Journalists: Honor Maria Ressa by emulating her integrity and courage

Dan Gillmor
Nov 10, 2018 · 4 min read

Dear White House journalists:

No doubt at least a few of you were in the audience the other night when my friend Maria Ressa, co-founder and CEO of the online news organization Rappler, was recognized for her brilliant — and extraordinarily courageous — work in the Philippines.

Now she is in trouble with the increasingly dictatorial Philippines government, which hates her because she and her colleagues tell the truth about the regime. She needs your help, for starters. But she — and everyone else who who cares about freedom of the press and liberty in general — also needs your good work: real journalism in service of freedom.

If you weren’t there, let me tell you about Maria and her 25 years as a fine and honorable journalist. One post along the way was bureau chief for CNN International (do not confuse the normally high-quality CNNI with the thin gruel CNN mostly serves up in the U.S.). She was in charge of the Philippines’ biggest multi-platform news operation, ABS-CBN.

At Rappler, she and her colleagues — people who wanted to create a quality news organization that would include the public in its work, be fiercely independent, and do powerful journalism — have succeeded on all counts.

Nowhere are those goals more appropriate than in the Philippies. But because of the evil politics there, they face daunting challenges. The country is increasingly dominated by its (sad to say elected) president, Rodrigo Duterte, a murderous thug and dictator-wannabe.

He and his apparatchiks have put all kinds of pressure on Rappler, and especially on its co-founders. Maria is probably the most public face of the organization, and the regime has made clear its particular loathing of her. But she and her colleagues have been steadfast.

My admiration for Maria has grown steadily over the years since I met her. I see her often in my travels, and we served together on the board of an international journalism organization. I’m inspired, and humbled, to be part of a journalism ecosystem that includes people like Maria. And I’m worried — deeply worried — for her.

After a series of moves aimed at bringing Rappler to heel, it now looks like the Duterte regime is going to arrest Maria. Today’s New York Times has some of the latest about this impending outrage. The headline — “Philippines Says It Will Charge Veteran Journalist Critical of Duterte” — tells you a lot, but you should read the story to better understand why she deserves more than just your respect.

Authoritarians and dictators are in ascendance around the world, for all kind of reasons. And as they grow more powerful and arrogant, they are using their power against dissent. To them, honest journalism is dissent, and they cannot abide its existence.

Now, if you haven’t done this already, please read and/or watch Maria’s acceptance speech upon receiving the Knight International Journalism Award this week. The video is at the top of this piece, and here’s the transcript, provided by Rappler.

If you are a journalist and her words don’t inspire you, then you’re in the wrong line of work. If you’re a journalist and don’t contribute to Rappler to help sustain its mission, you’re missing an opportunity to do something easy in service of freedom of the press.

And if you’re a White House correspondent, please understand that her words are a challenge to you — especially you. Because what you are doing (and not doing) in the face of Trump’s declared war on journalism could not be more of a contrast to Maria and Rappler.

Journalists in the Trump White House have consistently failed (or refused) to understand how this government and its acolytes are turning the norms of journalism against you, and by extension the American public. They’ve raised the stakes in recent days.

When a CNN White House reporter was banned from the building for doing his job, every one of you should have refused to return until his pass was reinstated. But you didn’t. Your weak-kneed association issued a whimper of protest. And you went back to business as usual.

Trump emphasized his racism by escalating his insults to non-white journalists. A few of you complained. But you emphasized your haplessness, because you still covered what he told you to cover, because you’ve let him become your assignment editor.

Trump and his people continue to lie relentlessly to you and the public. Sometimes you call him on the lies. But you consistently amplify the lies to the public by publishing and airing them. You should know by now that this is a terrible practice, but you do it anyway.

Please declare war yourselves — not against Trump, but in defense of freedom of expression, and the republic we are in danger of losing. Please read Maria’s speech. Absorb her principles, and especially her courage. Live up to her standards, her example, and make yourselves proud again.

Dan Gillmor

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The first rule of a conversation: listen. Bio and disclosures: http://dangillmor.com/about