LOS ANGELES – Maria Ressa says she didn’t take Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte seriously when he declared four years ago that “corrupt” journalists weren’t “exempted from assassination.”
“In 2016, it was really, really laughable. And I thought, ‘Oh, doesn’t matter.’ I laughed,” said the country’s most well-known journalist and leader of the independent Rappler news organization.
Grim reality set in as Ressa was arrested and thrown in jail, targeted in a series of criminal cases and convicted this summer on libel and tax evasion charges seen widely as attacks on press freedom. She now faces six years in prison.
“A Thousand Cuts,” a new documentary from Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz, tracks Ressa’s dual life in recent years. She’s seen smiling while accepting international media awards and praise from the likes of George Clooney, then grimly facing down online harassment, legal action and real world threats for Rappler’s reporting on extradjudicial killings in Duterte's drug war.
The film argues that Americans should learn from the recent history of the Philippines, where social media has helped to divide the country and critical press outlets are regularly lambasted by the president. ABS-CBN, the country’s largest TV network, was shut down by the government’s telecommunications regulator in May.
Promoting the film in a Zoom interview from her home in Manila, Ressa shook her fists and laughed with dark humor — “Urgh! Angry!” — about what she called her “war of attrition” with the government. She’s pleaded not guilty and is appealing her convictions.
“You don’t know how powerful government is until you come under attack the way we have. When all the different parts of government work against you — it’s kind of shocking,” she said. “I can’t wait to really write this — because I can’t write at all right now, because then I would be in contempt of court.”
Facebook has become the center of the internet for most Filipinos, and Rappler utilized it to grow rapidly as a startup news site. But the film shows how Duterte’s populist campaign harnessed the platform to spread its message and target Ressa and other journalists.