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Nobel Prize-winning newsroom in Philippines thrilled but under siege

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The young editors and reporters of the Philippine news site Rappler were already busy Friday. It was the last day candidates could run for next year’s election, and reporters were watching to see who would try to replace Rodrigo Duterte, the president who for years attacked Rappler and threatened his staff.

Then Maria Ressa, one of the media’s founders, learned that she and a Russian journalist, Dmitri A. Muratov, had received the Nobel Peace Prize for their “courageous fight for freedom of expression”. She immediately texted her co-founders: “I won. Word spread and a slew of “OMGs” flooded the company’s Slack channel.

For several hours, the staff said, they were energized by Ms. Ressa’s award. But they know that hard times await them. The news site could still be closed. There are seven active court cases pending against Ms Ressa and Rappler. Journalists at the site face immense pressure from online trolls, who have been emboldened by Mr Duterte’s suggestion that journalists should be treated as “spies” who are “not immune. assassinations ”.

“We have to fight and persevere,” said Gemma Mendoza, who leads Rappler’s efforts to tackle disinformation in digital media. “You feel when you are in this situation, that it is bigger than yourself. And having that feeling fuels you and you keep going.

At stake is the future of one of the few independent journalistic institutions in the Philippines. With reports of police abuse in Mr. Duterte’s war on drugs and stories of corrupt transactions involving local businessmen, Rappler has become a symbol of fearless journalism in a region where the press is constantly hampered.

Rappler reporters recognize that these times are difficult. Access is a problem because of Mr. Duterte’s attacks on them. The psychological burden of being trolled, especially in a newsroom where the median age is only 23, is exhausting. But they still strive to in Ms. Ressa’s words – “hold the line.”

They know full well that challenging Mr. Duterte comes at a high price. In January 2018, the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission announced it would revoke Rappler’s operating license, claiming the site had violated foreign ownership laws. The action was widely viewed by human rights activists and other journalists as retaliation for Rappler’s coverage of Mr Duterte’s brutal war on drugs.

At a staff meeting soon after, Ms Ressa and her co-founders Lilibeth Frondoso, Glenda Gloria and Chay Hofilena stressed that the company was not going to be intimidated. Together, the founders are called in the newsroom “manangs” – a Filipino term of affection for an older sister.

Bea Cupin, a senior reporter, said she walked into the meeting “a little confused and a little worried” but left full of hope. “It was clear that our manangs were going to fight, so I think that helped a lot of us younger ones in Rappler,” Ms. Cupin said. “It was like, ‘OK, maybe we can do that. “”

Founded in 2012, the news agency revealed that some of those killed by police did not retaliate, as authorities said, but were instead summarily executed. He called for those responsible to be held accountable.

Mr Duterte responded by pointing to Rappler in his State of the Nation address in 2017, saying he belonged “entirely to the Americans,” in violation of the Philippine Constitution. In 2018, after the government announced it would revoke the website’s license, Mr Duterte said it was not a political decision but called the organization “false information.”

In July of that year, the Philippine Court of Appeals has asked the regulator to reconsider the case, allowing Rappler to remain open – for now.

In February 2019, authorities arrested Ms. Ressa and a researcher in a defamation case relating to an article published four months before the promulgation of the law they were relying on. In June 2020, Ms. Ressa was found guilty of this charge, which she is appealing.

The assault made Ms. Ressa more determined than ever. “When you are attacked, all the friction of a news organization, it goes away, especially with the journalism mission, if you know what you’re supposed to do,” she said in an interview. “I think it’s been incredibly empowering and it gives us energy.”

“You get tired and you are afraid. But I have three co-founders. We take turns scared, ”she said. “We are never afraid at the same time.

As CEO, Ms. Ressa manages the business and technology operations of the newsroom. To get around the loss of advertisers due to Mr. Duterte’s attacks, Rappler invested its resources in data-driven projects and subscriptions. Even with a newsroom of just 15 journalists, it launched more podcasts and short videos during the pandemic, allowing the company to be profitable in 2020.

Ms. Ressa and her co-founders cut their teeth as reporters during the People Power revolt that overthrew President Ferdinand Marcos in the mid-1980s. A black funeral wreath has already been delivered to the door of the family of Mrs. Gloria. Ms Frondoso has already been thrown in prison with her newborn baby.

Executives in the 100-strong newsroom say part of not being afraid is being prepared. Ms Gloria said the company carried out readiness exercises for four scenarios: an arrest, a raid, a prison sentence and an arrest. In February 2020, a dry descent of a raid was so realistic that staff, who were no more savvy about it, began broadcasting it on the website’s Facebook Live platform.

The struggle for press freedom today, Ms. Gloria said, is more complex than it was in the 1980s, “because attacks on reputation are insidious, systematic and widespread”.

“If you are an underpaid Filipino journalist working in an environment that is not exactly secure, economically and financially, your only wealth is your reputation,” Ms. Gloria said. “But when you are attacked online by an army of trolls and accused of bribery and baseless allegations, then you lose that right.

“This is what our young reporters have been through and are going through, and it has really toughened them up a bit in terms of courage,” she said.

The company offers tips on dealing with trolls: engage people and debunk lies. Immediately report threats to Facebook. And use investigative skills to expose those behind the trolling.

Like many newsrooms in the United States, Rappler also grapples with questions about what it means to be objective today, especially in an environment where press freedom is under siege. Rappler’s editor-in-chief Paterno Esmaquel II said one of the questions he asked interviewees was what they thought of the news agency attack. There shouldn’t be any fancy answers, he said.

“People think we have to be just transcriptionists and stenographers. That’s not how it’s supposed to be, ”Mr. Esmaquel said. “Your very existence is at stake, and if you don’t stand up for yourself, then what are you?” “

Jason gutierrez contributed reports.

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