Nobel Peace Prize to journalist Maria Ressa: “My war for truth against lies on Facebook”

On 8 October 2021, Filipino journalist Maria Ressa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize together with journalist Dmitry Muratov, chief editor of the Russian investigative newspaper Novaya Gazeta. The Norwegian Nobel Committee, the motivation reads, has decided to reward the two reporters for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”

Maria Ressa is a “guardian of truth” for Time, that is, one of the journalists chosen by the weekly as person of the year, together with Jamal Khashoggi (murdered in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul), Kyaw Soe Oo and Wa Lone (two Reuters journalists detained in Myanmar) and the entire staff of the Capital Gazette, the Annapolis, Maryland newspaper, attacked last June by a killer who killed four journalists.

Maria Ressa is Filipino, she is 55, with short black hair, deep eyes and an always kind smile. Maria’s determination has the voice of calmness, patience and courage: in 2012 she founded the investigative site Rappler in Manila; since 2016, the year in which Rodrigo Duterte was elected, he has been talking about the extrajudicial killings in the country, the President’s war on drugs.

Rappler documented how Duterte used and armed social media to silence dissent and build consensus. In response, Maria Ressa and her group were targeted, accused of tax evasion. Accusations that Maria defines “simply ridiculous”. The use and abuse of social media in building consensus is one of the crucial themes of the work of Maria Ressa and her group. Last January, during a hearing in the Senate committee on information, Redda cited a study by FreedomHouse.org showing that “in 30 of the 65 countries included in the report, social media represents a low-cost army for potential authoritarians and dictators to control public opinion ”. Instead of checking the information “the market is flooded with lies.” The war against these lies is Mary’s war.

97 percent of people in the Philippines are on Facebook, it is the means to inform themselves and for power it is the means to convey lies and feed hatred …
«The Philippines is becoming an authoritarian regime. Social media has been armed and the prime targets of these weapons are journalists. Duterte was elected in May 2016 and from July 2016 my team went out on the street returning to the newsroom with reports of an average of eight corpses a day. We have been fighting social media attacks for two and a half years because we try to tell the truth. When we at Rappler started denouncing Duterte, he tried to discredit us. In July 2017 he said we were owned by the Americans and were working to bring down the government. I replied: President, you are wrong. After a week I was under investigation. The Philippine government also tried to revoke Rappler’s license to operate earlier this year.


Your watchword is: resist.
«
It’s not courage, you know? It is knowing who you are and what values ​​you have lived and are living for. I have been a journalist for thirty years, and not only have I not lost the enthusiasm and desire to reveal the lies, but I think that the challenges we face today require even more strength. It is not an easy time to do our job, but it is perhaps the one when it makes the most sense to do so, because today our values ​​and our mission are clearer. Technology has no morals and no values: and authoritarian leaders have understood how to exploit this lack of ethics ”.

Rappler is not the only media outlet disliked by Duterte. The president tried to obstruct other media, such as Philippine TV ABS-CBN which had criticized him. And he also attacked the Filipino “Daily Inquirer” accusing the owners of tax evasion: now the newspaper is about to be sold to billionaire (and sponsor of Duterte) Ramon Ang.
«Authoritarian leaders have the most powerful megaphone and by attacking information, power propagates its messages endlessly. The meaning of journalism has always been to ask questions, it is the only way to accredit ourselves and build trust in those who read us and those who listen to us: to control power and ask questions. Power should answer our questions. Today, however, it responds by militarizing social media. And the answer is increasingly autocratic regimes and governments, which use social media to obtain and maintain power. “

We are witnessing similar phenomena also in Europe and in Italy. Some government officials feed a climate of hatred through social media, respond to criticism with insults and hate speech …
“I’m talking about three C’s, that is, the means in which the government makes the citizens do what is convenient for power: corruption, coercion, co-option. All this displaces democracy, erodes it. It makes it something I can hardly recognize. When I was young things were clearer, I learned the ethical standards of our work and I learned to keep a distance from power which is what journalists have to do, call things by their name, sit in front of power and not next to it. Now the media are fragmented, their role has changed a lot. In my country, people get information through Facebook because, like in many developing countries, Facebook is the first feature in a phone card, and it’s free. When we started Rappler’s adventure we knew that social media was a challenge and that we had to learn to manage it and not suffer it. Slowly everything became less formal, then informal, then friendly, then too informal, then very violent. And because of social media, people today have the attention span of a goldfish, the flow of information, the speed, the superficiality have disintegrated the concentration of users, who are fed by lies ».

