Maria Ressa’s Dangerous Battle for the Truth
Early in the afternoon of May 7, Maria Ressa sat before a couple of hundred people in the lobby of Palma Hall, the dilapidated social-sciences …
Early in the afternoon of May 7, Maria Ressa sat before a couple of hundred people in the lobby of Palma Hall, the dilapidated social-sciences and philosophy building at the University of the Philippines in Quezon City, just north of Manila. The attendees, many of them students, had packed themselves shoulder to shoulder on yellow chairs; hand-held fans stirred the torpid air as a drizzle fell on the palm trees in the courtyard. It was six days before the Philippines’ midterm elections, and the country’s usual mix of soap-opera politics and melodramatic conspiracy theories had reached a new intensity.
Two weeks earlier, The Manila Times, the country’s oldest English-language newspaper, published a list of writers, editors and lawyers who, the paper asserted, were plotting a coup against President Rodrigo Duterte. The newspaper called it the “Matrix” and placed Ressa — CNN’s former Southeast Asia bureau chief and the editor of an online news site called Rappler — near the center of the plot. The Matrix, the paper argued, planned to “manipulate public emotion” with fake news, establish contact with a “Leftist organization,” enlist cells in the police and the military, “then go for the ‘kill’ ” — an expression presumably meant to be taken literally. The day the article appeared, Salvador Panelo, Duterte’s spokesman, brandished a diagram of the Matrix that, he claimed, had been delivered to Duterte by a foreign intelligence agency. “They are all,” Panelo declared, “trying to destroy this government by spreading false news and planting intrigues.” He later added, “The president does not lie about these things.”
Read about Maria Ressa being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Since it went live in January 2012, Rappler has become one of the country’s most popular and influential media platforms, mixing reporting with calls for social activism. Today the site attracts an average of 40 million page views and 12 million unique visitors a month, figures that more than double during the Philippines’ election season. Rappler’s reporters, most of whom are in their 20s, have exposed government corruption and researched the financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest of top political figures.
They have been especially critical of Duterte, investigating his extrajudicial killing campaign against people suspected of dealing or using drugs, documenting the spread of government disinformation on Facebook and reporting on malfeasance among his top advisers. As a result, the site has incurred Duterte’s wrath and been targeted by his loyalists; Ressa has been forced to increase her personal security. The accusations in The Manila Times, propagated by Dante Ang, the paper’s owner and publisher and a fierce Duterte supporter, were part of the latest and perhaps most theatrical attempt to put Rappler out of business and discredit Ressa and possibly send her to jail; three months later, she would go on trial in six separate courtrooms in Metro Manila and face the frightening prospect of spending decades in prison.
The rhetoric aimed at Ressa is eerily familiar to American ears. President Trump castigates the news media as the “enemy of the people” and “fake news” and has encouraged violence against reporters, whom he has called “scum.” Duterte refers to journalists as “spies,” “vultures” and “lowlifes.” His wish, he has said, is to “kill journalism” in the Philippines, and he has asserted that “just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch.” Duterte threatened to open a tax case against the owners of The Philippine Daily Inquirer, a newspaper in Metro Manila that has questioned his war on drugs, and said he might block the franchise renewal of ABS-CBN, the Philippines’ largest media-and-entertainment conglomerate. Trump accused Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon and owner of The Washington Post, a frequently critical news outlet, of shirking taxes and suggested that he might use his presidential powers to check the e-commerce giant. When I asked Panelo whether he thought that his boss, who has used the term “fake news” to describe Rappler, had appropriated Trump’s language and style, he laughed and said, “President Trump is copying us now.”
On the panel at Palma Hall, Ressa sat beside Ellen Tordesillas, a distinguished journalist who is a founder of VERA Files, a small news agency that has covered Duterte since his days as mayor of Davao City, the capital of the southern island of Mindanao. In late April, Tordesillas learned that she, too, had been named a Matrix conspirator by The Manila Times. Though Tordesillas insisted to me that she wouldn’t be intimidated, Duterte intensified his verbal attacks against her in the following days, telling reporters in one impromptu interview that he considered her to be “every inch a prostitute.” (Tordesillas would fire back that Duterte was “not in his right mind” and “a danger to the Filipino people.”) Ressa pointed to the other panelists. “We’ve done nothing but be journalists, and yet I’ve had 11 cases filed against me,” she told the audience, referring to the onslaught of civil and criminal proceedings undertaken by the Philippines’ Justice Department in the past year and a half. “I’ve posted bail eight times in three months. I’ve been arrested twice and been detained once.”
