Maria Ressa: “Rappler will continue”
By Ronnie Lovler
Maria Ressa is a shining light as a journalist who personifies integrity and persistence in the way she does her job. She has always done this.
On June 15, 2020, as expected, she and her former researcher were found guilty of cyberlibel, or libel through the Internet. The sentence was handed down by a Manila court, and Ressa and Reynaldo Santos, Jr. face six years in prison, pending appeals.
Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for more than three decades and in 2012, she co-founded Rappler, the leading independent news site in the Philippines. Her accolades are numerous, including being named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year and also among those the magazine considered its 100 most influential people in 2019.
Much has already been written about Ressa and more will come, but I admire her and am fortunate to have crossed paths with her even from afar.
Maria Ressa and I came to CNN about the same time in the 1980s. I was a correspondent in Central America, covering war and peace in Nicaragua and El Salvador during those tumultuous times. Maria covered Southeast Asia, first as CNN’s Manila bureau chief during the time of Corazon Aquino’s presidency, later in Jakarta reporting on Indonesia’s tsunami and more. Often our reports aired back-to-back.
I was impressed then, as I am now, with Maria’s journalism and how she always maintained her composure and calm whether in the midst of reporting on natural or manmade disasters, or as now, when she is the story.
It was my tough luck never to have had the chance to meet Maria face-to-face. We did get to make occasional trips to Atlanta from our international postings during those CNN years, but our visits never coincided.
Later, we became Facebook friends and she once contacted me, about the time she began Rappler, to ask about a digital mapping project I was working on in Colombia as a Knight Fellow with the International Center for Journalists.
Sadly, that project never went far and I had no tips to share with Maria. However, if we had stayed with that project, we certainly would have learned something from Maria, about integrity and journalistic persistence to say the least.
A few days ago, I got to sit in on a Zoom conversation with Ressa that ICFJ sponsored. It was Saturday night in Manila, about 36 hours before Ressa’s verdict was to come down. She was cool and collected as always.
No one participating in that conversation, without any background prep would ever guess the pressure that Ressa is under as one of President Rodrigo Dutarte’s favorite media targets. He opposes what she represents, press freedom. She was arrested twice in early 2019.
“Yes I am on trial,” Maria told us. “It was faster than normal. But I think our system is on trial. I haven’t done anything differently than I have done as a journalist for 35 years.”
When asked what would happen to her organization if indeed she were imprisoned, Ressa had all the right words.
“Rappler will continue,” she said. “How do I feel? I really grappled with this. I was arrested twice. I knew that possibility was there.” But she reminded her audience “the way we accomplish things is to embrace our fear.“
Next week, if she is not in jail, Ressa is scheduled to give a talk sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists. I signed up for that after learning about it through an email from retired journalism professor and SPJ International Community member Robert Buckman, who reminded us that it is “time for SPJ to sound off.”
He did this by sharing a quote from Czech writer, statesman and dissident Václav Havel who once wrote, “I spent a few years in prison, but perhaps I would be there three times as long if . . . not for international solidarity.”
They are appropriate words for us to remember when we think of Maria Ressa now. Stand solidly with Maria. Count me in.