Targeted for Telling the Truth
This special episode is a live recording from the Sundance Film Festival, with Filipino journalist Maria Ressa and filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz. Diaz’s most recent film, A Thousand Cuts, documents Ressa’s work to fight disinformation and the weakening of the Philippines’ democracy.
Note: We encourage you to listen to the audio if you are able, as it includes emotion not captured by the transcript. Please check the corresponding audio before using any quotes.
[PERCUSSIVE SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
NELUFAR HEDAYAT, HOST:
This is Course Correction from Doha Debates. I’m Nelufar Hedayat. Each episode we’ll look at one big global problem…and we’ll meet the people who are putting themselves on the line to try and fix it.
OK, this episode of Course Correction is a little bit different from the others. It is our first ever live episode. We recorded it at the Sundance Film Festival in the United States. Now, I had the date in my diary and my ticket already booked, and there was only one documentary film that I had eyes for. It’s called A Thousand Cuts, and it follows award-winning Filipina American journalist Maria Ressa and her news website, Rappler.
NELUFAR: Thank you for coming! So if everybody’s ready, we’ll get the show started.
NELUFAR: Our live audience was ready, and I was lucky enough to sit down with Time
Person of the Year recipient, Maria, and later, with the filmmaker Ramona Diaz.
NELUFAR: I’d like to introduce Maria Ressa up onto the stage. Maria.
NELUFAR: Maria made a name for herself reporting for CNN in Asia. She was CNN’s first bureau chief in Manila, in the Philippines. Then she became the CNN bureau chief in Jakarta, where she led the coverage of terrorist networks in Asia. She reported from India, Pakistan, China, South Korea, Japan, Australia and the U.S. And all this during the tense years after 9/11. She covered hostage crises, kidnappings, bombings.
You know them — one of those eternally driven people who manage to constantly and seamlessly do more, to achieve more and become extremely successful, all the while maintaining the integrity of their profession and being true to their voice and who they are. Yeah — that’s Maria.
From her days working the political beat at CNN in the early noughties, to managing about a thousand people at a news channel in the Philippines, to packing it all in for the promise of the internet when she and a bunch of other women started Rappler, Maria tends to venture were others can’t, where others won’t.
And then, in 2016, Rodrigo Duterte became president of the Philippines, and frankly, Maria was faced with the biggest challenge of her life. Duterte, who ran on a “law and order” platform, immediately started his “drug war,” a thinly veiled campaign of violence against poor city people. The police began killing thousands of suspected drug dealers and users.
He’s probably the most powerful president we’ve ever had. Even after 21 years of Ferdinand Marcos — this is the country that coined “people power,” mind you. And we’re now in the process of building a new kleptocracy.
NELUFAR: The Duterte presidency reads like a dystopian nightmare to me. It’s every “law and order” fanatic’s dream, and the war for votes is fought under the banner of the “war on drugs.” It’s being waged on every street corner on the island nation.
MARIA: Not only is the drug war extremely brutal, right? And you’re talking about the police themselves admitting they’ve killed at least 6,000 people. That’s what they admit to killing — human rights groups say it’s at least 27,000 people in three years. A climate of violence and fear that has essentially collapsed our institutions. The Philippine government is patterned after the United States. We have a bill of rights. We have the checks and balances. These are gone.
NELUFAR: With Rappler covering the collapsing institutions and staggering numbers of civilian murders, Maria became a target of fierce online harassment and government persecution. President Duterte has publicly discredited Rappler as “fake news” and “an enemy of the state,” and threatened to jail its reporters. Maria has been arrested twice, and since January 2018, 11 cases have been filed against Rappler in court.
MARIA: I have nothing against President Duterte. It isn’t personal for me. I’m just doing my job, and it’s the same job I’ve been doing for more than 30 years. I’m not going to change. And when he pushes and takes away rights that are guaranteed in the constitution with impunity, we’re not going to stand by and say, “That’s OK.”
NELUFAR: Speaking of impunity, he’s attacked you, not just verbally, not just in tweets and via social media, but you’ve been arrested twice in the past year alone. You’ve been charged with tax evasion, with violating foreign ownership laws. So this isn’t just a government or a president who’s attacking you on social media. This is a real threat to you.
MARIA: Yes. I have never felt anything like this. It’s, it’s unimaginable. Technically, I could now go to jail for a maximum of 83 years.
MARIA: I’m — so, I don’t know what to make of it except — the whole thing is just meant to silence journalists, to silence people who question, to silence anyone who tries to hold power to account.