“We’ve posted collectively at Rappler nearly three million pesos” — some $58,000 — “in bail,” she went on. “Compare that to Imelda Marcos. Her bail was 450,000 pesos.” The reference to the 90-year-old widow of former President Ferdinand Marcos, who was convicted in November 2018 of illegally funneling $200 million to Swiss foundations in the 1970s, evoked laughter. Ressa quickly turned things serious again: “If you’re questioning Duterte’s drug war, you’re going to be targeted. You’re going to be hit by very personal attacks meant to pound you into silence.”
After the panel discussion, Ressa chatted with admiring students and posed for selfies, then rode in her van back to her apartment in Taguig City, an affluent district of Manila about 40 minutes away. “Duterte’s method with the media is ‘corrupt, coerce, co-opt,’ ” she said, “and he will get you if you don’t come around through friendly means.” Ressa nodded to the security detail accompanying her in the van, fixtures since her first arrest this February. “It’s a strange time,” she told me. “It’s definitely existential.”
Ressa’s refuge from her legal battles is an apartment a half-hour’s drive from Rappler’s headquarters. A diminutive woman with rimless glasses and short-cropped hair, Ressa, who is 56, has a hyperarticulate manner and seemingly inexhaustible energy. When I arrived for coffee before she started work on a weekday morning, she was poring over scrapbooks on the wood floor of her pleasingly minimalist living room for a documentary film crew that had been shadowing her for a year. Two guitars, a piano and a rain stick from Indonesia rested against one wall near an array of stone-carved Buddha heads. The furnishings — eclectic, multicultural, a blend of East and West — are a reflection of her outlook. Ressa has been straddling two worlds, her birthplace and the United States, for most of her life. That dual identity, as much as anything else, has led her to see the world as she does, and those views have put her in a dangerous position.
After Ressa’s father died when she was less than a year old, her mother left Ressa and her sister with their paternal grandparents in Manila and moved to the United States in search of work. Nine years later, after Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law, her mother returned to fetch the girls. “One day was normal, then we were on our flight to the U.S.A.,” Ressa recalls. Ressa and her sister moved in with their mother, American stepfather and new sister in Toms River, N.J. At Toms River North High School, Ressa played piano, violin and guitar, won a countywide debate contest and served as class president her freshman, sophomore and junior years. Ressa attended Princeton — her classmates included Bezos, a casual acquaintance — and wrote a play about Philippine politics for her senior thesis. After graduating in 1986, she was awarded a Fulbright fellowship to study political theater in Manila.
Ressa’s return to her native country came as it was transitioning away from authoritarianism and adopting liberal, democratic ideas from the United States. In 1987, under the newly inaugurated president, Corazon C. Aquino, the country established a Constitution that limited presidential powers and set up a bicameral legislature. CNN was looking for a fluent English speaker to report on the transformation and hired Ressa. She became a fixture of the network’s Asia coverage, on the front lines of the fight between democratic ideas and authoritarianism.
Ressa was interested not only in how democratic ideals flourished but also in how they died, and how extremist ideology spread like a toxin through a society. Thirteen months after the Sept. 11 attacks, she was on assignment, investigating Islamic terrorist networks in the Philippines, when bombers struck two Bali nightclubs and killed 202 people. Ressa began digging. “She was connecting the dots where others hadn’t,” recalls Atika Shubert, whom Ressa hired as an intern in the Jakarta bureau in 1997 and who later became a CNN correspondent there. “At one point she said to me, ‘These guys all went to a training program in Afghanistan!’ ” Ressa’s groundbreaking reporting led to the 2003 publication of her first book, “Seeds of Terror,” about the nexus between the Sept. 11 plotters and Southeast Asian terrorist cells.
Journalists at Rappler’s headquarters in Manila.Credit…Hannah Reyes Morales for The New York Times
In 2004, ABS-CBN hired her away from her post as CNN’s Jakarta bureau chief to manage its news division. Ressa returned to Manila filled with ideas about the power of the news media to bolster democracy and expose and check leaders’ authoritarian impulses. By then, she understood how terrorist ideology had found a home online and how social media allowed ideas to spread with exponential force. “From Bin Laden to Facebook,” her second book, published in 2013, was a deep dive into the dissemination of terrorist ideology on the internet, an investigation that foreshadowed the Islamic State’s recruitment of acolytes via social media. “Maria was fascinated by the spread of an idea,” Shubert says. “A lot of people looked at terrorism strictly in terms of security and logistics. Maria saw that it was much more.”
