Philippines, where social media has helped to divide the country and critical press outlets are regularly lambasted by the president. ABS-CBN, the countryís largest TV network, was shut down by the governmentís telecommunications regulator in May.

Promoting the film in a Zoom interview from her home in Manila, Ressa shook her fists and laughed with dark humor ó "Urgh! Angry!" ó about what she called her "war of attrition" with the government. Sheís pleaded not guilty and is appealing her convictions.

"You donít know how powerful government is until you come under attack the way we have. When all the different parts of government work against you ó itís kind of shocking," she said. "I canít wait to really write this ó because I canít write at all right now, because then I would be in contempt of court."

Facebook has become the center of the internet for most Filipinos, and Rappler utilized it to grow rapidly as a startup news site. But the film shows how Duterteís populist campaign harnessed the platform to spread its message and target Ressa and other journalists.

Duterte supporters live-streamed protests at the Rappler office, and death threats flooded the comments alongside red heart emojis. Disinformation on the social-media platform exacerbated the problem, she said.

"Social media, the tech platforms have created a system where lies laced with anger and hate spread faster than facts. And it has placed people like me at risk," Ressa said.

Ressa began wearing a bulletproof vest because of threats. She is seen in the film repeatedly pleading with Facebook representatives to delete violent posts or cut livestreams. In July, she grew frustrated watching Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and other tech leaders speak before the U.S. Congress.

"For the tech giants, itís willful blindness, willful ignorance, willful arrogance ó because people like me are feeling the impact of the decisions they make," Ressa said.

Diaz, who spoke from her home in Baltimore, hopes her film can help protect Ressa ó and other independent journalists.

"Itís a global story," she said. "There are very many Marias around the world. And thatís why itís key to keep the story of press freedom ... and the importance of independent media alive."

Even during a pandemic shutdown and under court-ordered restrictions, Ressa is doing her part.

"Part of the reason weíve survived the last four years is because I havenít stopped talking," she said. "Thatís the best strategy so far to deal with a government that wants you to shut up. Donít shut up!"


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