Maria Ressa was packing her bags when she heard the sound of screaming protesters outside her Paris hotel room.
Ressa covered war zones for years. Now the head of startup news website Rappler, she no longer reports from the field. But on that December day, she grabbed her phone and tripod, and spent a few hours reporting on the “yellow vest” protests, a violent uprising against French President Emmanuel Macron.
Then it was time to leave, to finish packing her bags and go back to the Philippines, where a warrant had been issued for her arrest. At journalism gatherings in the United States and Europe, international colleagues hail Ressa as a fighter for press freedom. Back home, she faces a different reality: Ten years in jail if she’s convicted of tax evasion charges — allegations many believe were trumped up.
She packs a change of clothes, pajamas and a toothbrush in her carry-on bag to prepare for a night in jail. Police officers could arrest her as soon as she lands at the Manila airport, she thought. She tucks her phone in one pocket, her bail money in the other.
The charges have alarmed journalism organizations in the Philippines and abroad. They say the accusations are a politically motivated ploy to silence dissent and punish Ressa for Rappler’s critical coverage of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody drug war, which has killed thousands of the country’s poor. They see Ressa’s indictment as the latest in a string of media crackdowns by a president who bristles at criticism, who talks about journalists with scorn and who has advocated for violence against them.
The Duterte administration has denied targeting Ressa for political purposes and said the charges have nothing to do with stifling press freedom. Press secretary Martin Andanar said the judiciary found probable cause to indict Ressa, who must now go through the legal process to prove her innocence.
Ressa was able to avoid arrest, for now. She surrendered and promptly posted bail the morning after she arrived.
Now, a month later, she sits in her living room here in her country’s bustling capital, her voice calm, at times impassioned, as she talks about that December day in Paris, where news presented itself and she’s reminded of why she’s a journalist. Behind her, a large bookshelf towers over her.
“Everyone around me was saying, ‘Don’t go home. You don’t know what will happen,’” Ressa says. “But if you really think about it, I had no choice but to go home, because Rappler is ours and these charges are unjust,” she adds.
Ressa, a Filipino American who immigrated to the United States as a child during dictator Ferdinand Marcos’s regime and moved back to the Philippines in the late 1980s, has had her share of angering governments after years of covering war zones in Southeast Asia.
“I almost got thrown out of Malaysia,” she says nonchalantly. “But this time matters so much because this is us,” she said. “Rappler is something we created. The Philippines is home. There’s so much at stake for us. Why would we duck?”
At the heart of the charges against Ressa and Rappler is a 2015 bond sale that resulted in about $3 million in gains from investments by two foreign companies. The country’s Department of Justice alleged that Rappler Holdings Corp. failed to pay income taxes on that sale. The charges were based on a complaint by the Bureau of Internal Revenue, which accused Rappler of not paying roughly $2.5 million in taxes.
Francis Lim, Rappler’s lawyer, said the allegations rest on faulty logic. He said officials classified Rappler as a “dealer in securities” that therefore, should have paid the income tax.
“Which is very wrong. The concept of dealer in securities [is] you buy shares … and you sell the same securities. A good example is stock brokers. They’re considered dealers in securities because they buy shares of stocks and turn around and sell shares of stock to the public,” says Lim, who’s also a former president of the Philippine Stock Exchange.
“What the tax evasion charges did is to treat an investment like it was income,” Ressa told The Washington Post at the time. “We’re not a dealer in securities. We’re not a stock broker.”
The charges come amid widespread attacks against Philippine journalists and media organizations. Some came directly from Duterte, who called reporters corrupt low lives deserving of death in an expletive-laden rant in 2016.
The Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism and several other organizations have documented 99 cases of attacks against journalists, from online harassment to killings, in the last two years of the Duterte presidency. Some mainstream media outlets, including the Philippines’s largest newspaper and a major television network, have been the subject of verbal assaults from the president. Three alternative news sites recently experienced cyberattacks; one is still inaccessible.
Last year, the Philippine government sought to revoke Rappler’s license to operate.
Rappler has accused the Duterte administration of employing an army of “patriotic trolls” to harass dissenters, including the site’s reporters, and inspire others to do the same. Counselors came in to help Rappler journalists cope, Ressa says. On social media, attacks against her range from petty insults on her looks to violent threats. Some say she’s an elitist, an American with an Ivy-league education (she attended Princeton University) who’s out of touch with real Filipinos.