Ressa knew that the place to combat that ideology was where it spread, and the Philippines was rapidly growing more connected. Young people were going online in huge numbers, usually on mobile devices, and Ressa viewed them as instruments of change. In 2011, Ressa and five colleagues from ABS-CBN left their jobs and amassed $2 million in seed money. (Ressa retains 23.7 percent of the shares of Rappler.) They recruited six journalists and equipped each one with an iPhone and a laptop. Rappler — a portmanteau of “rap” and “ripple,” as in ripples of change — went live on Jan. 1, 2012. At first, remembers Glenda Gloria, an original partner and now Rappler’s managing editor, Rappler reporters “were the laughingstock, doing live reports with their iPhones.” Competitors derided the mostly female reporting staff as “Rappler-ettes.” But Rappler made its mark covering a devastating cyclone and breaking a story about a Philippine university that had granted the Supreme Court chief justice a civil-law doctorate without a dissertation. He was eventually impeached after multiple charges of corruption. The news site also began to take an interest in a brutishly charismatic mayor named Rodrigo Duterte.
In late 2015, Pia Ranada, a 25-year-old Rappler reporter new to the politics beat, volunteered to cover Duterte’s long-shot bid for the presidency. She began trailing him to campaign events before the rest of the news media caught on, and the two developed a rapport. “Duterte remembers if you were there from the beginning,” she says. “You’re kind of a comfort zone for him.” Ranada’s coverage was among the first to bring national attention to Duterte’s candidacy, at a time when Rappler’s reach was expanding rapidly. In January 2016, Rappler sponsored a live debate anchored by Ressa that every presidential candidate but Duterte passed on. “He was charming,” Gloria says. “He won over the crowd.”
Ressa harbored no illusions about Duterte’s affinity for violence: She had questioned him while at CNN about the death squad he was accused of running in Davao City, and she interviewed him again for Rappler in 2015, when he admitted that he had personally killed three people. On the campaign trail, he bragged about his plans to expand his brutal antidrug crusade to the national stage. “The funeral parlors will be packed,” he said during one rally in March 2016. “I’ll supply the dead bodies.” But his charm offensive continued: On May 9, 2016, the day of the election, Ranada slipped and fell into a dry canal during one of Duterte’s campaign stops in Davao City, injuring her foot so badly that she could barely walk. The candidate accompanied her to the emergency room and paid her bill. As the voting pointed to a Duterte victory, Ressa called him at his campaign headquarters and offered her congratulations. “He said, ‘Ma’am, the results are not yet official,’ ” Gloria says.
Ressa says she was stunned by the speed with which Duterte’s drug offensive began. Days after taking office, he replaced top security officials with loyalists from his home island, and they dispatched police squads into poor neighborhoods of Manila and into barangays, or villages, throughout the country, ostensibly to make arrests. More than 300 people were reported killed in the first month of Duterte’s administration. “I was surprised at the level of impunity,” Ressa says. “I had assumed that there were people in government who would say, ‘Stop.’ ”
[Read more about Duterte’s violent drug war.]
In the summer of 2016, with roughly a dozen corpses turning up in Manila each week, Rappler began dispatching its reporters into the barrios to investigate the killings. The government line, says Rambo Talabong, then a university student and Rappler intern who covered the drug war, was that “everybody fought back. A lot of reporters repeated that narrative, and that’s what arrived in the morning news.” But Rappler reporters found that the police versions of the murders often didn’t match witness accounts. “Some of the victims seemed to be innocent men whom the police had set up,” Talabong says, “planting drugs and guns to make it look like these were suspects who resisted.”
One of Rappler’s most enterprising reporters, Patricia Evangelista, began to cover the killings. In a typical piece, “Jerico’s Angel,” published in November 2016, Evangelista documented the shootings of a young man named Jerico Camitan and his ex-girlfriend, Angel, by motorcycle-riding killers, who left a sign on Camitan’s chest identifying him as an “animal” and a “drug dealer.” The article portrayed the couple as almost certainly innocent victims and said that accusations of drug dealing had become “an excuse for murder.” Rappler also disputed the death count of 2,167 announced by the Duterte administration at the end of 2016, reporting that about 4,000 more shootings that the government had listed as “unexplained homicides” were in fact part of Duterte’s drug war. “If you reported those numbers,” Ressa says, “you would get hammered by the police and by the regime.”
