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From wars to Duterte: A Philippine truth-seeker ‘holds the line’

Dec 12. 2018
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By Agence France-Presse 

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Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, who was named this week as a Time magazine “Person of the Year”, has extensive experience in conflict zones, but is now fighting a war to fend off government moves to put her behind bars.

Hours after meeting bail on Tuesday on fresh tax fraud charges that the 55-year-old says are “manufactured”, Ressa was named to the prestigious recognition.

The accolade, also given to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi and imprisoned Reuters reporters Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe Oo, highlighted those taking “great risks in pursuit of greater truth”, Time’s chief editor said. 

Ressa’s news site, Rappler, has taken a critical stand on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly anti-drug crackdown and now says it is the target of attacks from authorities. 

“It is easier to navigate a conflict zone, a war zone, than it is to navigate the legal weaponisation of laws in our country. But we will hold the line,” the Princeton graduate said last week.

Ressa and the site have been hit with multiple counts of misleading the government on taxes, and if convicted on one count alone she faces up to a decade behind bars.

    It caps a tumultuous year for Ressa, which began with the government moving to revoke Rappler’s licence in January. 

At the same time she has received a series of global awards from press freedom advocates, including from the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Ressa has been battling what she calls disinformation under Duterte, who won elections in mid-2016 on a promise to rid society of drugs by killing tens of thousands of people. 

Rappler has been among a small number of Philippine media outfits producing investigative reports on the killings in Duterte’s anti-crime crackdown and is critical of his leadership.

A journalist for more than 30 years, Ressa is no stranger to threats. 

As CNN’s former bureau chief in Manila and Jakarta, Ressa specialised in terrorism where she tracked the links between global networks like Al-Qaeda and militants in Southeast Asia. 

“I’ve been shot at. I almost got thrown out of a country. I’ve been imprisoned for a night,” she said last week. 

However Ressa, who holds both American and Filipino citizenship, returned to the Philippines as news chief of the largest television network ABS-CBN for six years. 

In 2012, she launched her own startup, Rappler, in the social media-obsessed Philippines. 

However that website is now fighting for survival as Duterte’s government has accused it of violating a constitutional ban on foreign ownership in securing funding, as well as libel and tax evasion. 

Reacting to the Time honour, Duterte’s spokesman Salvador Panelo said yesterday that charges against government critics were legitimate and free expression remained “robust”. 

Ressa, who denies all the charges, has vowed to fight back. 

“We at Rappler decided that when we look back at this moment a decade from now, we will have done everything we could: we did not duck, we did not hide,” she said while accepting an award last month. 

“You don’t really know who you are until you’re forced to fight to defend it.”

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