The Fearless Journalist Targeted by a Murderous Dictator

Elva Mankin

Frontline/PBS Ramona Diaz’s latest documentary, A Thousand Cuts, stars former CNN correspondent and Rappler co-founder Maria Ressa, a formidable Filipino reporter who was born in the country yet spent much of her youth, as well as her college years, in the U.S. Ressa became famous herself when she began being […]


Ramona Diaz’s latest documentary, A Thousand Cuts, stars former CNN correspondent and Rappler co-founder Maria Ressa, a formidable Filipino reporter who was born in the country yet spent much of her youth, as well as her college years, in the U.S. Ressa became famous herself when she began being targeted by the violent populist government of President Rodrigo Duterte and its online followers. The attacks have intensified to the level of political retaliation, and the government has levied multiple charges, from cyber-libel to tax fraud, against Ressa and Rappler, a news website. On June 15, Ressa was convicted of the first cyber-libel charge against her. 

A Thousand Cuts follows Ressa as well as a handful of her colleagues/employees at Rappler, from police beat reporter Rambo Talabong to investigative reporter Patricia Evangelista, who have spent years on the ground covering the graphic, out-in-the-open government-mandated murders of poor Filipinos who are deemed—rightly or wrongly—drug addicts and drug pushers. The film also follows two of Duterte’s most fervent and influential supporters, social media personality and former dancer Mocha Uson and former Police General Bato dela Rosa. 

Despite its panoptical view, A Thousand Cuts focuses on Ressa and the extreme nature of her predicament. The world over, journalists are targeted, jailed, disappeared, and even murdered (as was the Saudi exile Jamal Khashoggi) for doing their work. Ressa, who chose to live in the Philippines instead of the U.S. after the people-powered revolution that ousted the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, has repeatedly returned to the Philippines rather than try to escape the trouble that has awaited her for years. The Daily Beast spoke to Ressa about what the most important takeaways are during a global descent into authoritarianism. 

It’s a very sensitive moment for you, Maria, where this film is being made while you’re in the midst of various complicated processes involving the politically motivated retaliation against you. 

My need was, realizing that we were in quicksand, this is a unique moment and we knew that in 2016, that we were under attack. So we grappled with: how do you report on yourself? And then I wanted it documented, but I couldn’t use Rappler’s resources for the longer term because we’re very small. Our organization’s a hundred people total and we only have 25 editorial people. Even in our video group, we work like crazy. So I felt bad even thinking of having someone document us. And then if it’s someone who knows you well documenting you if it’s an internal thing, then it’s clouded with lots of things. There were several people who asked, who were following me for periods of time. So, that was the stage that Ramona came into. That was my context. I wanted it documented and I wasn’t going to pay for it. 

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How do you build trust? Of course, I knew Ramona’s work because in 2004, she turned me down for an interview for [her documentary] Imelda. And at that point I was at CNN. I knew she had a different framework, which is the fly on the wall kind of cinema vérité. But my thing [is] at a certain point, a journalist makes a decision because if you’re doing a daily story, you make a decision immediately in terms of framework, in terms of the story. And inevitably, there are only eight themes globally. Every story falls into that. And so you make a judgment about the person you’re talking about. You don’t tell it to people, but for instance, if someone is lying to you, you know they’re lying to you and you put context to it. So that’s what she had to hurdle because I wasn’t completely convinced about her framework. 

I felt that the film really followed closely along to what at least seemed to me to be your personality, Maria, which is this ability to take grave moments or chaos, and to constantly reframe and recontextualize, to tell the people around you (or the audience) that this is how we need to look at it. And that’s a very journalistic trait, but the fact that you’re able to do that in your real life in real time is impressive. Everyone’s different when they’re being documented in any way, but were you thinking about this comportment as the film was rolling? 

No. At a certain point I really did forget they were there because they became part of Rappler in a weird way, you know? And yet really the things we were dealing with were off the wall. And this is something I learned from CNN when you’re in a conflict zone. I became a reporter for CNN in 1987, and in 1987, live shots were $10,000 for every 10 minutes. So you didn’t do a lot of live shots from the Philippines.

The thing about live shots is you have max two minutes, maybe a minute and a half. And if you don’t have your thoughts organized, if you’re not on in that minute and a half, you lose your window. So that’s perfect, wonderful training because I learned to take a complex world and boil it to three points, because that’s all you can get in a minute. 

I’ve learned a ton just even in the last four years, but it’s been four years of these attacks [from Duterte and his administration]. That’s the big difference. I’m used to being a journalist and being in a war zone for two weeks. Three weeks, and you’re going stir crazy if you’re still in a conflict area. Three weeks, it frays your edges; it changes the way you look at the world. I’ve had colleagues—some of whom are not are no longer here—who get addicted to it because there’s a certain adrenaline of conflict and war zone coverage that isn’t constructive to you. That makes you lose your ties, the ties that really matter to your family and friends. So I got out of conflict reporting at just the right time, I think. And I wanted to build something. That’s why I’m in the Philippines. Let’s hope I didn’t make the wrong choice

There’s comparisons made to the U.S. in the film and what’s going on here with Trump and his administration. The ways that populist dictator-types like Duterte and Trump function is that they try to manipulate the law. When the very premise of democracy, the very premise of fairness is being broken down, is it sufficient to react with the same tools you would have used in a fair and just society?