At Malacañang Palace, Duterte seethed about Rappler’s reporting. Panelo, his spokesman, told me: “I told Ressa: ‘You know why the president is pissed off with you? Because you are the one who started the false narrative of drug-related people being killed’ ” deliberately. He added: “I don’t know if you know, 164 policemen were killed, 747 seriously injured. Are you telling me that there was no resistance coming from these people?” Evangelista broke news that there were strong indications that the police were hiring vigilante gangs to carry out murders and that victims were being targeted online. In May, three years into the campaign, by which point the number of drug-related deaths had reached as many as 30,000, Ressa published Evangelista’s two-part series, “The Kill Lists of San Fernando.” Four politicians in a small Cebu Province town, including the mayor, she reported, had been shot, three of them killed, after being repeatedly accused of drug dealing and corruption and appearing on a “kill list” on a Facebook page called Political Stories From San Fernando. Evangelista identified the figure behind the incendiary posts as a businessman and political rival of the mayor named Ruben Feliciano. Feliciano denied posting the list of names and accusations on Facebook, but then admitted to Evangelista that he had called for the killing of the politicians in speeches as a way of offering support to Duterte’s war on drugs. “I said, ‘I will kill you,’ ” Feliciano told Rappler.
A couple of months before Duterte won the presidency, Ressa started to notice that his campaign was putting out disinformation about rivals — “a cascade of lies,” she calls it — that bounced around the online echo chamber. Rappler had done an intensive analysis about how Facebook worked in the country. Roughly 47 million people were on Facebook, nearly half the country. Getting content to go viral required creating what Ressa called an “information cascade,” generated by “niche accounts” linked to “boundary spanners” whose social media connections crossed social groups, classes and geographical areas. A typical niche account had around 150 people in his or her “sustainable relationship” network, she says, but by jumping across group boundaries, a single message could reach millions of people.
When it came to news about the president and his policies, Duterte and his aides appeared to have studied the same data. “The weaponization of information happened just after he took office in July,” Ressa told me. “Then it ramped up in October 2016, at the height of the drug killings.” Ressa and her team compiled a database that she called the Shark Tank, tracking the insulting terms and disinformation campaigns that cascaded on Facebook against Duterte’s critics: Rappler was derided as “Crabbler,” political rivals were all bayaran, Tagalog for “corrupt.” It seemed, Ressa says, a “concerted, systematic campaign.”
As they continued to investigate, Rappler reporters identified 26 interlocking Facebook accounts with phony identities — a so-called sock-puppet network — that, Ressa says, influenced some three million people. But the fake Facebook accounts were just a fraction of what she calls the “patriotic trolling” universe; real influencers served an important amplifying role. Ressa and her team focused on three Duterte supporters with vast online social networks: Margaux Uson, a popular singer and dancer whose band, Mocha Girls, was known for posting racy videos online, garnering her millions of Facebook fans, before she turned her Facebook page into a pro-Duterte message board and posted virulent attacks on opponents. These messages — relentlessly referring to journalists as “presstitutes,” for example, and claiming that they had joined with Western critics to undermine Duterte’s war against drugs — were picked up and propagated by two other key nodes: Sass Rogando Sasot, a transgender activist, and R.J. Nieto, or “Thinking Pinoy,” a self-styled voice of the middle class with a popular blog about politics and current events. “Uson played to the mass base, and the attacks were picked up and amplified in middle-class accounts,” Ressa says. The result, she says, was a sharp plunge in support for the news media and other targets.
The artificial creation of a seemingly grass-roots social media buzz — “astroturfing” — was instrumental, Ressa claims, in gaining popular support for Duterte’s prosecution of Leila de Lima, a human rights activist turned senator who criticized the extrajudicial killings. “They were three steps used against de Lima, attacking her credibility, violently denigrating her as a sexual object and spreading viral hashtags,” Ressa says. The hashtag #ArrestLeiladeLima, Ressa observed, trended on social media for weeks before de Lima was arrested in February 2017 on drug-related conspiracy charges, which she denies; she has been in prison ever since.
