Threatened with prison and closure of the news site she co-founded, Philippine journalist Maria Ressa says there is one clear response to the government onslaught she faces: Fight back.
The site, Rappler, has taken a critical stand on President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly anti-drug crackdown and now finds itself the target of grinding, unrelenting attacks from the authorities.
Ressa turned herself in this week to face one tax evasion charge, but could still face arrest on four other counts that she insists were crafted to bring the site to heel.
“I have nothing to hide. We have done nothing wrong. I’m willing to challenge the government and I will hold them accountable,” she told AFP at Rappler’s Manila headquarters.
“I’m not afraid of what it’s [the government] doing. In fact, I call them on these lies. We’ll fight them in court,” she added of the charge that carries up to 10 years behind bars.
She is due to be arraigned Friday on the first case, which stems from allegations Rappler and Ressa did not pay taxes on 2015 bond sales that netted $3 million.
The investments are at the heart of a case that led the Philippines’ corporate watchdog to void the news site’s license in January. That case is still pending.
“They want to intimidate. They want to harass,” she said. “The end goal of all that is to [force us to] pipe down. Stop doing the stories.”
The government said this week Duterte had no hand in the charges, saying “we will never interfere with the function of the judiciary.”
Rappler has been among a clutch of Philippine news outlets that have questioned the methods of the president’s signature crackdown, which police say has killed nearly 5,000 alleged dealers and addicts since 2016.
The odds ‘a bit stacked’
Rights campaigners say the true toll is triple that and could amount to crimes against humanity.
Yet, the site and its roughly 30 journalists, a majority of whom are women in their 20s, has kept publishing stories on the drug war.
Its most recent series quotes vigilantes who say they were paid by Philippine police to kill drug suspects or criminals under the banner of Duterte’s crackdown.
Ressa insists the site is not anti-Duterte, saying it is just doing its job to hold the government to account.
In doing so, it has invited a steady stream of online vitriol since Duterte came to power over two years ago.
Ressa’s position at the head of the site meant getting, by her own estimate, up to 90 hate messages per hour online at one point toward the end of 2016.
“I feel like Rappler has been under attack for two and a half years,” she said.
The attacks are nothing new, but with the filing of criminal charges against her the stakes have now reached a new level of menace.
Her fate will be decided by a judicial system which is notoriously responsive to pressure applied by the powerful.
“I still believe there are men and women inside the government who want to hold the line, who believe in the values of the Philippine Constitution,” Ressa said.
“We’re going to fight it in court, but it looks a little bit stacked,” she added.
Ressa admits to being baffled by the logic of the tax case against her and Rappler, which alleges the site became a dealer in securities—not a media outlet—once it engaged in the bond sales.
“It’s like saying yellow is blue,” she said
“How do you fight against somebody who is trying to convince other people that yellow is blue?”