CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Maria Ressa says much still remains uncertain about her life in the month since she became the first ever Filipino and the first working journalist in more than 80 years to win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Will her battle against a libel suit in the Philippines lead to jail time? Will she be able to travel to Norway to accept her prestigious award next month? When is the next time she’ll be able to see her family?
“You know the painting ‘The Scream?’” Ressa said Tuesday evening, holding her hands to her face and mock-bellowing into the existential void like the famed Edvard Munch work. “I wake up every day like that.”
“I don’t know where it will lead,” Ressa continued during an interview with The Associated Press at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, shortly before delivering the university’s annual Salant Lecture on Freedom of the Press. “But I know that if we keep doing our task, staying on mission, holding the line, that there’s a better chance that our democracy not only survives, but that I also stay out of jail. Because I’ve done nothing wrong except be a journalist. That is the price we have to pay."
Her Harvard speech came just hours after American journalist Danny Fenster’s emotional reunion with family in New York following his negotiated release from military-ruled Myanmar, where he’d spent six months in jail for his work.
“It shows how it crumbles fast. The ground we’re on is quicksand,” the 58-year-old co-founder of Rappler, a Manila-based news website, said of Fenster's ordeal. “Power can do what it wants.”
Ressa worries about what next year’s elections in the Philippines, U.S. and elsewhere will bring. She criticizes American social media companies as misinformation continues to proliferate on their platforms, allowing repressive regimes to thrive and threaten democratic institutions.
“If you don’t have facts, you can’t have truth. You can’t have trust. You don’t have a shared reality,” she said. “So how do we solve these existential problems — the rise of fascism, coronavirus, climate change — if we don’t agree on the facts? This is fundamental.”
Ressa said U.S. policymakers should revise key sections of federal internet law and the international community should take other steps.
“You need to look at algorithms that prioritize the spread of lies, hate, anger, and conspiracy theories,” she said. “Let’s cut it off upstream. Not downstream, where it becomes content and you run into all the freedom of speech questions.”
Ressa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, is wrapping up a monthlong stint as a visiting fellow at Harvard. It's her first time out of the country since being convicted last summer of libel and sentenced to jail in a decision seen as a major blow to press freedom globally.
Ressa, who has remained free on bail while that case is on appeal, says she’s looking forward to spending Thanksgiving in Florida with her parents, who she hasn’t seen in two years. Then it’s back to Manila, where she faces up to six years in prison, not to mention a series of other active legal cases against her.
It’s also no certainty that Ressa will be granted court approval to travel again next month to attend the Nobel Prize award ceremony in Oslo, Norway. Before this month’s trip, the Philippine courts denied a number of other travel requests, including one she says was to visit her ailing mother.
“It’s like death by a thousand cuts,” said Ressa, who was born in Manila but raised mostly in the U.S. before moving back to the Philippines and launching a journalism career. “You don’t know how free you are until you begin to lose your freedom, or you have to ask people for your freedoms.”
At Harvard, Ressa has been meeting with faculty and students, giving talks and doing research for a forthcoming book.
She co-founded Rappler in 2012, and the website quickly gained notoriety for its reporting on Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s bloody, yearslong crackdown on illegal drugs. The news organization has also documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents and manipulate public discourse.
During Tuesday’s lecture, which Ressa gave remotely from her hotel room due to a potential COVID-19 exposure related to the campus event, she also reflected on the toll on her personal life.
In the Philippines, she’d taken to wearing a bulletproof vest at times in public, and pleaded with Facebook to delete violent posts against her as death threats mounted.
For female journalists in particular, Ressa said, attacks on social media quickly become menacing. Among roughly half a million online attacks she’s received, some 60% were against her credibility while 40% were more personal and “meant to tear down my spirit," she said.
“There are moments when you go, ‘Why?’ Why does it demand this much?” Ressa said. “But the cost of not doing the right thing is far greater than the consequences for one person.”