6th Jun 2020


How EU diplomacy is helping a Philippine journalist

  • Maria Ressa, chief executive of Manila-based news agency Rappler, faces prison on 24 April (Photo:

Western sanctions coupled with EU public diplomacy can help protect free press overseas, Maria Ressa, a prominent Philippine journalist who faces prison when the virus lockdown ends, has said.

Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and his "macho rhetoric" claimed he "didn't care" about sanctions, Ressa told EUobserver in a recent interview.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • Ressa (r) has won several awards, including from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) (Photo:

"But they do care," she said.

"When his [Duterte's] chief-of-police was refused a visa to the US because of human rights violations, they [Duterte's government] convened a special press conference and they later cancelled a military agreement," she said, referring to an incident in December.

"The Magnitsky Act is very effective," she added, referring to US sanctions on human rights abusers, which were named after a late Russian activist called Sergei Magnitsky.

The EU foreign service is currently drafting Magnitsky Act-type visa bans and asset freezes at European level.

And the EU ambassador in Manila, Franz Jessen, was also "fantastic" in the past, Ressa said.

When Ressa was briefly detained on libel charges last February, the EU envoy invited her to his home and publicised it on Facebook and Twitter, for instance.

Other ambassadors from individual EU states were also helping, she said.

"Our EU delegation [in Manila] continues to be in contact with Ms Ressa," Virginie Battu-Henriksson, an EU foreign service spokeswoman, told this website.

"We expect [her] case to be treated in accordance with due process," Battu-Henriksson said.

"The EU will continue to support media freedom and pluralism in the Philippines and worldwide," she added.

"Heads of EU delegation can provide a lifeline to threatened journalists around the world," Tom Gibson, from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based NGO, told EUobserver.

It was hard to say to what extent Magnitsky Acts or Jessen's tweets had helped to keep Ressa free for now.

But "EU officials shouldn't underestimate the potential influence they wield," the CPJ's Gibson said.

Manila lockdown

Ressa's verdict, on new libel charges, was due on 3 April, but the pandemic pushed it back to 24 April, in a trial that could see her vanish into a Duterte jail for years.

The 56-year old chief executive of Rappler, a Manila-based news agency, is a former CNN bureau chief and a Time magazine person of the year.

She exposed extra-judicial killings in Duterte's war on drugs.

And she revealed how he had funded internet trolls to push regime lies in elections in 2016, long before Russia's disinformation campaigns were first discovered by Western media.

Ressa has a famous lawyer (Amal Clooney, the wife of a Hollywood star), in her defence team to make it harder for Duterte to silence her.

She is a dual US citizen and could have evaded the Philippines lockdown and jail threat by leaving.

But when Philippine authorities, last month, gave foreign nationals 72 hours to get out of the Metro Manila area or be trapped there, it was a no-brainer for the Rappler chief.

"My team's here, so I'm staying," Ressa told EUobserver, adding: "This is my country, for better or worse."

"Now we're in lockdown, I can't get on an international flight anyway, so I'm here and I have to be here," she said.

She spoke by phone from her flat in the Phillipine capital, the world's most densely populated urban area, which is home to over 20m people and where armed police were now enforcing curfews.

And she felt "very worried" about the sorry state of her country's healthcare system if infections went up.

The viral epidemics she remembered from 2002 (Sars) and 2009 (H1N1) were nothing like coronavirus.

"I never thought we'd live through something like this", she said.

Banana republic?

People needed scientific fact and lucid official information more than ever, Ressa, who studied molecular biology at Princeton University in the US, said.

But at the same time, the global reach of online platforms such as Facebook and Twitter meant that lies became everybody's problem, no matter who said them first, she warned.

"Some Philippine officials said bananas were a cure. Right? Incredible," Ressa said.

The banana meme has circulated widely on social media.

And "in the battle for facts, we [free societies] have to act like an atom bomb went off in our information sphere," she said, referring to how Facebook, Twitter, and other apps were spreading that type of nonsense.

"The three biggest problems we're dealing with today are climate change, the battle for truth and facts, and, now, this battle with the virus - these are global in scope," she added.

"We have to hold the line," she said.

Bayanihan spirit

Duterte's trolls have, in the past, savaged foreigners, such as former US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, who spoke up in Ressa's defence, with, literally, up to 7,000 social media attacks per hour.

In the coronavirus emergency, state media ought to be trying to boost the morale of health workers and volunteers, Ressa noted.

They ought to promote "what we call the 'bayanihan spirit' - it means the spirit that unites the whole Philippine nation," she said.

But instead, trolls were pushing fake news about riots to justify police use of force, the Rappler chief told this website.

And they were making excuses about Duterte being tired after he gave an "incoherent" TV speech, she said.

"This isn't what we need in a crisis," Ressa said.


Widow's plea as EU diplomats debate Magnitsky Act

"If evil is not defeated, it tends to expand", Natalia Magnitskaya, the widow of a Russian anti-corruption activist, has said, as EU diplomats discuss human rights sanctions 10 years after his death.


EU sanctions regime cannot be an 'EU Magnitsky Act'

The debate about the choice of name should not boil down to a political muscle show against Hungary, which opposes the reference to Magnitsky because of its political relations with the Russian government.

News in Brief

  1. Poland accused of 'blatant violation' of EU court injunction
  2. EU concerned by US approach to Kosovo and Serbia
  3. City morgues cast doubt on Putin's virus data
  4. ECB increases pandemic stimulus to €1.35 trillion
  5. New EU cloud computing platform 'moonshot'
  6. City of Berlin passes anti-discrimination law
  7. Iran hits record corona cases in second wave
  8. EU job losses tell tale of pandemic damage


Is Russia manipulating food supplies during pandemic?

Russia already dominates global oil – letting them dominate global food during a pandemic would spell disaster for the EU. It would effectively mean the EU, not just depending on Russian energy, but increasingly also on Russian food supply.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  3. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis
  5. UNESDACircularity works, let’s all give it a chance
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic ministers call for post-corona synergies between economic recovery and green transition

Latest News

  1. EU warns UK to abide by Brexit political declaration
  2. Internal EU borders open by 15 June - bar V4, Portugal, Spain
  3. CAP 'failed to halt biodiversity loss', auditors find
  4. After Covid-19, deserted Venice struggles to survive
  5. Commission plans strategy to 'maximise' vaccine access
  6. How spies use women to steal EU secrets
  7. Hong Kong - when the Chinese Dream became a nightmare
  8. Right of reply: Letter from the Hungarian government

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us