The journalist who made an enemy of Duterte has a warning for Australia

Australia Business World
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Maria Ressa is wearing the same grey jacket to her SBS News interview that she wore when she was recently arrested.

In February, plain-clothes Filipino police burst into the offices of her popular news site, Rappler, and served her with an arrest warrant alleging she violated cyber libel laws with a story the site published in 2012.

The catch? The laws were enacted four months after the story was published, in what Ms Ressa’s lawyers say is a retrospective charge.

Ms Ressa smiles warily recalling that incident. It hasn’t been the only time she’s been arrested.

In Australia for a festival on press freedom, Maria Ressa is warning Australians not to allow the erosion of press rights before it’s too late.

Rashida Yosufzai

She’s posted bail eight times in about a three-month period, and arrested twice in a five-week period this year. In order to be able to travel she has to ask for court permission and pay thousands of dollars.

The journalist is also being targeted by her government over alleged tax evasion. All up, she’s facing a maximum 63 years in prison over various civil and criminal cases. 

“This is the end goal of the weaponisation of the law against journalists, against perceived critics of the government,” Ms Ressa tells SBS News.

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“It is to wear us down to take away time and resources; money, in the hopes that we just shut up.

“Tactics like that make me crazy, they make me hold the line.”

Taking on the president

When Rodrigo Duterte was sworn in as president in 2016, he used his speech to declare journalists were fair game for attacks.

“Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch,” he said.

Mr Duterte’s government pressures journalists critical of the methods adopted by the president and his campaign against drugs, according to Reporters Without Borders.

Chief among his targets has been Ms Ressa and her site Rappler with Reporters Without Borders describing the campaign against her as “grotesque judicial harassment”.

Maria Ressa arrives to post bail on her cyber libel case at a local court in Manila.

Maria Ressa arrives to post bail on her cyber libel case at a local court in Manila.

AAP

Ms Ressa is credited for the interview in which Mr Duterte confessed to killing three people while mayor of Davao.

As a journalist, she says she never sought out to be branded a critic of Mr Duterte’s, nor an activist.

But that’s where she’s found herself – and now she’s embracing those labels.

“Just by calling a spade a spade – that you should not kill people, you should not be using government resources against perceived critics and that you should not be using information operations against your own people – just by doing what we have done for decades we’ve been targeted,” Ms Ressa says.

“When you’re killing people and it’s sanctioned, encouraged by the government, that is an abuse of power and we should demand justice.”

War on social media giants

Ms Ressa’s struggle hasn’t just been with her government, but with the social media giants too.

She blames Facebook for helping spread fake news, and not just about her and Rappler which has made her the target of rape and death threats.

Distrust in the media has spiked among Filipinos against the backdrop of state-sponsored and private social media campaigns.

Maria Ressa was been arrested twice in a five-week period this year.

Maria Ressa was been arrested twice in a five-week period this year.

AAP

Ms Ressa says the Philippines is just a petri dish – and Australians should be concerned.

“I think we’re at this existential moment and it is the future of democracy and the future of journalism.

“Your democracies are under siege. You are going to feel what we’ve gone through.”

‘Wake up Australia’

Debate about press freedom in Australia has been raging since raids against journalists in June.

The Australian Federal Police raided the Australian Broadcasting Corporation over stories published alleging Australian special forces engaged in unlawful killings in Afghanistan.

Police also raided the home of a News Corp journalist who reported that the government was considering spying on Australians.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pressures journalists critical of his methods.

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte pressures journalists critical of his methods.

AAP

Ms Ressa’s advice to Australian journalists is to push back before it’s too late.

“If you see an erosion of the rights that you have always had, don’t look away because these small steps taken a whole, they push you back.

“Make it a public debate – but beyond that you must fight before your rights have been eroded.

“We’ve seen this in different parts of the world in history – people woke up when it was too late. We see it happening in the Philippines.

“The more time you let go, you let pass, the harder it will be to regain the ground.”

And for Australians who’ve enjoyed a free media industry for decades, who may now be complacent about the recent raids, she has a simple message.

“You gotta wake up,” she said.

“You haven’t had the kind of challenges our governments in South East Asia have had.

“This is like a virus that’s spreading all around the world. And while you’re far away from it the virus is hitting you and your government is part of that.”

Maria Ressa will be speaking at the Antidote Festival at the Sydney Opera House on Sunday.

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