“It’s not about loyalties, people. It is about the facts,” she says, likening her detractors to a bully in the schoolyard. “We’ve all dealt with things like this before. It’s a mind game whether or not you allow it to affect you.”
Rappler’s findings mirror those of a 2017 Oxford University study which found that Duterte’s camp spent $200,000 on hundreds of “keyboard trolls” hired to spread propaganda and attack political enemies during the presidential campaign and after Duterte was elected in 2016.
Andanar, Duterte’s press secretary, called the accusations “fake, baseless, useless” and said there’s no online machinery to harass dissenters. Such allegations have been thrown at the president since he took office regardless of what majority of the country believe, Andanar says, adding that most Filipinos trust Duterte. He also credited a task force Duterte created for the removal of the Philippines from Reporters Without Borders’s list of five most dangerous countries for journalists.
But Clarissa David, a mass communication professor at the University of the Philippines, says Duterte’s hostility toward reporters is characteristic of an authoritarian leader.
“The tactic is to try to delegitimize independent journalism in the eyes of the public. If they succeed in doing this then they have full control of the information sources and can hide what they want to hide, they can hide from accountability, they can break down mechanisms of transparency needed to make a democratic system truly work,” she says.
These actions mirror events happening around the world.
The Oxford University study found that Russia and China used similar but more sophisticated online tactics.
Saudi journalist and Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi was killed in October inside the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.
Two Reuters journalists were imprisoned while investigating the killings of Rohingya Muslims in Myanmar.
In the United States, President Trump constantly seethes over negative media coverage and, like Duterte, has used the term “fake news” to refer to specific journalists and media organizations.
Here in the Philippines, outspokenness comes with political risks —the reason some publications and journalists have been reticent to publicly support Rappler, David says.
“Journalists, we know what’s happening. We talk to each other. But will they stand up? … The nail that stands up gets the hammer. Right now, the hammer is coming down on Rappler because we refuse to sit down,” Ressa says, laughing.
She and Rappler are not without critics in the media world.
Katrina Stuart Santiago, a blogger who previously wrote for the broadsheets Philippine Daily Inquirer and Manila Times, is critical of Rappler for receiving foreign investments and sees Ressa as an undeserving martyr of the free press.
She argues that while international attention has been focused on Rappler, smaller “alternative media” outlets, often associated with the left, have been fighting state-sponsored violence long before Rappler went online and Duterte rose to power. Other journalists, lawyers and activists who have been killed on the job deserve far more recognition, she says.
“Anyone who’s paid attention to Philippine media would know that if what we are looking for are independent media outlets that have been at the forefront of telling the important stories, without fear or favor, without big corporate funding, and across the different leaderships, that wouldn’t be Rappler,” she writes in an email.
But Stuart Santiago says she also stands with Rappler against the Duterte administration’s abuse of power and efforts to silence the news site by, for example, banning its reporters from Malacañang Palace, the president’s official residence and workplace.
The first half of 2019 will be consequential for Rappler, as political factions jockey for power, Ressa says. Midterm elections are in May and campaigns will begin next month.
“The next six months will determine whether we were foolish, or whether we were right in doing what we did,” she adds.
A conviction would send a chilling effect to Filipino reporters, says Raymund Villanueva, of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines.
“It means Filipino journalists must be united to fight this tyranny as they did during the dark days of Ferdinand Marcos’s dictatorship,” Villanueva says, referring to the former president who ruled for two decades.
Ressa is optimistic, excited even. Global media groups have created a defense fund to pay for Rappler’s legal fees. Time Magazine named her and other journalists “Person of the Year.”
She’s thrilled for what Rappler has become: a newsroom of more than 100 staffers — young, energetic and mostly female — led by its four founders, the “manangs” (the old ladies) of Rappler, as they’re jokingly called. While other media outlets laid off reporters, Rappler’s senior managers cut their own pay by 20 percent, Ressa says. If push comes to shove, “I just won’t pay myself,” she says.
“My old boss would say I’m stubborn as heck. I guess President Duterte would say the same thing. I’m stubborn,” she says. “And so are the women I work with. We don’t scare easily. It’s a fun time.”