Fighting Mr Fake

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President Rodrigo Duterte (right) has declared war on journalist Maria Ressa (left) and her media organisation, Rappler. Photos: Dondi Tawatao / Reuters

Fighting Mr Fake

Trump fights the media he does not like. But there is someone who came before Trump and who is maybe his teacher. Iris Gonzales reports from the Philippines:

Maria Ressa is editor and CEO of Rappler. These days, she goes around the streets of Manila with police escorts. You know if she’s in her office because there are police cars parked outside the tower block in the eastern part of Metro Manila.

Once there were extra guards posted inside Rappler’s busy office. After President Rodrigo Duterte came into power in 2016, the online news organisation received threats from his supporters.

The Duterte government has tried everything to make his critics sound bad. With Rappler it’s harder because the organisation has earned trust since it started in 2012. Also, Ressa is famous in the media world. She was Manila bureau chief of CNN for nearly twenty years before starting Rappler, and she was the first to report important stories on international terrorist links.

But the Duterte government refuses to stop its attacks. It has taken away Rappler’s incorporation papers, ordered an investigation into possible cyber libel and tax payments, said the organisation writes ‘fake news’, and banned one of its reporters from entering the presidential palace.

Not afraid

Duterte came to power in July 2016 and has done well even after the dictator Ferdinand Marcos. Duterte talks about his love for his country, he is charming, realistic but is ready to use everything in his power to silence his enemies.

Last year his department of justice put his biggest critic, Senator Leila de Lima, in prison for alleged involvement in illegal drugs. She is still there.

Her imprisonment sent a strong message to his critics, but not everyone was afraid. Rappler continued to write critical stories.

Rappler was one of the first to report on Duterte’s bloody ‘war on drugs’ by showing the victims of illegal killings – the men, women, and children who said they were innocent, and even the guilty, who cried for justice because there was none.

Rappler’s multimedia reports found the attention of the foreign press and human rights organisations, which showed the real Duterte – a leader with no respect for human rights.

Early in 2018, Rappler and the Philippine Daily Inquirer, a Manila newspaper, wrote a story about special assistant and friend to the president, Christopher ‘Bong’ Go.

The report said Go was involved in a criminal $286 million warship deal. This story resulted in a Senate investigation and was a big problem for Duterte because he fought the election on policies against corruption.

Fake news and the president’s lies

Duterte called the story ‘fake’.

He also banned Rappler’s palace reporter, Pia Ranada, from entering the palace. Rappler said its story was true and said that Go could not say the documents in its report were fake.

The president accuses others of fake news, but he has been caught telling big lies, again and again.

Last year, he said yes, he lied about saying his big critic Senator Antonio Trillanes IV had money in a foreign bank in Singapore, which he could not explain. ‘This is nothing, this is just my imagination,’ Duterte said in September 2017.

He also lied about his family background.

People said Duterte had an unexplained $38 million in the bank, but he said his family was not poor because his father Vicente Duterte was a governor of Davao. This is very different from earlier stories that he was born into a poor family and he grew up ‘in the slums’.

Duterte lies and makes a lot of use of social media. He used it for his election win. Facebook partnered with Duterte right from the start. In January 2016, six months before the election, Facebook sent three employees to spend a week giving training sessions with candidates, including Duterte.

An MSNBC report says, ‘After his team got that Facebook training, his friends pushed fake news and other stories,’

Ressa and her team found out that the messages on Facebook linked to pro-Duterte pages. They put all these accounts into a database. This database is called the Shark Tank and it now contains more than 12 million accounts that have made or posted pro-Duterte messages. Presidential campaign manager Nic Gabunada says the posts were by real people and not by bots, but many in the industry say the accounts were fake.

Duterte’s social media campaign has continued throughout his presidency.

Community support

In October 2016, Ressa wrote ‘Propaganda War: Weaponizing the Internet,’ about how the Duterte government used the internet for fake news.

She and her team received many hate messages after this, including ‘I want Maria Ressa to be raped again and again to death’. She was getting as many as 90 such messages per hour.

Ressa had to send her social media team to counselling. An ‘UnfollowRappler’ campaign led to Rappler losing 52,000 – about one per cent – of its Facebook followers.

On 11 January 2018, on the instructions of President Duterte, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the official regulator, took away Rappler’s corporate registration.

The SEC said Rappler broke foreign ownership rules because of money from Omidyar Network, a company owned by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The SEC ordered the revocation of Rappler’s certificate of incorporation and the Omidyar Philippine Depository Receipts (PDRs).

In an interview with New Internationalist, Rappler managing editor Glenda Gloria said: ‘We are tired of these attacks and false stories against us. Life was much simpler – telling stories, engaging your readers, making the business grow. Now we have to sit down with lawyers to try to understand these complaints that do not make sense. But we are also helped by the support from our community. We walk on the streets or get stuck in elevators and strangers say hello and say they support Rappler,’ she said.

Journalism was never an easy job in the Philippines. ‘I always say that the Philippines is a tough country to love,’ said Gloria. ‘As a college student, I saw how Marcos controlled the press and put journalists in prison. Under Estrada, I was news editor of a newspaper that he forced to close and sold to a friend. As an editor of a magazine, I received death threats and our reporters had all sorts of harassment.’

‘Journalists in the Philippines must be strong and continue to write better stories, she said. ‘Choose topics that are relevant and do not just write sensational stories. Be open to criticism, always try to be the best. Stay sober and don’t worry about the noise. Rappler will continue to do what it does best – to tell stories, to tell the truth.

Gloria said, ‘With the help of its community, Rappler hopes to last longer than the presidents.’

Iris Gonzales is a Filipina journalist who writes for New Internationalist.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have been changed)