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Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa On Democracy's 'Death By A Thousand Cuts' And How To Fight Back

Maria Ressa's investigative reporting helped her win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.
Maria Ressa's investigative reporting helped her win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.

Maria Ressa was jointly awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her "efforts to safeguard freedom of expression" as a journalist and co-founder of the Rappler news website, which exposed rights abuses by the Philippine government.

Ressa, a Manila-born, U.S.-educated former CNN correspondent whose conviction for cyberlibel in the Philippines in 2020 was condemned by rights groups as politically motivated, produced some of her best-known investigative reporting as her native country tumbled down the international press-freedom rankings.

She spoke to RFE/RL's Georgian Service last week at the ZEG Tbilisi Storytelling Festival, of which RFE/RL is a media partner. Ressa talked about defending democracy and the connection between digital platforms and autocracy, and her 2022 book How To Stand Up To A Dictator: The Fight For Our Future.

RFE/RL: On the question of how to stand up to a dictator, I know the answer is in this book. But I wonder if your answer to this question changes as time passes.

Maria Ressa: I look at it in three ways: There's strategic, there's tactical, and the last, which is constant throughout, is actually maintaining your faith in people…[and] that people ultimately will do the right thing.

That you believe in the goodness of human nature, that democracy brings the best of what we can do as a system of governance, right. It isn't perfect, and in fact, globally, there's a kind of perfect storm of reasons why democracy became so vulnerable. In the Philippines, it was a combination of the trickle-down theory not trickling down; it was people being afraid that they're not going to get something more. After the pandemic, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer. And so more of our mass base needed more support.

I think for all of it, you have to just have faith. I think there were moments when I was wondering whether we were being just naive or foolish. Are you being naive or foolish in believing that doing the right thing is the right thing? And you know what? That's what the Nobel Prize did; doing the right thing is the right thing. And people will always surprise you. If you believe in the best of people, they will give you the best.

RFE/RL: Your example of not giving up and of fighting is so inspiring. At the same time, I know that this is not easy; this is very difficult. What is your superpower that made you decide to stay in the Philippines, and to not give up and to not be afraid? Or maybe you are afraid sometimes.

Ressa: Yes, you're always afraid. I think that's the first step. Who wants to fight a government? No one does, right? In Indonesia, there's a phrase that "the nail that stands up gets the hammer." So if you stand up, you're going to get hammered. Who wants to be the nail that stands up?

But I think what happened to us, and the reason I kept coming back, was I had spent all my career, my life, as a journalist living by the standards and ethics of journalism. And I went home to the Philippines in 2005 and headed the largest news organization.

When democracy gets too chaotic -- because democracy's hard, especially if you really want everyone's opinions -- there are some people who do not have the patience for it; they just want a strongman to make the call."

And then I began to really understand how, when you head the news, you become part of the power structure, and you get pressure from every side. Then you learn to navigate [that] and you learn to stick to your standards and ethics....

When I began Rappler [in 2012] and headed Rappler when, [between 2016-2022,] the [Rodrigo] Duterte administration began attacking news organizations, it was very easy to silence corporate media because, like my old network, it had other business interests. Rappler has no other interest but journalism.

And so I felt like, if I never went back -- because I have a U.S. passport along with my Filipino citizenship, right -- symbolically I become a coward, and it means that everything I'd spent decades building was a sham. When it matters, you have to stand up. So, it's almost like there's a relay race and the baton was passed to me at the wrong time to be a news head; but I had to take the baton and carry it to the next person. And that's my goal; I'm going to carry it to the next news head.

The citizens of Georgia, the journalists, are going to have to carry the baton to the next generation. Will democracy survive? That's your challenge today.

RFE/RL: Right now, Georgians are protesting the Russian-style "foreign agent" law. What would be your advice?

Ressa: I think that, first, it's OK to be afraid, it's normal to be afraid. It's what you do that defines who you are. And I think, from what I've seen of Georgians -- I mean, you've already gone through this before -- you have to be pragmatic and you have to be prepared if you decide that fascism is not a system that you want. Because this is literally what the world is turning to, because the technology allows surveillance in a way that we never had before. The technology allows behavior modification, you know, pounding a lie a million times so that it becomes a "fact," triggering your cognitive biases, triggering your fear and your hatred. It's like politics became a gladiators' battle to the death.

I think with Georgia it's more power and money again; it's the same thing in the Philippines, power and money. And what will give a better future to your children, to your country. You can't do this alone. And as a journalist, you have to call a spade a spade. If there are consequences to that, build the alliances.

