MANILA, PHILIPPINES — Philippine Nobel laureate and veteran journalist Maria Ressa has battled multiple legal cases and endured online abuse in her campaign for press freedom.
The former CNN correspondent co-founded news site Rappler in 2012, bringing together multimedia reporting and social media savvy to offer an edgy take on Philippine current events.
Ressa, 59, was a vocal critic of former president Rodrigo Duterte and the deadly drug war he launched in 2016, drawing what media advocates describe as a grinding series of criminal charges, probes and online attacks against her and Rappler.
She was named a Time Person of the Year in 2018 for her work on press freedom, but a series of arrests and a conviction for cyber libel further grew her international profile.
In 2021, Ressa and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts to “safeguard freedom of expression”.
Even as the accolades piled up, Rappler was forced to fight for survival, after Duterte’s government accused it of tax evasion and violating a constitutional ban on foreign ownership.
Days before Duterte stepped down in June 2022, Philippine authorities ordered the news organisation to shut down.
Ressa and Rappler had faced five charges of tax evasion — they were acquitted of four in January and were cleared of the final charge on Tuesday.
Though Duterte’s government said it had nothing to do with any of the cases against Ressa, press freedom advocates disagreed.
Throughout the campaign against her, Ressa, who is also a US citizen, has remained based in the Philippines and continued to speak out against Duterte’s government despite the risks.
“What we have to do as journalists is just hold the line,” she said after the Nobel Prize was announced.
Despite the acquittals, Ressa and Rappler face an uncertain future as they battle another two court cases.
Ressa is on bail as she appeals the 2020 cyber libel conviction that carries a lengthy jail sentence, and Rappler is fighting the closure order.
“You gotta have faith,” the characteristically optimistic Ressa said after Tuesday’s verdict.
‘Hold the line’
Ressa’s position as the head of the Rappler news site meant getting, by her own estimate, up to 90 abusive online messages per hour at one point towards the end of 2016.
The threats came in the months after Duterte took power and launched his narcotics crackdown, which rights groups estimate killed tens of thousands of people.
Rappler was among the domestic and foreign media outlets that published shocking images of the killings and questioned the crackdown’s legal basis.
International Criminal Court judges have since authorised a full-blown investigation into a possible crime against humanity during the bloody campaign.
It was an entirely new set of dangers for Ressa, who was a veteran of conflict zones before co-founding Rappler.
As CNN’s former bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta, Ressa specialised in terrorism, tracking the links between global networks like Al-Qaeda and militants in Southeast Asia.
The Princeton graduate later returned to the Philippines to serve as news chief at the nation’s top broadcaster, ABS-CBN, which also fell foul of the Duterte administration.
“You have to pack a go bag in case you get arrested and you have to go to jail,” she told AFP in January.
Duterte has been succeeded by the son and namesake of former dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
While there had been a “lifting of fear” for journalists under Marcos, Ressa warned that the fight for press freedom in the Philippines and globally was far from over.
“It’s up to us,” Ressa told journalists.
“We hold the line, and this (acquittal) proved that we can hold the line.”