Ideas

'Silence is consent': Why journalist Maria Ressa risks her life for truth in journalism

Nobel laureate and renowned journalist Maria Ressa warns that we’re in the "last two minutes of democracy." She delivered the 2022 Beatty Lecture at McGill University and joined IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed to discuss what can be done to change the course against disinformation.

'You can't have democracy if you don't have integrity of facts,' the Nobel laureate said in her Beatty Lecture

Journalist and advocate Maria Reesa says she still has hope for justice and truth in journalism but warns 'we have to actually speak when it matters.' Reesa delivered the 2022 McGill Beatty Lecture in October. (Owen Egan and Joni Dufour)

Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa describes social media in unequivocal terms.

"It's death by a thousand cuts of your world view, of your emotional sensibility, of democracy."

Ressa is a Filipino journalist. She was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace prize along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov for "their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace."

She warns of the speed at which social media can be manipulated to propagate lies to the point where lies become 'truth'. 

"If you don't have facts, you can't have truth. Without truth, you can't have trust. Without these three, we have no shared reality. We cannot attempt to solve any problem. You can't have democracy if you don't have integrity of facts.

"And the lies come laced with this bullet of hate or fear, or anger which comes out as 'us against them.' When that happens, what's your incentive to be good? What's your incentive to be generous? To trust? That's kind of trampled because the goodness of human nature grows out of our shared reality. When we reach some kind of shared ground, like we believe in the same things, we see each other's eyes. You don't see this on social media."

We're all going to look back in time and we're going to see that [at this] moment we should have done more.- Maria Ressa

In 2012 Maria Ressa co-founded the online magazine Rappler, the leading source of independent, authoritative journalism in the Philippines. 

"I became a journalist because I know information is power and that information yields justice. These are all connected."

Ressa and her team of journalists tracked abuses of power of former Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, as he escalated his 'war on drugs' — a campaign that led to the killing of more than 12,000 people, according to a 2018 Human Rights Watch report. Some human rights groups estimate the death toll to be higher.

Protesters and residents in Caloocan city, Manila, Philippines, on Aug. 25, 2017, held lighted candles and placards at the wake of Kian Loyd delos Santos, a 17-year-old high school student. He was shot dead in an escalation of President Rodrigo Duterte's 'war on drugs'. (Dondi Tawatao/Reuters)

Ressa and the Rappler team also tracked the manipulation of social media to propagate lies and undermine democracy.

She's been arrested and charged numerous times for her reporting — charges that could potentially add up to nearly 100 years in prison. 

In October 2022 Ressa delivered the 2022 Beatty Lecture at McGill University. IDEAS host Nahlah Ayed spoke with her at the onstage event, just days before Ressa boarded a plane back to the Philippines, where she is fighting a cyber-libel conviction at the Supreme Court. 

Here is an except from their conversation:

NA: How are you doing? 

MR: This is a tough question. Extreme highs, extreme lows. You know, it's low today because I'm now at the last stage in terms of freedom. My case — the cyber libel case — is at the Supreme Court, I don't know whether I can travel again. So I'm really, really glad to be here. When I go home, I don't have any approvals to travel. 

You may not be able to leave your country after the next time you go there. And this is a country where in the last 100 days, two journalists have been killed. Do you think about not going back? |

No, I can't. And the reason why I keep going back is very basic. It is because this time matters. It's a time where you can be a force for good or a tipping point the other way. And Rappler is holding the line. I keep appealing to the justices — a justice system that's taught me [what] Kafkaesque means. I keep appealing to the justices to restore rule of law. 

Just to pick up on what you said in your Nobel Peace Prize speech in 2021 — that the world must act [to address the impact of social media] the way it did after Hiroshima. How is it like that incident? How is what we're living now the same as a nuclear bomb exploding, which is how you likened it?

So imagine a nuclear bomb exploding in every single mind. If you don't know what reality is, because think about it, the tech platforms actually say we each have our own personal feeds as if we don't all live together. So what if those feeds have splintered us apart?

Violence is only one example of it. The radicalization online, another example. And what you can see now is they're connected. I sound like such an alarmist. 

You have been a journalist. You have been an innovator and in independent media. You are a Nobel laureate. How would you describe your role now? 

I mean, really, right now I'm a punching bag. And I mean that in kind of a good way, in the sense that every journalist is a punching bag. We cannot respond back because we're not unethical. We're not going to scream back. And until we figure out the laws and until civil society comes together, until citizens begin to demand better, we have no choice. We have to keep doing our jobs and keep getting hit. 

A student on state university grounds in Manila, Feb. 14, 2019, in support of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, who was arrested for a cyber libel case. Ressa was freed on bail following the arrest that sparked allegations she is being targeted over her news site’s criticism of former President Rodrigo Duterte. (Ted Aljibe/AFP via Getty Images)

And so then, given that, you've often said that we need to be willing to sacrifice things for the truth. You've sacrificed a lot. What do you expect other people to sacrifice in pursuit of the truth? 

I hope you are willing to sacrifice as much as we are, because if you don't, it's also your children.

Think about it like this. I became a journalist because information is power and information leads to justice, the rule of law. But then more than that, with climate change, with the health issues, with coronavirus, as it mutates, how are we ever going to find global solutions for global problems? How is the next generation going to survive our apathy?

This time matters. We're all going to look back in time and we're going to see that [at this] moment we should have done more and we have to do it now. 

What do we have to do? 

Demand accountability from technology. Demand better from government. Demand better from yourself. Because this is what's happening in the Philippines. We've had tens of millions lose their jobs. People want to bury their heads. There's news avoidance globally. 

You want to kind of shut it off and just focus on your family. But it's like being on the Titanic. You can do that for a while. Climate change is coming. And if we don't. Oh, my gosh, I sound so negative!

Where do you find the hope in all of this? 

Rappler. Our citizens. I think the goodness of human nature is undervalued. Silence is consent... we have to actually speak when it matters. So I hope. There are cracks of hope. But we now need to pull those cracks closer together. 


*Q&A edited for clarity and length. This episode was produced by Nicola Luksic.

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