FILE - Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa speaks to the media after pleading not guilty to tax evasion charges, in Rappler's office in Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines, July 22, 2020.
FILE - Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa speaks to the media after pleading not guilty to tax evasion charges, in Rappler's office in Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines, July 22, 2020.

Under the hashtag #AmplifyRappler, the international journalism community has come together to support a news outlet by highlighting the very reporting authorities in the Philippines have tried to silence.

Launched by the nonprofit Forbidden Stories, the five-part video series looked at Rappler’s coverage, including exposés on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, the coronavirus pandemic, and corruption and financial crime.

As a result of its reporting, Rappler has been the target of a disinformation campaign and trolling. Its reporters were banned from the presidential palace and the outlet and its founder, Maria Ressa, are fighting several court cases that that could result in a combined prison sentence of 100 years, if convicted.

Phineas Rueckert, an investigative journalist at Forbidden Stories, said he was inspired to create the project after hearing about a wider initiative to support Ressa in June, when a Manila court convicted her of cyber libel.

“It was the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) who brought together a group of journalists to look at Maria’s case and to try to see how international journalists could support Maria and support Rappler,” Rueckert told VOA.

Because of the pandemic, the team knew that investigating in the Philippines was off the table. Instead, Forbidden Stories focused on supporting Rappler by amplifying the outlet’s own reporting.

“There’s been a lot of efforts to get the government or sometimes private individuals to drop the cases against [Ressa]. We thought [we could] put together a series of short videos really highlighting not just the cases against Maria, but the reporting that she and Rappler have done,” said Rueckert.

Legal battles

The legal harassment of Rappler and its founder started around the time the news outlet was investigating Duterte’s fierce war on drugs and his administration’s statistics on killings resulting from the effort.

FILE - Protesters and residents hold lighted candles and placards at the wake of Kian Loyd delos Santos, a 17-year-old high school student, who was among the people shot dead in Caloocan city, Metro Manila, Philippines, Aug. 25, 2017.

The United Nations has called for an independent investigation into the extra-judicial killings that a June 2020 UN report said may have numbered in the tens of thousands of people. 

As of late February, Rappler said it was fighting a total of eight court cases brought against the news outlet, its directors, a reporter, a former researcher and Ressa. Among them are three cyber libel cases, including an appeal of the June conviction, tax related cases, and an investigation by the Bureau of Internal Revenue on alleged tax violations.

Ressa, who before founding Rappler in 2012 was an investigative reporter and a bureau chief for CNN, has been released on bail 10 times. 

She has described the legal cases against her as an attempt to “harass and intimidate” journalists, but vowed to continue.

Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa talks to reporters at the Pasig Regional Trial Court where she attended an…
Philippine Journalist Maria Ressa Rejects 'Politically Motivated' Tax Evasion Charges
Ressa, 56, who is chief executive of the news site Rappler, was convicted of libel last month and sentenced to up to six year in prison, later released on bail, a ruling widely seen as a blow to democratic freedoms under Duterte's increasingly popular authoritarianism

The Philippines has said it is committed to press freedom and that the cases involving Rappler are legal disputes between private parties. 

FILE - Crusading Filipina journalist Maria Ressa speaks at the Women In the World Summit in New York City, April 10, 2019.
Disinformation on Social Media Is Threat to Democracy, Rappler CEO Says
‘You can't buckle when there is so much at stake,’ says crusading Filipina journalist Maria Ressa

Solidarity campaign

The idea of promoting press freedom through investigating and amplifying the work of journalists harassed or killed for their reporting is at the core of Forbidden Stories.

The Paris-based organization, founded by award-winning journalist and filmmaker Laurent Richard, says its aim is to “keep their stories alive and to make sure a maximum number of people have access to uncensored news” on crucial topics such as corruption and crime.

Last month it was announced as the recipient of a special George Polk award for “The Cartel Project,” a series that examined the murder of Mexican journalist Regina Martinez and her reporting on links between drug cartels and politicians.

With Rappler, Forbidden Stories wanted to show that the challenges the outlet faces are not unique to one news organization or even one country.

“What we wanted to highlight is how important Rappler’s work is in the Philippines and how issues of corruption and disinformation are not just problems there, but they’re problems around the world,” said Rueckert.

Media rights organizations have said that press freedom is in decline in the Philippines.

“Groundless legal cases are being brought against journalists and media outlets that dare to criticize the government. New laws, such as the anti-terror law or ‘fake news’ laws are contributing to a legal and political environment that is increasingly unfriendly to freedom of expression and threatens the public’s right to news,” said Scott Griffen, deputy director of the International Press Institute, in an email to VOA.

Steven Butler, Asia program coordinator at the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said the harassment of Rappler is “a warning to journalists all over the Philippines, not to get too aggressive in their coverage of the president and the government.”

CPJ is one of 60 media outlets and associations taking part in the #HoldTheLine campaign to support the Rappler journalists.

Duterte didn't always have a hostile attitude toward Rappler, which was one of the first outlets to cover his election bid in 2015. But that changed when Duterte came to office and began his drug war, and Rappler criticized his administration, including over the extra-judicial killings, Butler said.

FILE - Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte meets members of the Inter-Agency Task Force at the Malacanang presidential palace in Manila, Oct. 5, 2020. (Credit: Malacanang Presidential Photographers Division)

Butler said that with a new U.S. president who may be less sympathetic to how Duterte treats the press, “some of those inhibitions will drop and the sense of global pressure can increase.”

“You can’t have democracy without a free and independent press [… and] it’s very difficult to have a free and independent press without democracy,” Butler said.

Ressa has recognized the importance of solidarity campaigns like the Forbidden Stories series, which was shared by over 30 organizations and media outlets.  

“The most effective way to deal with both attacks on social media and the kind of draconian policies that are coming now to prevent journalists from doing their jobs is to fight it together,” said in Ressa in a statement shared as part of the Forbidden Stories series.