Maria Ressa, the Journalist Targeted by Murderous Philippines Dictator Rodrigo Duterte

Maria Ressa, the Journalist Targeted by Murderous Philippines Dictator Rodrigo Duterte

Ramona Diaz’s latest documentary, A Thousand Cuts, stars former CNN correspondent and Rappler co-founder Maria Ressa, a formidable Filipino reporter who was born in the country yet spent much of her youth, as well as her college years, in the U.S. Ressa became famous herself when she began being targeted by the violent populist government of President Rodrigo Duterte and its online followers. The attacks have intensified to the level of political retaliation, and the government has levied multiple charges, from cyber-libel to tax fraud, against Ressa and Rappler, a news website. On June 15, Ressa was convicted of the first cyber-libel charge against her. 

A Thousand Cuts follows Ressa as well as a handful of her colleagues/employees at Rappler, from police beat reporter Rambo Talabong to investigative reporter Patricia Evangelista, who have spent years on the ground covering the graphic, out-in-the-open government-mandated murders of poor Filipinos who are deemed—rightly or wrongly—drug addicts and drug pushers. The film also follows two of Duterte’s most fervent and influential supporters, social media personality and former dancer Mocha Uson and former Police General Bato dela Rosa. 

Despite its panoptical view, A Thousand Cuts focuses on Ressa and the extreme nature of her predicament. The world over, journalists are targeted, jailed, disappeared, and even murdered (as was the Saudi exile Jamal Khashoggi) for doing their work. Ressa, who chose to live in the Philippines instead of the U.S. after the people-powered revolution that ousted the Marcos dictatorship in 1986, has repeatedly returned to the Philippines rather than try to escape the trouble that has awaited her for years. The Daily Beast spoke to Ressa about what the most important takeaways are during a global descent into authoritarianism. 

It’s a very sensitive moment for you, Maria, where this film is being made while you’re in the midst of various complicated processes involving the politically motivated retaliation against you. 

My need was, realizing that we were in quicksand, this is a unique moment and we knew that in 2016, that we were under attack. So we grappled with: how do you report on yourself? And then I wanted it documented, but I couldn’t use Rappler’s resources for the longer term because we’re very small. Our organization’s a hundred people total and we only have 25 editorial people. Even in our video group, we work like crazy. So I felt bad even thinking of having someone document us. And then if it’s someone who knows you well documenting you if it’s an internal thing, then it’s clouded with lots of things. There were several people who asked, who were following me for periods of time. So, that was the stage that Ramona came into. That was my context. I wanted it documented and I wasn’t going to pay for it. 

How do you build trust? Of course, I knew Ramona’s work because in 2004, she turned me down for an interview for [her documentary] Imelda. And at that point I was at CNN. I knew she had a different framework, which is the fly on the wall kind of cinema vérité. But my thing [is] at a certain point, a journalist makes a decision because if you’re doing a daily story, you make a decision immediately in terms of framework, in terms of the story. And inevitably, there are only eight themes globally. Every story falls into that. And so you make a judgment about the person you’re talking about. You don’t tell it to people, but for instance, if someone is lying to you, you know they’re lying to you and you put context to it. So that’s what she had to hurdle because I wasn’t completely convinced about her framework. 

I felt that the film really followed closely along to what at least seemed to me to be your personality, Maria, which is this ability to take grave moments or chaos, and to constantly reframe and recontextualize, to tell the people around you (or the audience) that this is how we need to look at it. And that’s a very journalistic trait, but the fact that you’re able to do that in your real life in real time is impressive. Everyone’s different when they’re being documented in any way, but were you thinking about this comportment as the film was rolling? 

No. At a certain point I really did forget they were there because they became part of Rappler in a weird way, you know? And yet really the things we were dealing with were off the wall. And this is something I learned from CNN when you’re in a conflict zone. I became a reporter for CNN in 1987, and in 1987, live shots were $10,000 for every 10 minutes. So you didn’t do a lot of live shots from the Philippines.

The thing about live shots is you have max two minutes, maybe a minute and a half. And if you don’t have your thoughts organized, if you’re not on in that minute and a half, you lose your window. So that’s perfect, wonderful training because I learned to take a complex world and boil it to three points, because that’s all you can get in a minute. 

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