In the middle of a worldwide pandemic and a paroxysm of racial resentments in the United States, it would be tempting to avoid hurting our heads even further with the details of a complicated legal battle now unfolding in a faraway place. But if we believe in democracy and want to preserve it, journalist Maria Ressa’s battle for freedom must be ours as well.
Ressa’s legal team was back in a Philippine court Monday to appeal the libel verdict handed down this month against her. It’s the latest twist in a legal battle that rivals Charles Dickens' famous novel “Bleak House,” a powerful allegory in which, as in Ressa’s case, legal technicalities end up overriding basic human morality and common sense.
A former CNN reporter raised in New Jersey after her parents fled martial law in the Philippines, Ressa eventually returned to her home country and founded Rappler, an innovative online news outlet. Its investigations have drawn the ire of Rodrigo Duterte, the unsavory but hugely popular president.
Duterte's censorship by trial
Duterte does not brook criticism. He has already locked up one Philippine senator who criticized him, and he recently shut down one of the country’s leading broadcast networks. Against Rappler, Duterte is engaged in what might be called censorship by trial: Over the past 15 months, 11 cases have been leveled against the news organization or its employees. Ressa herself has had to post bail eight times just to stay out of jail.
The resulting legal fees, she told me over the weekend, have been costing Rappler almost $40,000 a month. “That’s more than one-third of our monthly spend,” Ressa said.
Americans need to care not just because Ressa earned her college degree and citizenship here, not just because she’s standing up for that most American of values — the freedom to speak truth to power, enshrined in the very first article of our Bill of Rights — or because the government that’s hounding her annually receives hundreds of millions of dollars in aid underwritten by U.S. taxpayers.
Americans should care because, through policies of not so benign neglect and willful omission, powerful American companies are aiding and abetting Ressa’s censors.
Ressa’s case perfectly illustrates one of the most dangerous and Orwellian realities of our digital age: how the social media platforms once touted and used as tools to advance democracy have been hijacked by propagandists to subvert it.
No one has been a more enthusiastic proponent of social media than Ressa. She’s on every platform imaginable, and she designed Rappler to take advantage of Facebook’s capacity for community building.
Then the technology she embraced was turned against her.
Join fight for freedom of speech
In a speech last fall to the News Leaders Association meeting in New Orleans, Ressa detailed how she and Rappler’s readers have become targets of a systematic online trolling campaign. “The weaponization of social media,” as Ressa called it, involves lies amplified by bots that are then, unwittingly, picked up by real people following a faux “trend,” until by dint of sheer repetition, untruth overwhelms the facts.
“I can’t remember a day when I didn’t pick up my phone and get inundated with hate,” Ressa told me over the weekend.
The usually futile process of trying to get Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to remove the slanders against her has become almost a full-time job, Ressa said, and another distraction from the journalism that she’d prefer to be doing. Which is probably the point.
In a remarkable interview with Ressa last year, Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Christopher Wylie described how the firm used the Philippines as a “petri dish” to refine tactics it used to turn social media into a powerful political propaganda machine. The political marketing firm used less well-regulated democracies as a kind of sandbox to play with technology before it “would then port it onto the West,” Wylie said.
In short, the intimidation campaign now underway against government critics in the Philippines could be a sneak preview of coming attractions. “We’re the canary in the coal mine,” Ressa predicted. “What’s happening to us will happen to you.”
Ressa has a powerful network of allies; her legal team includes celebrity human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. Time magazine named her one of its “Person of the Year” in 2018. The Committee to Protect Journalists has honored her work. The International Press Institute is campaigning on her behalf. The National Press Club just named her its 2020 international Press Freedom award winner. Last year, more than 100 of Ressa’s fellow Princeton University alums (full disclosure: including this one) signed a letter supporting her. The list included editors of major news publications, a former Federal Reserve board member, a leader of the Human Genome Project and former White House press secretary Mike McCurry.
But this has not availed against propaganda spread by social media platforms that, as the Canadian scholar Taylor Owen noted after interviewing Ressa recently, promote “engagement over truth” and “virality over the quality of information.”
America is falling apart: We need to break out of our social media bubbles
Ressa likened the “online exponential attacks” against her and her news organization to an air war that “softened the ground” for attacks that are now all too real. If convicted of all the charges the Philippine government has made against her, Ressa could be in prison for the rest of her life.
Getting social media platforms to police their space is a vital but long-term project. And given President Donald Trump’s overtly chummy relationship with Duterte, it’s probably too much to hope that the State Department would intervene on behalf of a U.S. citizen. But Congress is not answerable to the White House. The members of the House subcommittee that oversees appropriations for foreign operations and their Senate counterparts should take a hard look at the checks Uncle Sam is cutting to the Philippines.
Much of that money goes to military aid, and there are those who will argue we can’t afford to alienate a strategic ally in the war on terror. But if we’re willing to trade away free speech, a free press and the freedom of an American to appease a thug, what exactly are we fighting for?
Kathy Kiely is the Lee Hills Chair in Free Press Studies at the Missouri School of Journalism. Follow her on Twitter: @kathykiely
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Duterte is censoring journalist Maria Ressa. Stop sending him US aid.