Once, when the Filipino American journalist Maria Ressa was reporting for the CNN bureau in Manila, a local customs officer asked her for a bribe to release a shipment of videotapes. She refused to pay, and consequently the tapes remained stuck in customs for more than a year.
After a while, Ressa realized that the delay was bogging her down at work. “I still refused to pay,” Ressa writes in her memoir, How to Stand Up to a Dictator. “I’m stubborn that way. I didn’t want to turn a blind eye; it came down to principle, didn’t it?”
The tapes were eventually released, with some help from a popular colleague, but the stubbornness would stand Ressa in good stead. In a career spanning nearly four decades she has reported through riots, natural disasters, and immense social upheavals all over Southeast Asia.
Her apprentice years in the Philippines were marked by successive military coup attempts against then president Cory Aquino, some of them bloody. She was in Jakarta when the Indonesian dictator General Suharto was forced to step down after 32 years, triggering a fresh spell of the mass violence that had characterized his regime.
In the aftermath of 9/11, Ressa was back in the Philippines, tracking down the networks al-Qaeda had developed in the region.
In 2012, after a few years at the helm of the largest news company in the Philippines, Ressa started a news Web site, Rappler, with three other founders, all of them Filipino women. Rappler’s biggest test would come in 2016 when the notoriously foulmouthed Rodrigo Duterte came to power and promptly declared a vicious “drug war” in impoverished urban neighborhoods, while his supporters unleashed a torrent of online disinformation and abuse against the press and his opponents.
Since 2018, multiple arrest warrants have been issued against Ressa in a bid to harass and silence Rappler; if convicted on all counts, she faces a cumulative jail sentence of up to 100 years.
When Ressa and the Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year, the Swedish body lauded their courage at a time when “democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.”
Ressa’s childhood unfolded against the backdrop of a similarly adverse period for her home country. Her father died in a car accident when she was a year old, and, four years later, her mother moved to New York, while Ressa and her sister stayed with her grandparents in Manila.
In How to Stand Up to a Dictator, Ressa recounts attending a Catholic girls-only school where she was quickly placed in an advanced class because of her superior test scores. Around the time she moved with her mother and stepfather to New Jersey, Ferdinand Marcos declared martial law in the Philippines after two elected terms as president. He stayed in power for 14 more years, and Ressa spent that period almost exclusively “in my new reality in the United States.”
She was always a straight-A student, a bookish teenager who loved Star Trek and learned to play basketball by looking up an instruction manual in the middle of the court. She went to Princeton and received a Fulbright scholarship to study political theater in the Philippines.
By the time she started freelancing for CNN in her mid-20s, she had already directed and produced a couple of daily news shows in Manila. “That was what I used my Fulbright for: real-life theater.”
Much like a battle-weary correspondent, Ressa can trade anecdotes at will. There was the weekend in Borneo when she stumbled into a group of boys playing soccer and realized they were passing a severed human head around. Then there was the night she stepped into a corpse during a flash flood somewhere in the Philippines.
During her early days at CNN, a boss advised Ressa to drink brandy to modulate her voice. “The first few times I think I got drunk,” she writes, “before I even finished my on-camera report.”
But the most persuasive chapters in her memoir track Facebook’s role in fueling distrust and anger globally online. In the Philippines, “disinformation became big business,” she writes, once local politicians began outsourcing their social-media accounts to unscrupulous content farms. By 2019, Filipinos led the world in online fraud.
While Duterte went about jailing opposition leaders, changing the country’s constitution, enticing the army and the police with lucrative perks, and polarizing the electorate with incendiary speeches from time to time, his propaganda machinery consistently pushed inflammatory posts and fake news that drove traffic on Facebook, and the company’s executives reportedly just stood by.
Ressa once flew to Facebook’s Singapore office to demonstrate how a handful of fake Filipino accounts were able to disseminate rumors and conspiracy theories to millions of newsfeeds, but “even when confronted with the data and the facts, its executives didn’t entirely grasp what was happening on their platform.”
In another meeting, Ressa apparently invited Mark Zuckerberg to visit the Philippines and see for himself how social media had utterly transformed the country’s relationship with facts and distorted the language of public discourse.
“Ninety-seven percent of Filipinos on the Internet are on Facebook, Mark!” she told him.
“Wait, Maria,” Zuckerberg replied. “Where are the other three percent?”
Abhrajyoti Chakraborty is a New Delhi–based writer and critic