Rappler’s series about disinformation, which ran in late 2016 and 2017 and was consolidated on a microsite called Media, Society and Digital Transformation, had significant impact. This year, Facebook identified and took down hundreds of pages, accounts and groups, mostly in the Philippines, for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” all of them linked to a group started by Nic Gabunada, Duterte’s social media strategist at the time. After the first articles in Rappler’s series appeared, thousands of anti-Ressa messages spread across Facebook and Twitter — at the rate of 90 an hour, by her count. Many urged that she be called before the Senate and contained the hashtag #ArrestMariaRessa. “They were astroturfing, creating a fake bandwagon,” Ressa says. “From there it jumped to real people calling for my arrest, and then it got into sex and violence: ‘Maybe Maria Ressa’s dream is to become the ultimate porn star in a gangbang scene,’ and ‘Make sure Ressa gets publicly raped to death when martial law makes it to Luzon, it would bring joy to my heart.’ ”
Until this point, Duterte had refrained from publicly attacking Rappler. But in January 2018, Rappler ran an article charging that Christopher Go, Duterte’s closest aide in both Davao and Manila, had improperly intervened with the Philippine Department of National Defense to steer a $289 million contract for an onboard computerized defense system to a favored South Korean manufacturer. The Senate subpoenaed Go and other members of Duterte’s cabinet to testify. Pia Ranada covered the Senate hearings. Harry Roque, the president’s spokesman at the time, said Duterte grew furious about a “betrayal” from a reporter whom he had treated “like a granddaughter.” Duterte banned Ranada from the palace, denounced Rappler as “a fake news outlet” in a news conference and then barred all Rappler reporters from attending presidential events.
The Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission had already taken away Rappler’s operating license, charging that it had violated the Constitution by selling control to a foreign entity. (Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay and First Look Media, invested $1.5 million in 2015 through his Omidyar Network, though he exercised no control over operations.) Now the solicitor general announced that he had opened an investigation into Rappler. Ressa and members of Rappler’s board were also indicted on a charge of tax fraud relating to the P.S.E.C. case. And Ressa faced both criminal and civil “cyberlibel” charges for Rappler’s 2012 coverage of accusations of corrupt ties between a businessman and the former Supreme Court chief justice.
On Feb. 13, Ressa was in a Rappler conference room at 5 in the afternoon when she heard a commotion outside. “An editor came in and said, ‘That’s the National Bureau of Investigation, and they’re here to arrest you,’ ” Ressa recalls. Half a dozen agents from the N.B.I. had come to detain her on the cyberlibel charge. “I said, ‘Holy crap!’ ” One read Ressa her Miranda rights, which are enshrined in the 1987 Philippine Constitution. Editors called the news media and summoned lawyers. Rappler staff members live-streamed Ressa’s arrest. “One agent threatened one of our reporters, telling him, ‘Be silent, or you will be next,’ ” Ressa recalls. Ressa was taken to the police station and spent an uncomfortable night in a chair after a night-court judge refused to process her bail.
A month and a half later, on March 28, the N.B.I. came after Rappler again. Rappler’s managing editor and five other former and current board members were issued arrest warrants on charges of violating the anti-dummy law, a statute that prevents Filipino citizens from acting as fronts, or “dummies,” for a foreign owner. Ressa was in California, attending a conference on press freedom that was sponsored by Google, when she received the news. She boarded a flight back to Manila. After the 14-hour trip, she came down the jetway and found uniformed police officers waiting for her. Again, Ressa was read the arrest warrant and her Miranda rights and taken to the station. This time her lawyers were ready, but even so, it took seven hours for Ressa to be released.
By 4 p.m. on May 9, thousands of Duterte supporters had assembled beneath a huge canvas tent in Rizal Park opposite Davao City’s City Hall, a colonnaded, butterscotch-color building built in 1926. The midterm election was four days away. Thousands of local posts and half the 24 seats in the Senate, still dominated by the opposition, were up for grabs. Polls showed Duterte’s popularity at 81 percent, an indication that his Davao-based alliance would sweep the Senate.
A couple of days earlier, Ressa decided to challenge the ban on Rappler reporters in Davao City and approved Pia Ranada’s plan to go incognito to cover the campaign rally, where Duterte was scheduled to speak. The president had risen to prominence here, and the crowd, many of them poor, many wearing T-shirts emblazoned with his image, waited enthusiastically in the oppressive heat for the spectacle to begin. Three years into his term, Duterte was at the peak of his popularity. His tough-guy persona and profanity-laced straight talk had entranced tens of millions of Filipinos, and his apparent success at making the barrios safe, even if it resulted in the extrajudicial killings of thousands of people, had enhanced his image as a politician who made good on his promises. Ressa and her readership — millennial, college-educated and middle- and upper-middle class — seemed far removed from these rallygoers.