In 2016 you contacted Facebook to report the presence of fake news that discredited Rappler’s work, however these pages were only removed after two years. You met Zuckerberg last year. What did you tell him?
“I told him, ‘Mark, do you know that 97 percent of Filipinos on the Internet are on Facebook?’ and I invited him to come to the Philippines because he had to see the impact of social media on people. He frowned and said, “What’s the other 3 percent doing, Maria?” I replied that we were trying to keep democracy alive. When we joined Facebook we did not realize that the algorithm he used to distribute the news did not in any way distinguish the truth from the lie. And as you know, lies run faster than truth, fiction spreads more easily. And this is part of the reasons for the current weakness of democracies. People don’t know what’s true. And authoritarian leaders know this well, they do what we call “patriotic trolling” ».

I often work in countries that have had experience of dictatorship and the attitude of Western governments today is quite indulgent, I am thinking of the Regeni case in Egypt and of the hundreds like him, of the threatened local journalists, of Khashoggi.
«The indulgence of Western countries towards the new dictatorships is determined by the fact that these forms of authoritarian power are considered a guarantee of political stability, no matter at what price. I think Western countries and the United States in particular are lost and confused, if you have a leader like Trump in a country that is supposedly champion of democracy and the same country is not urgently calling for strong and resolute action to uncover the truth. on the assassination of Khashoggi and the barbaric dismemberment of his body, it is clear that this encourages impunity for any government, everyone feels entitled to threaten or kill journalists. And if you feel that not even European countries or the United States defend the role of journalists, it becomes more and more difficult for us. In my country, the first victims of the absence of truth are the people killed in the name of the war on drugs. The government wants to hide them, it wants to hide the numbers, the ferocity, the arbitrariness. Now we are talking about 5 thousand people killed which are the cases admitted by the police then there are 25 thousand cases of murders under investigation. 25 thousand, in two and a half years. The only justice for these dead is journalism, the truth ».

It is the great debate between the truth and what is justified in the name of security …
«Populisms and authoritarian leaders exploit the issue of security. Leaders who use demagogic and authoritarian policies are feeding their electorates with fear and fear generates a demand for greater security and the demand for greater security generates control and in the name of this security, abuses and impunity arise. Duterte, for example, is using the war on drugs as a political tactic, of which violence becomes the privileged means. Violence generates fear in people and to justify this violence Duterte continues to lie. The only answer is to continue doing what we do, with strength and rigor ».

Do you feel supported by people in the Philippines or it has happened that you have been asked: who makes me do this?
«I exposed myself to be consistent with myself and that’s how I’ve always experienced my choices. I’m a journalist, I’ve always done this. Our latest series is about killers who admit they got paid by the police and we were violently attacked for these pieces, because we were the first to do it, to change the point of view. The violence of social media is breaking out in the real world, anyone who feels justified in giving vent to their anger and hatred, because those who should stem it instead use the same anger and the same hatred to manage power ».

What do you expect from the future?
«We are approaching the elections and at the moment journalists are less powerful than social media. Our long-term project must be a new education in attention, concentration, criticism. As for Rappler, my only strategy is: to keep telling and reporting every abuse, every lie. We will continue our work of unveiling the truth. It is the way to say to those who follow us: you are not alone ».
Is it more dangerous to talk about wars or abuses of power?
«I worked in war zones, told about conflicts. But in war you can clearly distinguish the players. Paradoxically, everything is clearer, you can map the situation and choose the best way to tell a situation. Exponential attacks, the militarization of social media have something different, they are psychological attacks, the attacks are personal, they make you vulnerable. We wake up suffering violent attacks and with the same violence we go to sleep. It is a brutality that would exhaust you and keep you quiet and we must never resign ourselves to state-sponsored hate campaigns and harassment to intimidate and silence us. The hate strategy is global and in the same way, the response to this hatred must be global. “

Three keywords for journalism today.
“Transparency, responsibility and consistency”.


Source: L'Espresso – News, inchieste e approfondimenti Espresso by espresso.repubblica.it.

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