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বাংলা
Dhaka Tribune

Why does Maria Ressa matter?

Update : 11 Oct 2021, 05:53 PM

My country, the Philippines, has its fair share of courageous, dedicated, and trail-blazing journalists; those who hold the rich and powerful into account by seeking out and exposing the truth about them.  This is one of the reasons why the Marcos dictatorship collapsed after being in power from 1965 to 1986.

In spite of the risks to themselves and their families, these newspersons informed the public about the regime's human rights abuses, ill-gotten wealth, corruption, crony capitalism, and rigged electoral machinery.

I was a university student during the People Power Revolution, which led to the strongman's ouster.  Given my admiration for journalists, I joined a news agency upon graduation.  But I soon discovered that my passion was in education; training people to become journalists rather than being one myself.  For many years, I have taught students the ethics and rudiments of media practice in the hope they would have the nerve and capacity to fulfill the call of this noble profession.

When the Duterte government came to power in 2016, I felt like I was entering an alternate universe. I experienced Noelle-Neumann's Spiral of Silence at play -- keeping opinions to myself for fear of social isolation.

I was being gaslighted by friends, ex-colleagues and acquaintances who were aggressively insisting on a different version of history -- that Marcos was one of the best presidents, he deserved to be buried in the heroes' cemetery, his downfall was simply a struggle between two political families, the accusations of plunder against him were fake news, and he was being unjustly misrepresented and persecuted.

Moreover, I was being introduced to a new value system -- saying bad words was the hallmark of bravery, killing alleged criminals (without due process) was acceptable in the name of the drug war, insulting our traditional international allies was okay, closing down a major television station during a pandemic was applaudable, the press needed to be renamed "presstitute," and applying a militaristic approach to curb the spread of Covid-19 was the way forward.

From all these experiences, I knew that the job of journalists in the Philippines would be more difficult than ever.

Also, I did oftentimes wonder whether the knowledge, attitude and skills we taught our media students would be enough for them to face this new environment -- where the population are provided the wrong information; lies being "on repeat" given social media algorithms.

With 85% of Filipinos sourcing their news online, the media could no longer remain as the sole gatekeeper of information.  Professional strategists and individuals can spread any type of concocted story to push their agenda directly unto this favored news source.  Unlike the media, they do not need to abide by news criteria and check news credibility.

This is the context Maria Ressa found herself in -- a situation she successfully navigated, making her fully deserving of the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021.

What made Maria Ressa rise above such great odds were her competence, bravery, inquisitiveness, and persistence.  She completed an undergraduate degree (cum laude) from Princeton University and under a Fulbright Fellowship she studied political theatre at the University of the Philippines.  She then worked in various media outlets -- government TV station PTV 4, CNN, independent production company Probe, ABS-CBN, and the Wall Street Journal.

In 2012, she established the online news site Rappler, which investigated the Duterte regime's extra-judicial killings and harassment of political opponents.

In 2016, she wrote the piece "Propaganda War: Weaponing the Internet," illustrating state-sponsored trolling and uncovering several Facebook pages spreading disinformation.

The Duterte government and his troll army continuously intimidated her. She faced numerous lawsuits, arrests, and convictions for alleged ownership irregularities, defamation, and tax evasion.

Trolls have called for her rape and beheading as she continued the pressure on the administration.  

But all her hard work seems to be paying off.  In the September 2021 Pulse Asia Polls, Duterte is no longer the most popular vice-presidential bet (the constitution bars him from a second term as president)  in the upcoming elections.  The Philippine Senate is probing Duterte's allies for alleged corruption relating to the pandemic response.  The International Criminal Court has opened an investigation into his war on drugs.

With the 2021 award, the Nobel Committee is underscoring the importance of journalism to achieve lasting peace.  In many ways, it is sending a message to journalism educators -- that we need to review our curricula to produce graduates who would possess the needed characteristics to successfully navigate a changed mediascape.  To produce more journalists like Maria Ressa, my colleagues and I have our work cut out for us.


Prof Jude William Genilo heads the Media Studies and Journalism Department, University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh.

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