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IDA Truth to Power Award: A Conversation with Rappler Reporters

By Sky Sitney

The Rappler team. Courtesy of Rappler

Maria Ressa is an institution unto herself. She has long been a household name in her native Philippines, with nearly two decades serving as CNN’s bureau chief—first in Manila (1987-1995), then Jakarta (1995-2005)—followed by six years at the helm of ABS-CBN, the largest multi-platform news operation in the region. Yet it was with Rappler, the Manila-based social news network that she co-founded in 2011 and for which she serves as CEO and Executive Editor, that she received global recognition.

Ressa became internationally known and heralded for her refusal to back down as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte escalated his attacks on the press, and on Rappler in particular. Soon after Duterte took office in 2016, Rappler stood out as a fierce and undeterred critic of his administration, calling attention in fearless reporting to his brutal war on drugs, crackdown on the press, and sweeping use of disinformation. In turn, Ressa and her colleagues have endured near-constant attacks by Duterte’s administration and pro-Duterte trolls, and have been the recipients of a slew of lawsuits, most notably an arrest and subsequent conviction aimed at Ressa herself on charges of cyber libel, where she now faces up to six years in prison. Ressa’s conviction is seen by many in the international media as a politically motivated act by Duterte's government, to silence his critics. However, silenced she will not be. Ressa, and by extension Rappler, have only been roused to speak more openly against the "weaponization" of Philippine law against journalists and critics of the administration, and have emboldened others to do the same.

Maria Ressa and Rappler are the recipients of IDA’s Truth to Power Award this year, and the subject of Ramona Diaz’s new film, A Thousand Cuts, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is being broadcast on PBS’ FRONTLINE. To better understand the culture at Rappler, Documentary spoke with long-time Rappler reporters Camille Elemia (who covers media, disinformation and democracy), Lian Buan (who covers justice and corruption), and Rambo Talabong (who covers the police, the war on drugs, and local governments), all of whom appear in A Thousand Cuts and work closely with Ressa. They spoke about how the reporters at Rappler proceed each day under constant threat, how journalism has evolved in the Philippines under the Duterte regime, what it is like to go from reporting the news to becoming part of a news story, as well as what it was like to participate as subjects in Diaz’s film, among other things.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DOCUMENTARY: Maria Ressa and the Rappler team are being recognized by the IDA with the Truth to Power Award. Can you tell us about Rappler and share how you came to work there?

CAMILLE ELEMIA: Rappler is an online news network established in 2011. It was first called MovePH and began as a social, community organization. I clearly remember when it launched because I was a TV reporter at another station, and we were seeing all these young reporters pioneering the use of mobile phones and breaking investigative stories that created real impact. Fast-forward three years, and I joined Rappler myself.

LIAN BUAN: Like Camille, I was working as a producer for a television network back in 2011. When Rappler launched it had the impact of, Who is this new kid on the block? We all knew Maria Ressa, of course. If you're a journalist in the Philippines, you know Maria because she headed the news division of ABS-CBN. But all the reporters were new. At first we wondered how this might change competition. We worried that the new reporters might out-scoop us. But then I was personally drawn to Rappler because they were fearless. Their headlines and their angles were what you would normally only talk about in candid conversation, but be scared to put out.

RAMBO TALABONG: I was not completely interested in journalism when I started college. I wanted to be a filmmaker or a lawyer. But then I got into a news-writing class and the teacher, Chay Hofileña, was Rappler’s investigative head and managing editor. She taught journalism as the most socially aware branch of communication, and I was really enticed by that. While a student I got an internship with Rappler, and a week before graduation I was offered a job there.

D: The Truth to Power Award recognizes an “individual or institution that has shown conspicuous fortitude, tenacity and resoluteness in holding those in power to account.” How have you directly observed these qualities with Maria and in the work culture of Rappler?

CE: I've seen Rappler before Duterte, during Duterte, and hopefully after Duterte. Courage has always been in Rappler’s DNA. I wondered when I began working there, Can I be as courageous as these people? Imagine all the assets of the government being used against you all the time, and the effort of the president being exerted on you. But the culture at Rappler pushes you to be the best version of yourself. It sounds cliché, but it pushes you to be the best journalist, and the best person. And here we are, not merely existing or surviving, but thriving.

LB: One day in January 2018 we were told—at least the reporters were told—that the Securities and Exchange Commission had revoked our license. I later discovered that our bosses had been notified that there was an investigation into Rappler months before that, and they had known that the solicitor general was behind it. I cover the solicitor general, and I’d been tough on him in my coverage. The moment I realized that he was behind our closure, the more I appreciated how my managers insulated me. I think that had I been in a different organization, I would’ve been pulled into the loop much earlier with a warning to go easy. But I was never pulled into any meeting. I was never told to be more circumspect. I was simply allowed to do my job, and if anything, I was encouraged to be more probing.