NELUFAR: I’ve reported in countries around the world, including places that aren’t friendly to journalists, and I’ve rarely experienced anything like what Maria and her colleagues at Rappler are up against. They’re taking huge risks to just do their work.
MARIA: In 2016, we came out with a series of reports outlining impunity in the drug war, and I got an average of 90 hate messages per hour.
I’ve been a journalist for almost 35 years and I have never faced anything like that. I’ve led teams in conflict areas. I have never faced anything like that. Because when you’re in a conflict area, you know — gunfire comes from here, this is a safe zone. In this day and age, when you are targeted — and in the Philippines, women are targeted at least 10 times more than men — when you’re targeted, it’s like nothing I’ve ever felt before.
NELUFAR: And the majority of Maria’s colleagues are young women. Now I’ve received a couple of hate messages. But 90 hate messages an hour? I can’t imagine how Maria got through it.
MARIA: Actually in three years, in the last three years, I think I’ve had to deal more with anger management than anything else.
NELUFAR: Do you feel lonely in that space?
MARIA: Lonely — I think I’m lucky in that I’m with the company of other people. Rappler is only about a hundred people, there are maybe 20, 25 of us, in editorial. And it’s almost like we formed our own Alcoholics Anonymous, except it’s for social media, right? And imagine — we’re a hundred people total in the company, and the median age is 23 years old.
MARIA: So I have a thick skin ’cause I’ve been around a long time. But I worried about our younger reporters. Our social media team — 63% women, did I mention that?
NELUFAR: So Maria, you have taken this risk to, to stand and hold the line. What does it feel like when you are sending other people to go and do that in often dangerous, precarious situations? How do you deal with that?
MARIA: It’s like death by a thousand cuts, right? Each nick is different and you somehow get used to it. And every now and then we step back and go, “We’re going to have to ramp up security. We’re going to have to do something different.”
You expect the worst. You hope for the best. You work with your team. The silver lining here is, when I was managing a news group of a thousand people, I knew the frictions of an ordinary news group. Rappler has no friction. Everyone is focused on the mission and the extremely supportive, inspirational environment that we have. The older folks, the founders — there are four of us, four women who are all in our ’50s — late ’50s — they call us “manangs.” “Manangs”is like — older sister, there you go. Like older sister, right? So they call us manangs, but we know enough of the past so we can talk about what the pitfalls can be. But the energy of our, of our youth, we call them our kids — in a non-negative way — their energy is so inspirational.
NELUFAR: Let me ask you something, then.
NELUFAR: What is your job as a journalist?
MARIA: So I think the mission of the journalist has never changed: It is to hold power to account. The form of journalism has changed because of the technology, right? And the mission of journalism has become far more important.
NELUFAR: It’s become more dangerous, too.
PRESIDENT RODRIGO DUTERTE:
Just because you have the power of, what, press freedom? You are a Filipino who was allowed to abuse our country. And you are an active participant of that in the name of the holy grail of press freedom. And your reporters, they will be allowed to criticize us, but you go to jail for your crimes.
NELUFAR: That’s a scene from the upcoming documentary A Thousand Cuts. Ramona Diaz is the filmmaker behind A Thousand Cuts. This film feels like the telling of some dramatic political thriller, but it’s all real life, and Ramona captured it all. She joined Maria and me on the Sundance stage.
NELUFAR: Now, Ramona is a darling of this festival, I think it’s fair to say. You’ve been here a few times!
NELUFAR: You won the Excellence in Cinematography Award in documentary, and rightfully so. You are extremely good at what you do, which is basically observational, very tough filming. You’ve also chosen Rappler as a subject of your latest work, which is a unique and very intimate kind of film. Ramona, I just wanted to ask you a little bit about your motivation for looking at such a fast-paced, kind of moving story. Like what brought you to Rappler and to Maria?
RAMONA: In 2016, when I was finishing my previous film, Motherland, which was here in 2017, the drug war was happening. And then my Facebook feed started getting populated with these horrific images of the drug war. And I started seeing them — and you know, I was poised to transition to fiction, I was ready to do my fiction film after Motherland. And I’m like, “Oh my god, the drug war. Oh my god, Duterte.” Right? It’s like, I’ve built a career on telling stories about the Filipino and the Filipino American experience really largely to a more global audience, right? And so I had this idea, a very broad idea, of making a film about Duterte and the drug war. I didn’t really know how I was going to tell it, but by I think end of 2017, after Motherland had rolled out, I was in Manila and I started talking to people. Talking to people from Rappler, talking to people in the opposition and also close to Duterte’s inner circle and just figuring out how I was going to tell this epic story. And then of course Maria was the loudest voice speaking up against Duterte. And I met Maria.
