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  • Now it's time for HARDtalk.

  • Welcome to HARDtalk. I am Stephen Sackur. No-one better epitomises any

  • strongman style of leadership then President Rodrigo Duterte, of the

  • Philippines. He has a visceral dislike of independent journalism

  • and no-one knows that better than my guest today, Maria Ressa, founder of

  • the Rappler online news website. She has just been convicted of

  • cyberlibel in a manila court room, so, is President Rodrigo Duterte's

  • populism strangling press freedom?

  • Maria Ressa in Manila, thank you for joining HARDtalk.Thank you,

  • Stephen.Starting with your personal situation, earlier this month you

  • were convicted on this charge of cyberlibel, as they called it. Has

  • it change things for you?Aside from the emotional rollercoaster and the

  • fact we have crossed yet another divide, I think I'm on the same rate

  • I have been on for the last four years, which is really standing up

  • for my rights both as a Filipino and as a journalist.You are on bail and

  • I think your legal team said there will be an appeal. Do you, in any

  • sense, feel frightened right now? You know, Stephen, I have gone

  • through this. When you have been under attack for four years, as we

  • have been, there have been all the stages, like the stages of grief,

  • right? In 2016, we were pummelled on social media, exponential attacks

  • that are extremely visceral and take you by surprise. The viciousness of

  • it. The same narratives in 2017 come out of government 's mounds,

  • President Rodrigo Duterte himself then began to equate journalists

  • with criminals and then in 2018, 11 cases and investigations, I was in

  • and out talking to officials and 2019, the filing of the cases. I

  • have eight arrest warrants against me file that year. That was only

  • last year! I was arrested twice, detained ones. I feel like Alice in

  • Wonderland and I am down in a rabbit hole, going out and I will walk out!