I think the reason I'm not in jail is because the Duterte administration forgot that I spent 20 years of my life reporting for an international network, and these journalists knew me; and my peers were now heading news organizations, and they helped.

It's shining a light. That's the other part. You have to capture the world's attention at a time when the world has ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). But Georgia actually has the world's attention; it certainly did more than the Philippines had it at the start.

RFE/RL: In one of your interviews, you say that "dictatorship is formed step-by-step." What are the signs? We are also afraid to be there one day.

Ressa: I called it "death by a thousand cuts" of democracy, of the body politic. What a dictator wants is for you to look away as they slice away at the rights. I came from counterterrorism research. "Death by a thousand cuts" is not [only] a Taylor Swift song, it was what Al-Qaeda wanted to do to America, right?

Now, it's exactly what authoritarians are doing, what social media is doing. Because it's like every single time your rights are being taken away, it's a cut; but they're small cuts, and they want you to look away, because "it's only a small cut." Imagine that you bleed from these cuts, and at a certain point the body politic becomes so weak that you die. That's what we don't want to happen.

The Philippines went from the hell under the previous administration to now being in purgatory. I had 11 criminal charges, and now, I have two left. It took a long time….

RFE/RL: If I'm not mistaken, they tried to detain you like 10 times?

Ressa: Yeah, arrest warrants. I had 10 or 11; I can't even remember now. I think my friends get mad at me because I try to forget all the bad things.

I think for Georgia, and for Georgians, it's a choice you make; and some people may decide that they want an authoritarian leader.

RFE/RL: Or not.

Ressa: Or not. That's the other part. In Southeast Asia, the nostalgia for strongman rule is so strong. In 1986, we kicked out [Ferdinand] Marcos. There was a people-power revolt. And the beginning of my career was all about how these authoritarian leaders were being replaced by democracies, up until 1998, which was the end of almost 32 years of [authoritarian Indonesian President] Suharto in Indonesia. And then, the tail end of my career, it feels like it's going back down.

When democracy gets too chaotic -- because democracy's hard, especially if you really want everyone's opinions -- there are some people who do not have the patience for it; they just want a strongman to make the call.

RFE/RL: Have you ever thought of leaving everything?

Ressa: Oh my gosh, no. I've lived a life of no regrets. I'm 60; I still live by my ideals, and this is the way I'm going to live my life. It's possible to be 60 and to be idealistic.

RFE/RL: What is your best advice to journalists?

What tech did is it atomized us into individuals…[and] this battle that we're facing is an individual battle for integrity. It's in our cell phones."

Ressa: First of all is to know that you are not alone, whether it's a Georgian citizen or a journalist. There were times in the Philippines when I was angry at citizens who weren't speaking [out] at the powerful, who were quiet because they wanted to protect their money. Fear does incredible things to people, so I can't get mad at them.

The only thing we can control is ourselves. So, advice? Know who you are. Draw the lines where "this side you're good, this side you're evil." And live a life that is you.

RFE/RL: And news reporting made you the person that you wanted to be?

Ressa: Yes, so much. The standards and ethics of journalism...and I love the discipline. Because it draws lines for you, but you're not emotional about it. Emotion is a strength, yes. But in journalism, learning how to push your emotions down so you have clarity of thought, so you make the right decisions -- and the humility to realize that you don't know what you don't know.

I would never want to be Big Tech and make decisions for everyone about the kind of world we want. I want you to make that decision and give you the facts to be able to do that; that is journalism. I get angry at Big Tech.

RFE/RL: What's your favorite part of your book?

Ressa: For every single instance in the book, there is a macro-lesson, which is the big picture. But the subtitle is the personal lesson that I have. We -- and I -- had to negotiate [as] three of my journalists were kidnapped by the Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) in 2008, and there's no handbook, if you're a news head, for how to get your journalists back. [Or] how do you deal with terrorists, right? (Editor's note: ASG was a violent Islamist separatist group in the southern Philippines that, in the 1990s, waged a campaign of kidnapping for ransom.)

And I think what I wanted to do here is to give a holistic handbook for journalists and for our societies. What tech did is it atomized us into individuals…[and] this battle that we're facing is an individual battle for integrity. It's in our cell phones. The war in Ukraine is not [only] in Ukraine, it's [also] here -- it's in our cell phones, right, because you're being targeted by Russian disinformation. But let me pull up [and address your question].

Among the micro-/macro-lessons, which one did I like the best? Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. When I didn't know which direction to turn, it was simple: Treat others the way you would want to be treated. Why would you treat them any differently? And that plays out in journalism. Be fair. Listen.

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