NELUFAR: Do you remember what it was like to meet her?
RAMONA: Well, you have to understand, I’ve known of Maria for a long time. There’s a story that —
MARIA: She refused an interview with me when I was still at CNN. For the record.
RAMONA: Yes, I did.
NELUFAR: I want to talk a little bit about the filming process. You go from crime scene to crime scene, from murder to murder. What was it like filming and going from trauma to trauma? I mean, I’ve done it. I did it in El Salvador, trying to follow the gun and drug trafficking that was happening there. It can all be quite a lot to experience. How do you separate what you’re seeing? The lens and yourself.
RAMONA: You know, you can’t think about it too much while you’re doing it, because otherwise you don’t do it right. Of course there is fear. Absolutely. And of course I also fear for my crew, because they’re local. And all of them stayed because they said, “No, this is the right story to tell.” As a documentary filmmaker, I will — if in 10 years will I regret it, not telling the story? I definitely will. Sort of that imagined regret really outweighed any fear. So you do it. You say, “Are you OK with this? OK, you’re OK with this. Let’s, you know, let’s just do it.” You, you just have to, and then you just, there’s a separation. You have to.
So on the ground, we had two crews covering — one was really with Maria, and one was covering, traveling, with President Duterte and Sara Duterte down in the south, right? And I would, I would go back and forth and you get schizo, right? But it’s like, you know, when you’re in that world of Duterte and all his supporters. It’s — wow. Maybe, OK, why are they cheering when he’s talking about his penis, right? I mean, whyare they doing that? So you try to understand that —
NELUFAR: — I feel like I have to explain.
RAMONA: Oh yes, for those of — yeah.
NELUFAR: So the president of the Philippines is quite phallic in the way he expresses himself many times. And he will literally talk about how virile he is as a way to kind of express his machismo. I’ll leave it at that.
RAMONA: And it was very tiring to be around that energy, and I found that when I left it —
RAMONA: — no, it was! And then when I left it, and then went back to Manila and went back to Rappler, I was so tired. And I thought, “Why am I so tired?” I didn’t realize that until halfway through the filmmaking. I’m like, “Why am I so tired?” You know? Well, of course it is tiring to film, but you know, I was even more tired. Right? Because I think it’s the anger and fear, and you feel it. It’s palpable. But we knew we had to be there to record it. To bear witness.
NELUFAR: What Ramona is feeling and what Maria is living through is this kind of hyperrealism where reality itself is sinking into unbelievability. The threats online and offline that Maria and her reporters face, this grandiose character of President Duterte, it would all be like a bad dream if it wasn’t for the blood spilling daily on the streets of the Philippines.
Ramona and Maria are Filipino American. And watching A Thousand Cuts, there’s a subtle theme about what it means for Maria to be both Filipino and American. I wanted to know how their work is shaped by their identity.
RAMONA: All my films are a yearning for the homeland, right? Because if you’re an immigrant and you live here, you don’t actually live here. It’s — you live in a liminal space, this in-between space, between what you know growing up — where you were born and raised and came of age. I came here for university, and where you really became an adult, and that’s why I think I keep going back, is explorations. I film my explorations, I like to explore what’s happening back home and try to decode it for a Western audience.
MARIA: The reason why Ramona had such a — she had access to everything. She knew more about us. She can finish a sentence that I will —
RAMONA: I can!
MARIA: And the reason we gave her that access was one, she’s extremely persistent. You can’t close the door on her. She’s like water wearing down rock, you know? But the other part of it is her being Filipino American, we agreed on one thing: that it matters how and to whom we tell the story.
And for me, when I turned 40, I told myself I was going to choose home, and I chose the Philippines. I thought I was old enough to have real experience, but young enough to still want to make a difference. I was going to retire in the Philippines. Look at my choices, right? So I saw a possibility that we could build something better. And after 20 years of writing about what everyone else was doing, I wanted to help build.
[MARIA’S VOICE BREAKS]
MARIA: So it’s heartbreaking to see. Anyway.
NELUFAR: What’s heartbreaking?
MARIA: I became a reporter in 1986. My first boss who hired me is here. When he hired me, I was like — I was a kid. And 1986 was the promise of democracy. We coined “people power,” that peaceful transfer —
NELUFAR: I want to hold you here in the space just a little while longer. Have some water.
MARIA: Thank you, sorry.
NELUFAR: Tell me a little bit about that. How do you hold your Americaness and what it does to the world, and your Filipinoness?