  • This verdict that happened on cyberlibel, a story we publish

  • before the law we allegedly violated was even in effect! This cements it

  • now, right, that 2016, their journalists are criminals. In 2020

  • after the weaponisation of social media, the weaponisation of the law

  • and now I am convicted. That is the death of a thousand cuts of our

  • democracy.There is no doubt it is not just you that has suffered from

  • repressive tactics coming from government agencies. We can all feed

  • that. But, nonetheless, the notion that all sorts of freedom of

  • expression are now curtailed and eliminated in the Philippines,

  • surely is not right. If one looks at your country today, there is still a

  • multitude of diverse opinion across the spectrum of politics. In

  • different platforms on the media, not least Rappler itself, after all,

  • your website has not been shut down, it continues to this day. It has

  • millions of eyes on every single month. The Philippines is not North

  • Korea, nothing like.Who would want to be North Korea, right? In the

  • end, the Philippines is also living under a climate of fear and

  • violence. In fact, when I last interviewed President Rodrigo

  • Duterte, when he was a ready president, I was one of four

  • journalists each gave an interview to in 2016 and I asked him that

  • specifically, I said "Mr President, now that you are in charge of

  • protecting the Constitution, is it necessary to use violence? "And He

  • said yes, he said it is necessary to use violence and fear. So while you

  • see what looks like a multitude of voices, imagine that those voices

  • also have a sword hanging over their heads. During the pandemic, people

  • based on the post on social media, people were arrested. I think there

  • is a good veneer of legality for all of these but we certainly have felt

  • the walls closing in. In order to be able to publish as Rappler, look at

  • what I have had to go through! I am just a journalist.I understand. My

  • show is called HARDtalk so I have to take seriously the charges against

  • you.Absolutely.You have indicated that liability listed that you still

  • face allegations of four tax evasion, receiving money from the

  • CIA. You could be in court for years and years to come?Well, that's, the

  • only thing I can say is these charges, the eight criminal charges

  • I'm facing fall into three buckets. The first is cyberlibel. The second

  • is securities fraud, and in that we will throw-in for - foreign

  • ownership foreign control, something violating the anti-W law and the 30s

  • tax evasion. Again, just like the first case we were charged with tax

  • evasion about three months after we received an award from the

  • government for being a top corporate taxpayer. Then no more than six

  • months later we were tax evaders, pushed on social media and in

  • addition to that, to make this charge, that actually had to

  • redefine Rappler from a news organisation to a dealer in

  • securities. You know, so, sure, let's do HARDtalk! I feel like, as a

  • reporter, as someone running a news organisation, I give the government

  • and the president the respect that the office demands. I think, you

  • know. But the kinds of death by a thousand cuts that we have had to

  • absorb, just to do our jobs, just to continue doing investigative

  • reporting, I've never lived through anything like this and I've covered

  • South East Asia and the transition from authoritarian 1-man rule to

  • democracy, starting here in the Philippines in 1986!Maria Ressa, do

  • you think the Filipino public care about your fate and those of other

  • journalists in your country because one looks at the president 's

  • approval ratings, they are consistently above 80% approval, the

  • kind of figure that other leaders around the world could only dream

  • about and the Filipino public are well aware of what he is doing to

  • the press.There are two answers to the question. The first one is the

  • kinds of propaganda machine and how it uses technology to essentially

  • use it as a behavioural modification system and I can explain that more

  • later. The propaganda is exponential and it lifts when he President

  • Rodrigo Duterte is the best, the defender of the poor, even though it

  • is the poor and who are dying in the drug war. That is the first step.

  • The age of social media, statistical surveys have not been able to keep

  • up with the shifts. The second one is do people care? Yes. I can see

  • that based on what has happened and I think this in particular in 2023

  • things that happen. We have had a pandemic, the lockdown. We are in

  • our 14th week of a very security driven militaristic lockdown. A

  • lockdown that President Rodrigo Duterte has told Filipinos to

  • stay-at-home Andy told troops that if they come out, if we break

  • quarantining, and this is a direct quote, he said "Shoot them dead".

  • That did happen. Almost 60,000 people have been arrested during

  • this time. And because we're lockdown, I think there have been

  • more introspection. The second is... .I will stop you there if I may

  • because it is fascinating what you're saying but worries or

  • evidence? I look at the latest polling I can find in the

  • Philippines on this company, social weather stations, they are

  • respected, they suggest that the Filipino public as a whole approves

  • still of the campaign by the president of his campaign against

  • illegal drugs and they favour him despite all the controversy about

  • his anti- terror law, which you and others have described as a

  • fundamental threat to freedom of expression.That's the third one,

  • the antihero bill.You have to get really no way. Everything you say

  • about what President Rodrigo Duterte is doing is not deterring a really

  • big majority of Filipinos from giving him their backing.I think

  • you have to look at the surveys and actually talk to the people who do

  • the surveys and the biggest question you have to ask them is how do you

  • count for fear? Before we went to lockdown this was a question I asked

  • all the time because these surveys are done in the homes of people,

  • they have their numbers, they know who they are, they are normally,

  • their names are normally given by the village chiefs, the captains.

  • How do you account for fear? Not saying that President Rodrigo

  • Duterte is not popular because I think this home spun, this kind of,

  • the guy you want to have a beer with, the grandfather you want to

  • have the beer with easy narrative. That is appealing. Having said that,

  • how do you count for fear? Interesting question and I tell you

  • what, that plants in my mind a different idea about fear. Maybe for

  • you, and be honest, a relatively elite personality living in a nice

  • part of Manila with perhaps more security than most Filipinos, it is

  • easy for you to focus on the threats to freedom which you fee and the

  • fear you talk about but what about the other Filipinos his fear is much

  • more street level? More about the insecurity? Your Rappler website has

  • made a point of investigating the drugs war that President Rodrigo

  • Duterte has initiated for the last 3- four years but the drugs war

  • according to most Filipinos have made their streets safer. Yes, they

  • look at the fact that hardly any security personnel have been

  • persecuted - prosecuted for egregious use of violence but they

  • look at the fact that thousands of drug dealers have been taken off the

  • streets, and they like that. I think that is definitely the narrative but

  • if you dig deeper into the surveys, number one, this is based on the UN

  • report, one just released a few weeks ago, you can see that the

  • people who die in the drug war are the poor.And you can see that in

  • those surveys, not just the social weather stations, it is also polls

  • Asia, you can see that President Rodrigo Duterte support among the

  • poorest of the poor has dwindled significantly compared to the AB,

  • the people who are wealthy, he can cut the deals. I always say there

  • are three things that really characterise living under the age of

  • President Rodrigo Duterte. You have to do one of these three things, the

  • three C. Corrupt, coerce or co-opt and it is not the poor or do that I

  • would say that the poor suffer the most. If you look at the brutal drug

  • war, it depends on here talk to, if you talk to the police they will say

  • I well, maybe about 6000- 7000 have died. They admit to that. Then he

  • took to the human rights groups and they say it is tens of thousands our

  • own Filipino commission on human rights places the number at 27,000.

