Maria Ressa, journalist and CEO of the online news site Rappler, is interviewed by journalists during a protest calling for press freedom on Jan. 19, 2018, in the Manila suburb of Quezon City. (Jes Aznar/Getty Images)

— When one of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists is not busy running a newsroom, she is busy wondering about her next day in court.

Maria Ressa, a former CNN bureau chief who founded a successful digital news start-up, Rappler, is more accustomed to sitting on panels about press freedom than preparing for possible arrest. 

But ever since President Rodrigo Duterte railed against her company in a state-of-the-nation speech last year, the walls have been closing in. Rappler was called out by the president. Investigated. Called out again. Investigated again. “It’s a blatant abuse of power,” Ressa said.

Ressa and Rappler are at the center of a fight over the future of press freedom in the Philippines that is testing the foundations of Philippine democracy.

It is a fight that resonates far beyond this U.S. ally, as the world comes to grips with a new breed of populist authoritarians who bask in positive coverage and decry the rest as “fake news.”

When President Trump met Duterte in Manila this past November, for instance, the Philippine president called reporters trying to ask questions about human rights “spies.” Trump’s response? A laugh, according to the transcript.

Duterte was elected in 2016 on a promise to kill suspected drug users and dealers. In the nearly two years since, thousands and thousands have indeed been shot. The violence has spurred global condemnation and a preliminary examination by the International Criminal Court, but domestic opposition has been weak. 

Duterte largely controls his country’s Congress, Senate, Supreme Court and national security forces. The Philippines’ vibrant press was the last bastion of open debate about the “war on drugs.” Now that is under threat, too. 

In Manila, there is a growing sense that the institutions of Philippine democracy are giving way as Duterte’s rule becomes increasingly personalized and authoritarian. 

“I am very worried,” said John Nery, associate editor and opinion columnist at the Philippine Daily Inquirer, one of the country’s largest newspapers. “It’s at the point where Duterte, confronting a journalist, said, ‘Press freedom is a privilege in a democracy.’ But it’s one of our very first freedoms.”

Like populist authoritarian leaders elsewhere, Duterte has a complicated relationship with the media — courting it when convenient and targeting it when not. 

As the mayor of the southern city of Davao and then as a presidential candidate, he relied on coverage of his violent and misogynistic rhetoric to help build his macho persona and keep him in the news. As president, he has enjoyed the spotlight, his every speech and rude retort live-streamed to the world.

But he also has railed against the press in ways that are revealing — and deeply worrying to reporters and editors.  

The Philippines has long been a dangerous place to be a journalist; since 1986, 177 media workers have been killed here.

As president-elect, Duterte said murdered journalists must have “done something” to meet a violent end. “You won’t be killed if you don’t do anything wrong,” he said.

Journalists who “disrespect” others are not necessarily protected from violent attacks, he said. “That can’t be just freedom of speech. The constitution can no longer help you if you disrespect a person.”


Maria Ressa arrives at the National Bureau of Investigation headquarters in Manila on Jan. 22, 2018. (Noel Celis/AFP/Getty Images)

Since taking office, Duterte has threatened to block the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, a major television station that at times has been critical of police-led violence linked to his anti-drug campaign. He also has taken aim at the Philippine Daily Inquirer’s coverage. “I’m not trying to scare you, but one day karma will catch up with you,” the president warned both outlets in March 2017. 

Months later, the Inquirer’s owner said it would sell its stake to a billionaire ally of the president, a move seen by local and foreign analysts as a forced retreat.

“The sale of the Inquirer to a businessman friend of Duterte is worrying,” Ressa said. “The Inquirer has weathered other administrations. Here it buckled without firing a shot.”

Reporters, rights groups and foreign diplomats said that media outlets are now worried about becoming his next target if — as Duterte put it — they get too “rude.”

For Ressa and Rappler, the trouble began around the time of the 2016 presidential election, when Ressa and others started getting harassed and threatened by pro-Duterte social media accounts.

This was not average Internet harassment but coordinated streams of messages, including death and rape threats, that the organization has since traced to Facebook groups and blogs that helped get Duterte elected. 

Ressa calls it the “weaponization” of social media.

“It created a chilling effect on journalists, critics, any person who questions the extrajudicial killings,” she said.

In July 2017, Duterte used his first state-of-the-nation address to call out Rappler, implying without citing evidence that it was not Filipino-owned.

The country’s Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into Rappler’s ownership structure. By January, the commission had revoked Rappler’s license — a speedy decision that was denounced by journalists and rights groups as political. Rappler has continued to operate while an appeal is heard.

The move against Rappler “was politically motivated,” said one senior Western diplomat in Manila who was not authorized to talk to the media and spoke on the condition of anonymity. “The case is a bit complicated, but to come up with a ruling that quick has never been done.”

Soon after, Rappler’s star political reporter, Pia Ranada, was blocked from covering presidential events. The Duterte administration first said it was due to the license revocation but later admitted that Duterte was simply “irritated” at her.

A presidential security official later said Ranada should consider herself lucky that security personnel did not hurt her when she was “disrespectful” to the guard who turned her away from an event. 

Most recently, with the Securities and Exchange Commission case at the court of appeals, the government announced it is investigating Rappler for allegedly evading $2.5 million in taxes. Ressa called the move “ludicrous.”

Duterte’s government insists it has nothing to do with the cases filed against Rappler but continues to call its reports “fake news.” After calling press freedom a privilege, Duterte said in January, “You have overused and abused that privilege.”

“If rule of law existed, no cases would be filed,” countered Ressa. “It’s another mark against democracy.”