Saturday

6th Jun 2020

Interview

How EU diplomacy is helping a Philippine journalist

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

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.

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

"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.

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