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Filipino online news site Rappler plans to fight government's shutdown order

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Last week in the Philippines, the government again ordered the shutdown of the online news outlet Rappler. This order came just days before former President Rodrigo Duterte left office. His government argued that Rappler had violated foreign ownership rules. Duterte had long sought to shut down Rappler. The publication was critical of the former president's violent war on drugs. Rappler's founder, Nobel Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa, plans to battle that shutdown order in court. Maria Ressa joins us now from Manila. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

MARIA RESSA: Thanks for having me, Juana.

SUMMERS: Just to start, right now, is Rappler currently up and running?

RESSA: Absolutely. It's - our only defense as a journalist is to actually shine the light. So when you get, like, what is equivalent of a shutdown order, do you stay quiet about it and wait, or do you tell people about it, you tell your community about it? We chose to tell our community, and we are working business as usual. We covered the inauguration of President Marcos, and we continue to do our jobs.

SUMMERS: This shutdown order came just as Rodrigo Duterte was set to leave office. So as you understand it, what are the implications of this order for you all to shut down?

RESSA: It ostensibly is the end of a long court process that began in 2016. We received the SEC, which is a minor regulatory agency here, to revoke our license to operate in January of 2018. This is the tail end of that, and we should have the ability to challenge it at the court of appeals, to appeal this, right? But you have to keep in mind two things. The SEC's kill order, when they tried to revoke our license to operate, is the first of its kind in the history of the Philippines. It is the first time that this regulatory agency has tried to shut down a news group, meaning to go right up against freedom of the press, which is in the bill of rights. Our constitution is patterned after the United States.

SUMMERS: You've said that this kill order is the first of its kind in the history of the country. Why do you believe that the government in the Philippines, that Duterte has targeted you, has targeted Rappler?

RESSA: We weren't the only ones. I mean, the first target of President Duterte was the largest newspaper. This was in his first state of the nation address because the newspaper published a photo that showed the impunity in the war on drugs. The second target was the largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN news group I used to lead. That has resulted in the end - you know, the franchise of ABS-CBN was essentially taken away in 2020. And we were the third target in his third state of the nation address. I think we've survived because we have pushed back aggressively. We haven't stayed quiet. We have done our jobs and continue to do our jobs, pretending - you know, there is a Damocles sword hanging over our heads. But what we do is, we use that as motivation to do our jobs better.

SUMMERS: We'd like to learn a little bit more about Rappler and about the work that you do. About how big is the staff?

RESSA: You're talking about 100, 120 people total. So we're - I would call us a medium-sized newsgroup. In terms of reach, Rappler is fourth in reach online, behind just the top television station and the top newspaper.

SUMMERS: And I want to ask you about the people who power that coverage. How is your staff doing in the midst of all of this?

RESSA: You know, it's like - we're living life like it's breaking news. We've been very - we've been forced to be very agile because think about it like this, right? We now have a kill order, right? We've been told we have a shutdown order. So even as we're operating and the team is in high spirits because we prepared for this moment, we know that we could - we have two paths. We could get shut down tomorrow, or we could hire more people tomorrow. It's a little bit surreal, but this is the kind of world we live in. You cannot voluntarily give up your rights.

SUMMERS: Maria, who do you think is hurt most in a world in which Rappler could well be forced to shut down, to stop publishing at some point?

RESSA: You know, we're seeing, really, a global downturn in terms of democratic freedoms and rights and who would be hurt the most. I mean, what we've seen in that - and you've heard me blame technology as really the spark, that really dry kindling. Technology, social media took lives and spread it faster and further than facts. When you don't know what the facts are, you can't have truth. Without truth, you can't have trust. If you don't have these three, you don't have a shared reality. You can't solve any problems. And we have seen in the last six years of the Duterte administration, really, death by a thousand cuts of our democracy and our institutions.

Here's the part that is - I feel is dangerous, not just for the Philippines, but for the world. If we don't have facts, if you don't have integrity of facts, how will you have integrity of elections? The U.S. this year, in November will have its midterm elections. If you are insidiously manipulated on social media, how will you know whether you will have integrity of the vote? When these types of illiberal leaders are democratically elected, they then cave the institutions of democracy from within. We are seeing this in many countries around the world, including the United States.

SUMMERS: Yeah. What would you say to fellow journalists in places like Hungary, Russia, Turkey, Uganda and elsewhere, where news outlets are facing oppressive tactics and threats of violence simply for doing their jobs, for covering the news?

RESSA: I was actually with many of them just a few weeks ago in Bonn and, you know, Russia, for example - the Russian journalists who were just pushed into exile, what they said is that this is what it looks like when you lose. They compared themselves to, like, the frog in boiling water. They didn't realize that it would crumble so fast. The Ukrainian journalists actually gave us the most hope because it was very clear. When you're at war, news is survival. And, you know, she talked about how the journalists all worked together. They went into the same bomb shelters. People needed to know where they could get gasoline, where they could get water, right? That's a different one.

But then the rest of us in Hungary, Brazil, Turkey, in the Philippines, in India, we're all in the same boat having to hold the line. We continue to do our jobs, and yet the very same platforms that distribute the news have become this weapon of authoritarian leaders that are not just pushing back, pushing back against journalists trying to hold them to account, but are literally - I mean, we are closer to fascism, and I don't use that word lightly.

SUMMERS: Maria Ressa, founder and CEO of Rappler, speaking to us from Manila, thank you for your time.

RESSA: Thank you. And good luck to all of us.

(SOUNDBITE OF BADBADNOTGOOD AND GHOSTFACE KILLAH SONG, "FOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: July 8, 2022 at 12:00 AM EDT
A previous version of the headline misspelled the Rappler digital media company's name as Rapper.
Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Michael Levitt
Michael Levitt is a news assistant for All Things Considered who is based in Atlanta, Georgia. He graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in Political Science. Before coming to NPR, Levitt worked in the solar energy industry and for the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington, D.C. He has also travelled extensively in the Middle East and speaks Arabic.
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.