"Democracy is Like the Frog in Boiling Water" and Other Things We Learned from Maria Ressa's AMA

IMAGE Fruhlein Econar

Maria Ressa is a career journalist whose long résumé includes leadership positions at CNN and ABS-CBN and, of course, at Rappler. The six-year old online news outfit has itself been the subject of news lately, when the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked the company's registration—sparking charges that the government had Rappler in its crosshairs. 

The case has drawn international attention; here, Ressa and Rappler have also managed to attract support from different sectors who condemned the ruling as an attack on press freedom. The public remains divided on the issue, so Ressa took to Reddit on January 25 to answer questions. 

IMAGE Fruhlein Echonar


Q: Can you share your most memorable experience from your CNN days and would you consider going back?youtwoo

MARIA RESSA: Warzones teach you clarity of thought - of the story, of your safety. You see the best and the worst of human nature. I loved India, Pakistan, East Timor, of course, Indonesia and Southeast Asia ... I learned so much, but more than anything, I learned to control myself, to live according to my values, even when the rules disappear. I loved interviews with world leaders who taught me how to think about problems and how their decisions rippled through society ... Lee Kuan Yew, Bill Clinton, Benazir Bhutto ... so many more. My life as a reporter, I know, is behind me. My goal is to help build the news organization of the future today, to help young journalists find the path the way my mentors helped me.


Q: Now that Rappler's survival hangs in the balance—in [this] case [if] the ultimate apellate body, [the] Supreme Court, sides with SEC's decision—what should we expect next then? AnonPrince

MRessa: I don't really know. I know that we at Rappler will fight to keep bringing you the news—unfiltered, the truth as we see it...now what this means? Well, as SEC said, we could just set up another company. The point is, why should we have to set up another company? It's harassment and takes our time away from the work we do.

Q: Do you read the comment sections of Rappler's Facebook page yourself? If so, how do you react to both good and vitriolic feedback? —Jolly_McFries

MRessa: A lot of us read the comments, but starting 2016, we saw a subliminal reaction to anger and hate speech ... lack of rational arguments ...replaced by visceral attacks. At some point, we began to treat much of it as data points, gather them so we can begin to understand exactly what's going on. That's why we had the data for our propaganda series—which after more than a year is now big data.

Q: How do you think we should handle [the] fake news issue? And have you been receiving death threats by being critical of the current admin?RileyReidApologist

MRessa: I've written a lot about this. I think it's a very old playbook: Russian disinformation was turned against its own citizens, and we've now seen a resurgence of the strategy globally. If you look at freedomhouse.org, their November study showed that in 30 of 65 countries, democracy was rolled back because of cheap armies on social media. This combination of hate directed at the fracture lines of society is a scorched earth policy. The fact that it's happening in my country makes me extremely worried about our next generation. Yes on the death threats...hoping FB draws the line between free speech and inciting to hate and violence.

watch now

Q: How similar/different is the current media environment to/from the days before Marcos declared Martial Law or those in other countries before authoritarian regimes took hold? —kwaichangcame

MRessa: Our democracy is like the frog in boiling water. You know that one? You take a frog, put it in lukewarm water, and slowly turn the heat up. It gets so used to the temperature, that it stays in the water until it's boiled alive.

But you take boiling water and drop the frog in it, it would automatically jump out.

We need to be aware and protective of our democracy. What's happening to me and to Rappler today is a cautionary tale.

Q: What were the early days of Rappler like? Did you hire journalists from the very first day of your official launch and how do you or your team qualify the articles being published in terms of factual information vs rumor? p3ppa

MRessa: The early days of Rappler were humbling. We had to throw away everything we thought we knew and learn to create something together. Yes, we hired journalists because our vision was to create the news organization of tomorrow today. We wanted to make facts interesting, to tell stories that mattered and touched your heart.

Q: Barring slanderous or fake material, where do you think should the press draw the line on "press freedom", keeping in mind the significant power it holds as a member of the fourth estate?Vanillamancer

MRessa: It was simpler before technology took off: as a reporter, I worked with hundreds of classified documents, but I knew the public's right to know stopped when it clashed with national security issues. In many countries around the world, my sources would explain why, and we would be circumspect in our reporting until events played out,. What I hated though is when officials use national security as an excuse to circumvent transparency and accountability.


Q: In Feb2017, Thinking Pinoy showed that Rappler wasnt registered as a Media company. A week after that, Rappler replied that this was a mistake from SEC and Rappler, and will be corrected. Yet on Page 15 of the SEC descision, from your "verified explanation" filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on August 29, 2017, As a tactic to defend itself, Rappler Inc. claimed that they are “not engaged in mass media.” Could you explain that?bebangs

MRessa: We said we weren't traditional mass media. Also the implementing law defines mass media as print or broadcast. We're neither and both ... much more because of technology.

For more info, here are FAQs about the case: https://www.rappler.com/about-rappler/about-us/194165-frequently-asked-questions-rappler-sec-case.

Q: So, is Rappler operating based on a legal loophole? A grey area on the definition of mass media?mapads2k3

MRessa: Nope, Rappler is a 21st century news group, and our laws have to catch up with the age of technology platforms and data driven insights. All news groups are doing this now, but some have broadcast and print arms.

Q: In your three decades of working as a journalist, what's the most disturbing story that you've covered so far? monne123

MRessa: The beheadings in Kalimantan...I had a fever when I landed, and the first thing I ran into was an old man eating a drumstick, except it was a human limb. I remember walking by a field of boys playing soccer, but their ball was the head of an old man.

Q: I asked this question before in Mr. Chito Gascon's AMA and I'm curious, how do you really feel about the Philippines, its government and all the other goings-on in our country?Aeronautique_F

MRessa: Rule of Law. That's it. Everything goes back to that.

Q: You have a long history as a journalist, even covering terrorist networks and the like. In your career, what has been your most challenging story to cover?daleygaga

MRessa: Stories about ourselves—whether I was with CNN or ABS-CBN or Rappler. Hardest? Times of transition...and...now.

The full text of the AMA can be found on Reddit r/Philippines.

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