For newly-awarded Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa, one of her darkest days happened to be the one on which George Clooney made her coffee.
It was in April 2019 in New York City, when the Filipino journalist of 35 years had just finished speaking in a panel alongside Al Jazeera’s Mohamed Fahmy and the Washington Post’s Jason Rezaian, who had both been incarcerated for their reporting in Egypt and Iran, respectively.
At the time, Ressa and the independent news company she co-founded in 2012, Rappler, were already neck-deep in court cases widely regarded by rights advocates as politically motivated. Rappler had been exposing human rights violations in the Philippines’ war on drugs, disinformation networks linked to the government under President Rodrigo Duterte and his allies, and corruption in big-ticket public projects.
Just months before that day in New York, the government had attempted to shut Rappler down by revoking its license to operate. Sitting between Fahmy and Rezaian on the panel, it dawned on Ressa: The attacks could get worse.
After the panel, Ressa found herself in an upstairs office with Clooney, the Hollywood actor and activist, and his wife, international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney, to discuss how they might help her and Rappler win the lawfare the Philippine government was waging against them.
Amal sat with Ressa to talk, and George went over to the espresso machine and made coffee for everyone.
“So Amal is here, giving me the entire world of what’s happened to journalists, and asking me questions I didn’t really understand at that point. And I kind of pride myself in being prepared for anything,” Ressa told VICE World News in an interview on October 11, three days after this year’s Nobel Peace Prize awardees were announced.
The scale of her own fight was global, and it could take turns she had not foreseen, Ressa realized. “George then sits down and says, ‘Tell me about your security.’”
Despite having been arrested twice—once upon touchdown at the Manila airport in 2019—Ressa kept returning to the Philippines after her international engagements. As a dual citizen of the Philippines and the U.S., she had the option not to do so.
For this and her unflinching defense of independent journalism, Ressa has become internationally recognised as the face of courage for journalists in the Philippines, where the government continues to tighten the noose on critical reporting and political dissent.
This status was cemented on October 8, when Ressa and Russian journalist Dimitry Muratov were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace," according to a statement from the organization.
Ressa said she was “shocked” and “stunned” as she welcomed the news.
“I think that is why the Nobel committee gave this year’s prize to journalists—because it has never been as hard to fulfill the mission of journalism, which, in the end, is holding power to account,” she said, adding that the prize is a recognition of all journalists around the world who continue their work amid pressure and danger.
Looking back on her meeting with Amal and George Clooney, Ressa said she had never questioned herself for putting up with the constant vitriol from online trolls and government pulpits until then, when the full weight of the danger she was facing sank in.
“What Amal was able to throw at me was I realized how little I knew about international law and, actually, worst-case scenarios,” she said.
After the meeting, Yeganeh Salehi, Rezaian’s wife who was also jailed in Iran for her reporting, approached Ressa. “We hugged each other, I guess because that was it—it could get worse.”
And get worse, it did. In June 2020, a Manila court found Ressa and her former colleague, Reynaldo Santos Jr, retroactively guilty of cyber libel over a 2012 news article published before the Philippines had enacted the law. Ressa and Santos are out on bail as their lawyers appeal the verdict, but an affirmation by the Supreme Court could see them both imprisoned.
Condemnation of the verdict as politically motivated poured in from the international community. Amal Clooney called the decision a “sinister action,” and she urged the high court to reverse it. “This conviction is an affront to the rule of law, a stark warning to the press, and a blow to democracy in the Philippines,” Clooney said at the time.
Ressa kept going and Rappler continued its critical reporting on the situation in the Philippines, although under much more strain and with less resources as the pile of court cases required legal fees to the tune of $1 million per year.
The online attacks continued, too. A study by the International Center for
Journalists published by UNESCO last April compiled nearly half a million social media posts against Ressa and found that 60 percent of the attacks “were designed to undermine her professional credibility and public trust in her journalism.”
“The other 40 percent was meant to tear down my spirit,” Ressa said. “They were personal attacks. They were dehumanizing: taking [an image of] my head and pasting it, putting it on top of human genitals—taking what you would think is a weakness and exploiting it and pounding it open.”
Ressa’s crusade against online disinformation cuts to the heart of what threatens democracy and freedom of expression in the Philippines and beyond, as governments use it to erode trust in journalists. “Disinformation makes people doubt everything,” she said.
With social media platform algorithms feeding users content that sustains their attention—anger, hate, conspiracy theories—regardless of whether they’re true, governments are able to “insidiously manipulate” the conversation in their favor, and incite hate towards truth-tellers including journalists, she added.
Ever the intrepid journalist, Ressa sees being a target of manipulated online hate as “both a blessing and a curse,” as it puts her in a prime position to report about it.
“When you’re the target, you see firsthand as the tactics change, and if you are looking at it as research, which is what I intended to do, then you can see the patterns faster,” she said.
Knowing how the system behind the persecution works helps her cope with it, Ressa added, but she admitted the trolling still leaves a mark.
“Of course it affects you,” Ressa replied, explaining how she draws strength from being part of the four-woman Rappler management team.
“Being fearless doesn’t mean you don’t feel afraid. It just means you know how to handle your fear. And with four of us, only one can be afraid. The other three have to be really strong, and we rotate the fear,” she said. “The other part is the energy from our young reporters. The idealism of youth—you really need that.”
With a young team of roughly 120 employees, Rappler is one of the Philippines’ most prominent news organizations, alongside much larger broadcast networks and newspaper companies. Having previously headed the country’s largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN, Ressa helped establish the purely-online news outlet in 2012 as she foresaw technology—and public conversation—shifting to social media.
Despite what she calls the “toxic sludge” of disinformation currently plaguing social media, Ressa believes the conversation can still be steered back to facts if people—journalists or not—keep making the effort to “abolish lies.”
“I’m optimistic that journalists will pave the way that will allow facts to win the battle against lies, that will help create our shared reality, that will help create evidence-based reasoning, because that is what the world needs,” Ressa said.
“That’s how justice is created.”
Disclosure: JC Gotinga previously worked at Rappler as a writer for a year and a half.
Follow JC Gotinga on Twitter.