Ressa, Rappler CEO, guest at Fil-Am Press Club’s ‘Kapihan’

by Rico Cruz
NEW YORK —  During a visit to the northeastern United States that was highlighted by the 2019 Time 100 gala , Maria Ressa, the beleaguered but nonetheless beaming CEO of news organization Rappler, took time to chat with members of the Filipino-American community at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in New York City, hosted by the Filipino American Press Club of New York.

Ressa and Rappler have been under fire in the last year and a half for their critical coverage of the Duterte administration. This led to a ban on their reporters covering the president, cases filed against her company by the SEC, and recently, the multiple arrests of Ressa herself on libel charges.

For most of the discussion, she fielded a handful of questions from the audience, which covered some of the following key points:

“Checks and Balances”

When asked who is currently acting as a check on president Duterte’s power, Ressa responded that “President’s Trump and Duterte have very similar styles, but the institutions in the United States are holding stronger, while institutions in the Philippines have crumbled in so many instances.“  She considers Duterte as possibly even more powerful at this point than the dictator Ferdinand Marcos, as he controls all three branches of government, save the Senate, which has been the only opposition to his policies thus far. This makes the upcoming midterm election so important, as it could pave the way for the administration to take full control.

“Chilling effect”

Throughout the conversation, the specter of fear among journalists and activists alike was brought up, with Ressa citing the case of Bishop Ambo David of Caloocan, who received numerous death threats following a sermon he delivered that mentioned the rise in extra-judicial killings. “Bishop Ambo had to hide because he’s facing real death threats. How can you have law and order if people are receiving death threats and are changing their lives?” She also mentioned the ongoing sale of the Philippine Daily Inquirer to a businessman close to the administration, the threat to block the renewal of ABS-CBN’s broadcast license and the SEC cases filed against Rappler that created a “chilling effect” in the mainstream news industry, leading most major newsrooms to succumb to the “ecosystem of fear” created by the administration and its social media armies , and “duck and cover”, thinking everything will be fine.

“Replace Objectivity with Transparency”

When asked how Rappler maintains its objectivity in reporting while being under attack, Ressa explained that there is no such thing as objectivity. “When I first joined CNN, I replaced a white, Anglo-Saxon protestant male who was much taller than I was, and I was a Filipino-American, which meant that the reports coming from the Philippines had my lenses (on it). I find that when we hear people talk about bias or non-bias, it often shows their own bias. I think what we have to do is replace the word objectivity with transparency.”

“Best case scenario”

To end the discussion, Ressa ended with a message of hope.

“In 14 months, 11 cases were filed against Rappler. That’s almost a case a month! Gosh, I wish they spent that much money to come up with a great foreign policy that will retain our land!” She expressed disappointment about how important and complex issues like climate change are not discussed, and instead “What we see are really mundane insults on social media. We yell and scream at each other, and I’m not so sure what we accomplish with that. We are tearing our society apart, and we’re going to have to rebuild. What will we replace it with and how do we build for the future?”

“These are individual battles for integrity; every Filipino has to fight. My best case scenario is that we win; that Filipino values stand strong.”

Rico Cruz is an independent photojournalist and documentary photographer based in Brooklyn, New York.  He began his career as a stringer for the news website Rappler in 2014 and went on to become a staff photographer for the daily broadsheet newspaper, Manila Bulletin, in 2015.

His assignments included the visit of US President Obama to the APEC Summit in Manila, the 2016 Philippine presidential elections, and the subsequent War on Drugs.  In 2017, he was awarded the Alan Model scholarship to participate in the Documentary Practice and Visual Journalism program at the International Center of Photography in New York.

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