At sunset, the lights came up, and the crowd stirred with excitement. Political rallies in the Philippines are known for their loud, kitschy, Hollywood-style entertainment, and now Mayor Sara Duterte, the president’s daughter, and her brother, Paolo, a former vice mayor, led the party slate across the stage. Pop music pulsated, strobes flashed and slick videos displayed images of each Senate candidate on giant screens; aides tossed rolled-up party T-shirts into outstretched hands.
Ramon Revilla, a former action-movie star and ex-senator, grabbed a microphone and crooned a duet with his wife, the mayor of a town near Manila. Revilla had spent four years in prison awaiting trial for plundering $4.3 million in public funds before being acquitted last December; he still faced 16 counts of graft. Now he was throwing his lot in with Duterte and attempting a comeback. Ronald dela Rosa, a brawny and bald former police chief of Davao, who had been the subject of a recent biopic and was now making a Senate run, belted a romantic melody. Then Christopher Go — the presidential aide turned Senate candidate whom Ranada had enraged with her article — addressed the throng.
“Who among you is a drug addict?” asked Go, a slight figure in a polo shirt and jeans. Some of the rallygoers laughed nervously, well aware of the fate that often met anyone accused of abusing shabu, the Philippine name for crystal meth. “President Duterte is against drugs. I am against drugs,” Go thundered. “Duterte says he is against corruption. I am against corruption.”
As a drizzle turned into a downpour, the music came up again, and Go, flanked by a pair of Filipino movie stars, sang a love song; the crowd roared with delight. The sentimental performances were part of the rally’s appeal, but something else was going on: The people in the audience clearly believed in the brutal message delivered by Duterte and his proxies. Most Filipinos weren’t reading Rappler; they were on Facebook, or getting their information from Duterte himself (who had canceled his rally appearance at the last minute, to the crowd’s disappointment). They reminded me of the cabdriver I met who told me he was grateful to Duterte because he could now walk with his children through the alleys of his barrio after dark and not fear being mugged by a drug addict. “People like Maria Ressa from the elite have no idea what it’s like to live in the slums,” he told me. “They are living behind high security, in wealthy apartment buildings, cut off from the people. Really, I don’t think they have the chance to know us.” Ressa was absolutely right that the propaganda campaign was being fought online, but it was also being waged in the public sphere out in the streets, a place where Rappler couldn’t compete.
Duterte’s political alliance won all 12 contested seats in the Senate, handing the president complete control over the three branches of government. When I spoke to Ressa by phone two weeks later, she had just returned to Manila from New York, where she gave the commencement speech at Columbia Journalism School’s graduation ceremony, and had plunged back into the fray, building a new Rappler online platform, speaking before representatives of 12 countries at an inquiry on “big data, privacy and democracy” hosted by the Canadian House of Commons and shuttling between appearances in two Manila courthouses and a mediation meeting with lawyers on the cyberlibel case. Ressa told me that Duterte’s electoral sweep was not necessarily dire news. The consolidation could mean, she said, “that we can do our work. After all, what does he have to fear?”
But a moment later, she despaired at the possibility that a new Constitution could “formalize our democracy’s descent into tyranny and swing the pendulum that began in 1986 back to authoritarian rule.” Ressa and her attorneys have filed a blizzard of appeals to block the closure order from the P.S.E.C. and keep her and the board out of prison. But the courts are stacked with Duterte appointees; the chances of a victory are slim.
Ressa had been talking to her lawyers about protections that might be afforded to her under international law in the event she is imprisoned. On July 23, Ressa’s criminal trial for cyberlibel began in Manila, and soon after that, she was back in court to face the tax-evasion and “anti-dummy” charges. She hired an international legal team, including the human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, to represent her and, throughout the summer and fall, was spending up to four days a week in front of judges at four different trials around Metro Manila; a verdict in the cyberlibel case was expected late this year. If convicted on all counts, Ressa faces a cumulative sentence of just over 63 years in prison. “We’ve developed a gallows humor about it,” Ressa told me; she had talked about the prospect of prison with the three other founders of Rappler. “One of them said she would bring me a fan. Another, bedsheets. Another, food. At the beginning it’s scary, but the more you talk about it, you rob it of its sting. You embrace the fear.”