RT: I truly believe that each day represents a moment of courage for reporters—just showing up, just asking the right questions. I can't emphasize enough how hostile this government is. An important moment for me was when our reporter Pia Ranada, who covers the Office of the President, was banned from Malacañang [the official residence and principal workplace of the Duterte]. Imagine a reporter being banned from physically covering the president and top cabinet officials. Yet, she managed for years, even until now, to out-scoop other palace reporters. She found a way to speak with government officials, and to ask the right questions. I think the choice to just show up, and to say, “I have to do this because that’s what the people deserve,” takes courage.

D: In 2019, Maria was arrested and subsequently found guilty for "cyber libel.” Her arrest was seen by many to be a politically motivated act by Duterte's government. How have you and your colleagues endured these near-constant attacks and slew of lawsuits, and how does it feel to go from covering the news to being a part of the news?

CE: I think the way Maria is handling it, and all the recognition and awards she’s received, has worked for Rappler in the sense that we are now more globally known. But more, it gives us reporters—the frontliners who keep on chasing stories—the added boost of confidence and strength to continue our work despite all the attacks. Some of the attacks we don't even see, but still, we know they're there. Because we see Maria and our editors marching on, we do the same.

LB: Ever since Maria, or Rappler, has been faced with complaints and charges, I’ve had requests for interviews from college journalism students. Their topic is always, What are the ethical and journalistic dilemmas of covering yourself? I cover the justice department and the courts, which are prosecuting and trying Maria. I have never been pulled into a conversation at Rappler where they're trying to influence my coverage, whether in favor of Maria, or in favor of the courts to try and ease the pressure. I’ve had to develop some new habits. In the past I’d not been particular about wearing my Rappler ID, but now I make sure my ID is visible to everyone. In press conferences, I always introduce myself, again and again and again, and I always try to let others go first. I ask my question only when everybody is done asking theirs. I'm trying to cover this as objectively as possible. The readers can judge if I’ve been fair.

D: In the United States under the Trump Administration, there have been near-daily assaults on the institution of journalism, calling unfavorable reporting “fake news” and even calling journalists “the enemy of the people.” Have you noticed a shift in attitudes amongst journalists during the Duterte regime and his assault on journalism?

LB: It’s been fascinating to watch the evolution of values and attitudes amongst Filipino journalists. The pandemic has exposed not only the incompetence, but the brutality of the government. The president has waged a war on journalists and painted them as terrorists. This has turned a lot of Filipino journalists—even the most traditional—into activists. Three, maybe four years ago, when Rappler was this new kid on the block and challenging a lot of things about journalism, people would raise their brow when they looked at our reporting. It would make people uncomfortable, or make people flinch. But now we’re all here, almost on the same page. It’s been fascinating to watch.

RT: We were critical in our stories before, but then we would be silent; we’d let the stories speak for themselves. When there was a case against Rappler, for example, or a big corruption case, or a case in the drug war, we usually didn’t say anything. But now we’re more active when it comes to organizing. We have petitions fighting for Rappler. Just today we are circulating a petition to release a journalist who was arrested last week. This culture of activism doesn’t exist in a vacuum. We have inherited it from our bosses and older journalists who fought against Marcos, many of whom were killed or disappeared. I’m not suggesting that we are as courageous as them. We just want to continue fighting for what's right.

CE: When I spent a year in the United States, I noticed a different mindset when it comes to journalism, with regard to things like objectivity and fairness. I came to realize that we have a different set of contexts. In the US, even under President Trump you can still rely on institutions. Somehow the norms and traditions of political relations, or relationships between offices, are still there. But in the Philippines, where personality politics is king, we really don’t have that; we cannot rely on our institutions. So, now when human rights are violated, we have no choice but to fight for ourselves. Another point I'd like to make is about objectivity. Yes, objectivity is good, of course. In journalism that’s what we are taught. But, in this context I would like to believe that truth itself is objective. You cannot juxtapose truth with falsehoods. Are we expected to give false objectivity equal space in our articles, give false objectivity equal airtime? No. Your bias should be toward the truth. And for me, that’s a concept that I appreciate all the more now, because in the Philippines where we have weak institutions, where we are the targets of disinformation networks and attacks, when all these crazy things are happening, we just know our north star, and that’s to report on the truth.

D: You’ve all had the opportunity to work directly with Maria. Any personal stories that you wish to share?

