Maria Ressa continues her fight for the truth amidst ongoing legal battles and the devastating effects of a global pandemic.
The mere thought of the two-hour time frame was enough to send jitters down my spine, but I accepted the challenge regardless and rounded a trusted team to share in the struggle. The task of securing a few moments with Maria Ressa was, in itself, gargantuan already. Rappler’s co-founder and Chief Executive Officer has quite the hectic schedule. Having made headlines here and abroad, talks and interviews, on top of work, had been keeping her busy—not to mention the grueling legal battles she is currently facing. And with the constant flux of changes in her demanding itinerary, we were lucky enough to have been squeezed in to have her photos taken and for me to conduct the interview.
The idea of conversing with one of the country’s foremost stalwarts in the fight for truth and defending the free press was a week’s worth of anxiety. And I took it upon myself to write lengthy, seemingly profound questions—with a fraction of the effort devoted to impressing a person I admire superlatively. I found the one-hour conversation unexpectedly carefree and free-flowing, even if grappling with my intense nerves. Maria could talk for hours—just as impassioned by purpose and driven by mission as many perceive her to be. It was infectious. I threw my notes after the first question for the flow of my inquisition. Amidst caffeinated laughter and the struggle to hold back tears, plunging into her verbal rhythm and stream of thought, was incredibly enlightening and immensely uplifting.
The School of True Grit
Maria laughs when I ask her about the laudable spirit of fearlessness ingrained in her and Rappler’s identities. “I don’t think we’re doing anything other than our jobs,” she says, looking back. “It’s more challenging. It’s certainly more dangerous in the sense that—my gosh, in order to do what I did—to be a journalist, you can go to jail now.” Next year, Maria will be celebrating the 35th anniversary of her remarkable career in journalism. Her stellar resume includes nearly two decades as CNN’s lead investigative reporter in Southeast Asia, a couple of books documenting the rise of terrorism in the region, the establishment of online news site Rappler, and her inclusion in Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2018, among many other worthy achievements. And as the Philippines hasn’t exactly been known as a safe haven for journalists, Rappler paid the price with the ire of many of the country’s prominent political figures.
Branding Iron Will
A few months ago, I watched A Thousand Cuts, which documents the labyrinthian flow of information across the country—how the last election’s winners sang their way to victory and how the noble aspirations of a less popular candidate fell on deaf ears. Of course, Maria’s story is at the core of the film, the proof of the story’s gravitas. We watched as a warrant of arrest greeted her on her return to the country. We listened as several members of the team expressed their fears and continued support for the cause. In the end, each cut was felt profusely—you don’t leave your seat without bleeding from the cruel injustice of it all.
“Whenever we started to get tired—the older folks, our younger folks just are inspiring. I remember when I was in my 20s I didn’t sleep four days of the week when I was doing Probe. Well that’s where they are. And the excitement and watching them take it apart. Watching Pia stand up to President Duterte. It’s almost like we, then, gained courage from each other. Because the older folks knew what we needed to do. The younger folks knew the mission,” Maria explains. The symbiotic relationship proved to be an effective panacea from the succession of blows that have been coming.
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Dauntless in Darkness
As the face of Rappler, Maria was thrust to an inevitable position of bearing all the troubles of the social news network. It is a role she is well-aware
of—cognizant of their purpose, “I knew my job was to kind of hold up the sky so that the team can keep doing their jobs. And our team is incredible. I guess what we know in Rappler is we have to keep making sense of the world. We have to hold power to account. I think the mission of journalism has never been as important. And I think all of us, including Lifestyle Asia, even if you don’t do news—storytelling, narratives. This is the time when we have to tell the narratives that matter because it’s a battle of narratives.” As the plot continues to thicken, underneath this optimistic caution, Rappler continues to unmask the pundits behind this salacious saga.
The Courage to Ask Questions
“For Filipinos, I think there are a lot of people who believe in the same values, but they’re scared. And it’s okay to be scared. But we gain protection and power together. That is what civic engagement is. That is what democracy is. So what do we do? You realize that what you do matters. If you are Filipino and you care about the constitution, you care about the future. You’re going to reclaim your rights,” Maria says. More than a year ago, she was arrested a few days before Valentine’s Day and was kept by the police overnight. “I realized that they unshackled me because they violated my rights. And because they violated my rights, I won’t stop talking. I’m a journalist, and I feel like that’s my task. My job is to make sure we hold power to account and that you have the facts to make a decision.”
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Embracing Your Fear
Maria tells me the story of how she once conquered her fears as a young immigrant. “My family moved to the US when I was 10 years old. And I walked into this class and I was the shortest kid. I was the only brown kid. Tagalog was actually the language we use, so I couldn’t speak English all that well. And I realized, I was intimidated. These people were so tall, and they were aggressive, and they spoke their minds.” Instead of backing out from the challenge, Maria stepped up and honed her speech. “I was afraid of English, so I learned English really well. I was afraid of public speaking, so I learned to speak. And in a strange way, CNN helped me in that.”
“I’ve known that from when I was young that we are our own worst enemies. Every battle begins in your mind. So embrace your fear,” Maria advises. Looking back, valuable lessons were learned along the way, and the two decades of training she received from working with CNN helped her gain the confidence in front of the camera and the wit to pack a tremendous amount of information in two minutes of footage. “CNN live shots were great training. I guess because I value clarity of thought. I know that when something bad happens when there’s some big disturbance, our first initial reactions as people is to let our emotions go. I was in charge of a team, it’s a team that we did conflict, and conflict coverage throughout Southeast Asia. And if I lost my mind, I couldn’t make the right decision for my team and that could be life or death. We were caught in different instances in Kashmir in Pakistan, in East Timor in Indonesia, right. So, clarity of thought, I guess I struggle from that all the time.”
Read the full story written by Pipo Gonzales in Lifestyle Asia’s September 2020 Edition titled, “Have Courage.”
Photos TOM EPPERSON
Art Director MARC PAGDILAO
Stylist GEE JOCSON
Hair and Makeup RIA AQUINO
Assistant Photographer JAN NORMAN RAY MENDOZA
Sittings Editor DONG RONQUILLO
Special Thanks to CECILLE SANTOS, AIE BALAGTAS SE, and RAPPLER TEAM