- Courtesy Of Frontline PBS
- Maria Ressa in A Thousand Cuts
"Your premise is: Just because you're a journalist, you can't be killed. It's all wrong."
That's what Rodrigo Duterte told reporters at a 2016 press conference shortly after his election as president of the Republic of the Philippines. The democratic nation has become one of the most dangerous places in the world to cover the news.
That public comment — and worse — is captured in A Thousand Cuts, a 2020 documentary about a website that fearlessly watchdogs the populist strongman leader. Since he took office, Duterte has authorized the police murders of thousands of Filipinos seemingly involved in the illegal drug trade, including those struggling with addiction.
The movie, recently screened at the Vermont International Film Festival — and reviewed in Seven Days by Margot Harrison — details how Maria Ressa and her employees at Manila-based Rappler have been targeted not with guns but with subpoenas, lawsuits and arrests. In June, 57-year-old Ressa was found guilty of cyber libel for a piece Rappler published four months before the law it violated went into effect.
The former CNN reporter says the legal action is politically motivated, and the movie backs her up. So does Reporters Without Borders. In a June BBC story about Ressa's trial and sentencing, the organization noted: In the Philippines, "Private militias, often hired by local politicians, silence journalists with complete impunity."
That kind of intimidation hasn't been leveled at political reporters in the U.S. — yet. Although Duterte is often compared to Donald Trump — both are crass, misogynistic and anti-intellectual — our president has so far stuck to bullying and name-calling. Some of Trump's political opponents aren't much better at press relations. Vermont's own Sen. Bernie Sanders has perfected the cold shoulder.
Such poor treatment of media professionals sends a message. According to the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker, 182 journalists have been attacked while covering protests this year — up from 34 in 2019.
Of course, reporters writing about this year's elections have had other things to worry about, such as how to cover the candidates without catching the coronavirus and whether their coverage will have an impact.
Early voting may be good for democracy, but it was a shock to Seven Days editors when they realized stories breaking too close to the election would inform a diminishing number of voters. After the primary, we moved up publication of two cover stories and timed our general election guide to coincide with the arrival of mail-in ballots to people's homes.
The U.S. Postal Service delivered. In a way, so did Facebook, which announced that it would not accept any new political ads during the week of the election — or immediately after. That's in recognition of the destabilizing role that social media played in 2016, when Russian operatives used Facebook to spread disinformation in an attempt to influence the U.S. presidential election.
They're at it again this year. William Evanina, the head of U.S. counterintelligence, told Hearst Television in October that numerous foreign actors, including Russia, China and Iran, are finding ways to use Americans' own words against them on social media.
"If they see a reference made by the president of the United States, a prominent U.S. senator, a business person, someone who America looks at as a voice of reason, and they believe it suits their interests, they will amplify that by a thousand to make sure that the most amount of people see it," he said.
Journalists across the globe are working to understand and expose these coercive online efforts. Ressa had a lot to say about them in A Thousand Cuts. The movie's name is taken from a speech in which she described how democracy is dying in the Philippines. Virtually everyone in the country is online, she explained, and social media is how the majority of people get their information. That makes the country a perfect petri dish for methods of digital deception.
If Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were held responsible for the threats and lies that appear on their platforms, as are publishers like Seven Days and Rappler, more of those experiments would mercifully fail.