Filipino Journalist Maria Ressa Receives UNESCO Award, Questions Big Tech's Impunity

She accused Silicon Valley giants like Facebook of actively facilitating the propaganda machine that attacks and suppresses criticism.

New Delhi: Prominent Filipino journalist Maria Ressa on Monday targeted not just the Philippines government for their anti-democratic acts targeting the media but also accused Silicon Valley giants like Facebook of actively facilitating the propaganda machine that attacks and suppresses criticism.

Through a video link, Ressa, head of a Filipino investigative news website, Rappler, received the 2021 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.

In her acceptance speech, Ressa reminded the audience that she could not travel outside the Philippines due to restrictions put by courts in legal cases filed against her by the government. In the last two years, ten arrest warrants have been issued against her. She was arrested twice in 2019.

“To the budding dictators of this world, if you have to abuse your power to make you feel powerful, you’re not powerful – just abusive and small,” she said.

Rappler’s investigative pieces into atrocities committed by security forces as part of President Rodrigo Duterte’s brutal ‘war against drugs’ first brought them into prominence, which also made her a target of abusive online campaigns. “That violence was facilitated and fuelled by American social media companies. Based on big data analysis, we reported the networks that were manipulating us online, targeting and attacking truth-tellers, pounding to silence anyone challenging power, which created an extensive social media propaganda machine.”

Ressa claimed that five years after Rappler first took on Duterte’s drug war and Facebook, the situation deteriorated. “Today, it has only gotten worse – and Silicon Valley’s sins came home to roost on January 6 with mob violence on Capitol Hill. What happens on social media doesn’t stay on social media. Online violence leads to real world violence.”

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She noted social media platforms are by design “dividing us and radicalising us”. “These platforms are not merely mirroring humanity. They are making all of us our worst selves, creating emergent behaviour that feeds on violence, fear, uncertainty, and enabling the rise of fascism,” said Ressa.

She said without truth, it was impossible to forge trust. This lack of trust means there is no shared reality, which sabotages a united response against existential problems like climate change and COVID-19.

The “atom bomb” that exploded in the world’s information ecosystem happened when journalists lost gatekeeping powers to technology companies. “Tech abdicated responsibility for the public sphere and couldn’t seem to fathom that information is a public good,” noted Ressa.

She also recounted in her speech examples of women who had been shot dead after making complaints of human rights abuses against the police and military in the Philippines. Ressa stated that journalists had been falsely implicated to stop them from questioning power.

The veteran journalist asserted that these problems couldn’t be solved from the Philippines alone.

“The virus of lies is highly contagious. They infect real people, who become impervious to facts. It changes the way they look at the world. They become angrier, more isolated. They distrust everything.”

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Ressa said that those with power and money must choose. “The more you have, the more you must risk. Because silence is complicity.”

In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index prepared by Reporters Without Borders, the Philippines is ranked 138 among 182 countries.

India ranks further below – at 142.

The report stated that Bharatiya Janata Party supporters and the Hindutva ideology have created an environment of intimidation for journalists who are critical of the government by labelling them as “anti-national” or “anti-state”. India shares the “bad” classification with Brazil, Mexico and Russia.

The RSF’s report also stated the Information Technology (Guidelines for Intermediaries and Digital Media Ethics Code) Rules, 2021 will pose a further impediment to a thriving digital news media space.