LB: There is a picture of Maria that is embedded in my head. As the verdict in the cyber-libel case was being read, she was scribbling away like a crazy woman in her notebook. And I thought, Your verdict is being read; stop being a journalist! But she doesn’t stop. Journalism is just second nature to her. While covering the trial, Maria was painted as the one who masterminded the libelous article. We always have to explain to people that she didn’t write the article, and in fact she didn’t even edit it. Maria is one of the best journalists in Asia, and in the world for that matter, but when she took over Rappler she assumed the CEO position. She leads and guides the organization, while the editorial direction and day-to-day editing of stories are handled by the likes of Glenda Gloria and Chay Hofileña. All this is to say that if they want to accuse Rappler of bias or misreporting, the fault does not lie with Maria. Yet, when I think of where Rappler has allowed all us young journalists to go, and where Rappler has allowed Philippine journalism to go, I think of Maria, because she is the leader and she leads by example. She does not dip her fingers or toes into our stories, but when it comes to the big fights she stands up for us; she is there on the frontline.

RT: Maria’s sheer presence gives us energy, hope and courage. People have been filing libel cases at Rappler reporters, and all the time she is a co-accused because she is our executive editor. And she never misses a hearing; in fact, she is usually the first to arrive. I have been accused of libel twice in the past two years, and she was always there at my case. She never made me feel that I was a hassle to her. She never made me feel like the fight for me was any less important than the fight for herself. She always shows up and gives 100 percent.

CE: Last year I stayed in the US for 11 months. I think during my stay, I saw Maria five times in four different states. That’s how active she is. I realized then, My gosh, I have no right to get tired. One time in New York we had to stay together—I think it was the United Nations General Assembly so all the hotels were booked—so she and I stayed in the same hotel room. We had a dinner with some international lawyers, and then another meeting, and then after that we attended an awards ceremony, and in the morning, more of the same. And it’s like, Maria, when do you get tired? She’s the Energizer Bunny. I think that really works for Rappler, because she’s tireless in fighting for the truth, and look where it got us.

D: Ramona Diaz has received much-deserved recognition for her film A Thousand Cuts, which follows Maria and Rappler as both become targets of Duterte’s crackdown on the news media. What was it like for you to participate as subjects of the film, particularly as journalists who are used to telling your own stories?

RT: It was astounding being in front of the camera—not as a journalist trying to get information, but as a subject. I really appreciated the documentary process—how much importance is given to telling stories in a slow burn. At Rappler we break stories every day—five stories, seven stories, 500 words, we send them out, one after the other. While our process may be different, we are essentially doing the same thing as documentary. We’re here to portray the truth. The film gave me an appreciation for how important it is to pursue storytelling, even in journalism. And it was a complete process of trust. I appreciated how Ramona didn’t break my trust when it came to airing what I didn’t want, or what I thought was too private. I also appreciated how professional Ramona was when we were faced with the police. There was a moment when we were filming in one of the hotspots of the drug war. We went there near midnight—me, Ramona, and I think Gabe [Goodenough], one of her cameramen. Gabe is white, Caucasian. And the thing about the police in this area is that they are instantly on red alert when they see a foreigner, because they believe they're out here to reveal something. So, they immediately dragged me to the police station, questioning me as to why is there a foreigner with me, and Ramona was brave to come with me. She explained to the police chief that she was making a documentary, that they're not out there to probe them, just to speak with them, to get to the truth. This gave me an appreciation for how documentary filmmakers are also on the frontlines when it comes to telling their stories.

CE: The first time I watched the film was at Sundance with Rambo and the rest of the cast. It felt really weird to relive all the hardships that our organization went through. When it comes to documentary versus journalism, I'm really not a fan of making distinctions; I feel like both are held accountable to the same standards because they're both after the truth. Our methods may be different, like with documentary it’s longer and it may take more time to digest everything, as compared to journalism, where we have daily deadlines, hourly deadlines sometimes. So, that’s one difference, but we’re still all after the truth.

LB: As for me, while I didn’t have the same experience as Rambo, of being followed by the crew, there was a point in my life where it was almost automatic to see Ramona, or Gabe, or the foreign film crew. So much so that at times I didn’t even notice them. When I saw the documentary there were scenes where I hadn’t even realized that I was being filmed. I guess that speaks to how well they were able to embed themselves; they almost felt like beat-mates, or my colleagues following the same stories. I remember at one of the first Philippine screenings, Ramona was asked a question. I don't remember the question, but I remember the answer. Ramona said that when you write a journalistic piece you’re always expected to give an answer to a question. Whereas, when you make a documentary it’s acceptable that your piece is still a question, and in fact, that it often raises even more questions. I really like that sentiment because, while it’s true, in journalism when you write an article you're expected to give an answer. But in reality, when you give an answer today, your answer gives rise to a question tomorrow. And I think that’s a common thread between journalism and documentary. We are both giving rise to more questions.


Sky Sitney is co-creator of Double Exposure, a film festival and symposium that explores the intersection of investigative journalism and documentary.