  • That was several months ago. No, I think you have to look much deeper

  • into the numbers, look at which of the demographics and look at who is

  • winning and who is losing.Let me ask you a personal question and be

  • brief if you can.Sure.Has a boss of Rappler, known for its

  • investigations including the drugs war, can you now think very

  • carefully before commissioning any reported that has dug into what has

  • happened into the streets. A man for the journals have been killed this

  • year. More than 100 journalists have been killed in the last couple of

  • decades in the Philippines. It is dangerous being a journalist. Are

  • you now fearful for your own staff? That is a really good question. In a

  • way we have been forged in fire and I think that the biggest lesson we

  • have learnt in the last four years is that when there is a thought

  • hanging over your head, if you let it affect you, then you have lost

  • it. What we have done is we have doubled down on the investigative

  • reporting, we know it's really important. We know we have to do

  • this now. So, I don't actually make out the assignments in Rappler but

  • when I see in our team is this renewed commitment. They are

  • tireless. We have a young team. Rappler is about 100 people, 63%

  • women, the median age is 23 years old. The reported that President

  • Rodrigo Duterte will lead, he basically faced her down, she was

  • like 26 years old! When he did that! So, no, I think that I don't have to

  • encourage Rappler to do investigative reporting. I think

  • they are doing it on their own and all I'm trying to do is keep the sky

  • from falling.

  • Let's talk about international reaction and response to what is

  • going on in the Philippines right now. We have international NGOs like

  • Amnesty international condemning what they call a policy of

  • large-scale murdering, murdering enterprise as they call it the UN

  • human rights office report saying there is near impunity offered to

  • Philippine security personnel, and we also see consistently over the

  • last four years, Donald Trump has referred to President Duterte as his

  • friend, we have seen a very close relationship developing between

  • Duterte and the Chinese government, and we see for example, that the

  • International Criminal Court, which appeared to be ready to investigate

  • what was happening in the Philippines has essentially been

  • neutralised because the Philippines has refused to recognise its

  • legitimacy. The international community frankly, has let you down,

  • hasn't it?I wouldn't say that. What I would say is that the Philippines

  • is punching above its weight in terms of determining the

  • geopolitical power balance. It really is, when President Duterte

  • took office by September, he took office in May 2016, by September

  • 2016 he was in Beijing, and he announced a payment of the

  • Philippines, a key country in the South China Sea, what we call the

  • West Philippines see. He announced that the Philippines would permit

  • away from the United States to China and Russia. He tossed us in. What's

  • interesting is what happened when the United States pushed against

  • what was happening in the drug war. Last December, the US government

  • actually took away the Visa of the man who was carrying out the drug

  • war, the Philippine national police chief. He is now a senator but they

  • took away his Visa under law, and the Philippine government was so

  • upset that they cancelled part of the military bases that has gone for

  • a long time, this is a very strong relationship, in the past, to the

  • visiting forces, the government cancelled it, but here we go again.

  • Just this month, the Philippine government gave notice that they

  • were not going to cancel that and it is back up.My point, you are making

  • my point for me. Whatever the detail of difficulties geostrategic

  • difficulties in relationship between United States and the Philippines,

  • in the end, there seems to be a brotherhood feeling between Donald

  • Trump and Rodrigo Duterte you could argue they are populists of a

  • similar style. They have contempt for much of the media which we have

  • discussed, they both seem to see journalists as enemies of the

  • people, and they both, true to say, have found a way of communicating

  • through social media, through using Twitter and Facebook platforms in a

  • way that politically is extraordinarily successful.I would

  • agree with you, anything part of what is important, but let me first

  • answer that question you asked. Did it lead us down? No, absolutely not.

  • Understand the geopolitical power play at work here but it is very

  • similar to what is happening in many democracies around the world,

  • including in the UK. This is the role of technology. Facebook is

  • being in the Philippines, we spend the most time on the Internet, and

  • on social media globally, and I think it is the fifth year running.

  • We are social. What has happened is this kind of Astroturf ring of

  • manufactured consensus, the manipulation of the public as mass

  • scale, using Facebook, it has happened here in the Philippines.

  • Asked about the popularity of President Duterte, that is bubbly

  • going by a propaganda machine that we got clobbered for exposing in

  • 2016.Maria, I would have to enter up because that is so what you are

  • suggesting is that democracy doesn't work anymore. If you are talking

  • about manipulating public opinions, then you are undermining and

  • delegitimising the notion that everyone has a right to choose a

  • government. If you say their opinions are fake or false, whereas

  • democracy?That's exactly what I am saying. Democracy is essentially

  • dead and part of what Gilded is a media platforms that are becoming

  • behavioural modification systems are. If you look at what has

  • happened all around the world, starting 2017, studies have shown

  • that cheap armies on social media are cutting down democracy, rolling

  • it back. In 2017 it was in 27 countries, in 2018, double, 2019 it

  • was up 70 countries, and these are different research studies.This is