MARIA: I think when you come from more than one culture, you realize automatically, when you’re very young, that there’s more than one way to look at anything. And in a way journalism allowed me to ask the questions and to look at the power structures.
NELUFAR: One of the things that Maria and I were talking before you lovely people walked into the room was about how when I was 15 years old, the war on terror was happening in my homeland in Afghanistan, and I’d switch on the 6 o’clock news and I’d be told, “We’ve gained new territory! We’ve democratized an entire new swath of the country! We’re so lucky! Afghans are going to have democracy and freedom!” And then: “But there’s also been some local casualties,” they’d say. And then I’d switch the channel to the Afghan news channel and there’s 300 dead, 500 injured. The market town has been decimated. Mothers wailing for their lost kids. And I saw parallel realities. In the age of social media, it’s not as black and white anymore.
MARIA: I would say now, we don’t have parallel, we have alternative universes. You can say, “We have 10 bottles of water.” I can stick to two. But if you say it a million times, you will win. Even if the reality is different.
NELUFAR: And these alternative universes we’re living in, they’re especially pronounced in the Philippines, in large part because of how Facebook works in the Philippines. In most countries, anyone who wants to get on the internet would either have to buy a data plan or be on Wi-Fi. In the Philippines, you can access the internet for free at any time — but only through an app that’s owned by Facebook. It’s called Free Basics, and it gives you access to a limited number of websites. So for a lot of people, Facebook is the internet or at least, the gatekeeper of the internet. All of it.
MARIA: The Philippines is a country where 100% of Filipinos on the internet are on Facebook. So call us Facebook country. Because of Free Basics, it’s far easier to manipulate people on Facebook. So right now, it’s a behavioral modification system. And not just in the Philippines — globally. It has advanced its advertising microtargeting to the point that it is existential. It’s dangerous to our health as people, as societies, as democracies.
NELUFAR: See, Maria doesn’t think the Philippines is special because she’s from there, she sees it as a petri dish that incubates so many of the global phenomena that we in the rest of the world are susceptible to. We are all connected.
For Maria Ressa, the interplay of things like populist governments, Facebook and the battle for our data by the tech giants and identity — they’re all linked. And the Philippines is a litmus test for so many of these things.
MARIA: Duterte was elected in May 2016. A month later you had Brexit, and then you had all of the different elections. The dominos began to fall. Trump in November, the Catalonia elections, Bolsonaro a few months later. So the rise of authoritarian populist leaders — this isn’t a coincidence. The division and polarization of societies across the board where social media is, this is by design.
This isn’t free speech. In fact, in the Philippines, We have chronicled six different waves of disinformation networks headed by officials affiliated with the government. Headed by government officials! Right? So no, not at all.
NELUFAR: So why is Rappler still on it? Why do you still actively participate in something that you deemed to be stifling free speech?
MARIA: Because this technology has the potential to be far more, but in the hands of — in the hands of Mark Zuckerberg right now, it’s become evil, right? So what do we need to do? Our course correction, what’s our course correction?
NELUFAR: Tell me about the solution. ’Cause that’s the whole pitch of the podcast, and I swear I’m not seeing it right now.
MARIA: There is, there has to be, there has to be. We fact-check the content. Once we find the lie, we look at the network that spreads the lies. Treat them like terrorist networks. Social media platforms have learned how to deal with terrorist networks on their platforms. We should be looking at these in the same way.
In fact, the solution is not in the Philippines. This is global. I think at no other time in history have I seen that local problems require global solutions, and global problems become local problems — immediately.
What’s happened in our country isn’t just staying in our country. It’s coming to your democracy now. And if we don’t take the right steps forward, this existential moment will spell the doom of democracy.
NELUFAR: And with that, I would like to thank, so much, our wonderful guests, Ramona Diaz and journalist Maria Ressa, for being here and talking with me on the Course Correction podcast. And I’d finally like to thank you guys for being here and making it such a success. Thank you all!
NELUFAR: That’s all for this episode of Course Correction. Ramona Diaz’s documentary feature film is called A Thousand Cuts.
Why not get onto our website, DohaDebates.com, for our latest short films, live debates and so, so much more. I always want to hear from you. Tweet us at @DohaDebates. Or get in touch with me @nelufar.
Course Correction is written and hosted by me, Nelufar Hedayat. The show is produced by Doha Debates and Transmitter Media. Doha Debates is a production of Qatar Foundation. A special thanks to our team at Doha Debates — Japhet Weeks, Amjad Atallah and Jigar Mehta. If you like what you hear, please rate and review the show. It does help other people find us. Join us for the next episode of Course Correction wherever you get your podcasts.