Maria Ressa is the kind of journalist who inspires admiration: She’s personable, whip-smart and dedicated to holding powerful figures to account.
That’s why this dynamic woman has captured the attention of so many around the world who care about press rights — even landing her on the cover of Time magazine as a symbol of intrepid journalism.
And it’s why so many were crushed last week when Ressa was convicted, in her native Philippines, on trumped-up charges of cyber libel.
“This is horrible,” was the immediate reaction by Vivian Schiller of the Aspen Institute.
Sheila Coronel, the Columbia University journalism professor who co-founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, made her disgust clear as she described in the Atlantic how Ressa was convicted “for an article she did not write, edit, or supervise, of a crime that hadn’t even existed when the story was published.”
It is an outrage, simply put, to see this brilliant editor, along with a staffer at Ressa’s news site Rappler.com, face up to six years in prison over reporting of ties between a Filipino businessman and a top judge.
But instead of declaring it an outrage, and putting the weight of the United States government’s disapproval behind that outrage, President Donald Trump was busy doing quite the opposite.
While the Philippines’ fragile democracy was under attack by the authoritarian Rodrigo Duterte, a Trump appointee was purging highly respected news executives within the United States taxpayer-funded agency whose intended role is to counter disinformation around the world.
Among the unceremoniously dumped: Middle East Broadcasting Network chief Alberto Fernandez, who is a former U.S. ambassador, Radio Free Asia’s Bay Fang, Emilio Vazquez of the office of Cuba Broadcasting and Radio Liberty’s Jamie Fly. Also out was Steve Capus, a former CBS and NBC executive, who had been a senior adviser to the Agency for Global Media.
And at Voice of America, the two ranking editors — Amanda Bennett and Sandy Sugawara — resigned, as did the head of the Open Technology Fund, Libby Liu, which promotes global internet freedom.
All of these departures stemmed from Trump’s appointment of Michael Pack, a conservative filmmaker and associate of his longtime adviser Stephen Bannon.
“It’s all about controlling the narrative,” said Mai Truong of Freedom House, a nonprofit organization that monitors and advocates for democracy and human rights.
She sees all of these events — both Ressa’s conviction and the domestic purge of news agencies — as part of the same global movement: populist elected leaders pushing inexorably in the direction of authoritarianism.
“Among the first things they do is target the press,” she told me. It’s not hard to see why: “A free press holds power to account,” she said — something that no would-be autocrat wants standing in his way.
Rappler, for example, as the Guardian wrote last week, has scrutinized the administration of the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, “exposing bot armies and corruption and documenting his brutal anti-drugs campaign, which has led, by some estimations, to tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings.”
Those who doubt that Trump really wants to move in that direction need only familiarize themselves with the revelations in John Bolton’s book, “The Room Where It Happened,” as The Washington Post reported this week.
At a summer 2019 meeting in New Jersey, Trump said journalists should be jailed so they have to divulge their sources, according to the former national security adviser’s account. “These people should be executed. They are scumbags,” Trump said. Maybe he didn’t mean that literally, but it’s still language that ought to shock every American.
I asked Truong what those who care about preserving democracy should do when they see these assaults on the press, whether around the world or in the United States.
Part of the answer, of course, lies in electing leaders who understand and fiercely protect press rights. But she said that another crucial element is heightened awareness — and the willingness to take a stand.
“We all have to be vigilant and willing to call it out when we see censorship or political interference,” she said.
Ressa, who is a citizen of both the United States and the Philippines, has a personal slogan: “Hold the line.” She elaborated on it after the judge’s ruling: “Are we going to lose freedom of the press? Will it be death by a thousand cuts, or are we going to hold the line so that we protect the rights that are enshrined in our constitution?”
Ressa added this warning as she vowed to appeal and to keep Rappler doing its job: “We’re at the precipice. If we fall over we’re no longer a democracy.”
True in Manila. And verging far too close to the truth in Washington, too.