I think that’s a great question. And I think that is playing out right now. We were talking about David Kaye—he was the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Promotion and Protection of the Right to Freedom of Opinion and Expression—[because] his last day was last night. And the question I asked him, and this is connected to yours, is, “If facts are debatable,” because the biggest problem right now is that the world’s largest distributor of news is social media, and these platforms actually make sure lies laced with anger and hate spread faster than facts. 

But [the question I asked was], “If facts are debatable”—which is the biggest problem, this is the enabler of the rise of digital authoritarians, like a Trump and Duterte or Bolsonaro or Orbán in Hungary—”and we know that large groups of people are being manipulated by geopolitical forces, can we even have democracy? Do we have integrity of elections if we don’t have facts?” So if you think about it, that’s why journalists are under attack globally. Every report from Reporters Without Borders to CPJ will tell you that in the last decade, the attacks against journalists have just gone off the scale. Again, David Kaye, the U.N. special rapporteur, last night came out with a report that said that COVID-19 is closing the digital spaces.

Law is the next phase, because facts are where everything begins, right? The facts are where two opposing sides—whether a journalist or someone else are at the water-cooler—can have a discussion. But if they have different facts, you have a big problem. And what is law? Law is still talking about the facts. It is to try to put order in society. So there is accountability, but if your facts are debatable, you cannot have laws. So that’s also something I’ve learned in the last four years, working with like the people like Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher, the Covington lawyers who are [handling my case], I’m realizing that as journalists are fighting for facts and for truth, lawyers—both in the Philippines and the U.S., in international law, and, God forbid, international human rights law—all of this is quicksand right now, and they are trying to define it because the facts are debatable. 

So this is all connected in our world. I don’t think there’s any other time that epitomizes creative destruction as now. And I’ve lived through so many of these in Indonesia, in the Philippines before. I mean, today, really, truly everything that we thought we knew has been crushed and destroyed because facts are debatable. All the old systems we put in place can’t work when facts are debatable, when people are being manipulated. 

We have had courts and tribunals throughout history, but they haven’t always actually operated on the same set of facts as say, certain marginalized members of the population. You could take the Guatemalan genocide, for instance, and the impossibility of having indigenous voices fully heard by the system. But now these issues are coming up in a very disconcerting way. How do you reckon with the reality that there are all of these people in the Philippines who have legitimately felt marginalized by previous governments, even democratic governments, and so now they’ve turned to populism. 

It’s like COVID coming onto the world: the old problems are there, and they have not been solved. And then you come in with this added layer of technology that’s literally transforming all of us. I talk about social media as a behavioral modification system. And now it’s gone from governments to individuals. So, that’s happened. And then you add this layer of the pandemic. That’s what I mean, that everything is rubble. And again, I know this really well because I have been the target of these disinformation campaigns. Russian military doctrine includes these kinds of influence operations, as it does the U.S., which people forget. Influence operations are meant to change the way people think. So it changes the way they act.

You don’t get justice by creating another wrong. You don’t. In our case, in the Philippines, it’s actually one of our reporters who said, “What does Duterte want and how does he get the crowd?” Because he promises them revenge, right? Again, the 1 percent versus the 99 percent, the inequality of the world has been there, but you don’t fix it with more injustice. And then I actually really think, because I had been the target of these misogynistic attacks, the kinds of exponential attacks that are meant to dehumanize me so that others will hate—this is inciting to hate. And the last time a German friend of mine actually said—because I’ve started showing some of the really nasty stuff that I wake up to—he said, “You know, this is exactly what the Nazis did to the Jews, because when you’re dehumanized, then it opens the door to violence.” And there’s absolutely no sense of fairness in that. 

I think this is one of those moments in history where it isn’t just one nation, local is global and global is local because Silicon Valley has made these decisions about how facts are distributed to all of us around the world. And it’s just wrong. The decisions they’ve made, they have caused genocide in Myanmar, deaths in the Philippines and the drug war, I could go to jail. I love the question because it does expand it to justice, which is in the end why I became a journalist! Now, for Filipinos, our institutions are weak at best, corruption is endemic, law and order is sometimes an illusion, regardless of who’s in power. But for decades, from 1986 to 2016,  if you look at all of the surveys, Filipinos would go to news organizations for a sense of justice. 

It is always a search for justice, right? That’s always what motivates us. That’s why we have civilized society. because we know that there should be rule of law, but the paradigm, the paradigm is busted. If you don’t have facts—even if some facts are debatable, at least let’s agree on the shared facts.

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