|Education||Princeton University (BA)|
University of the Philippines Diliman
|Known for||Co-founding Rappler|
Maria Angelita Ressa (Tagalog pronunciation: [ˈɾesa], born October 2, 1963) is a Filipino-American journalist and author, best known for co-founding Rappler as its chief executive officer. She previously spent nearly two decades working as a lead investigative reporter in Southeast Asia for CNN.
Ressa was included in Time's Person of the Year 2018 as one of a collection of journalists from around the world combating fake news. On February 13, 2019, she was arrested for "cyberlibel" due to accusations that Rappler published a false news story concerning businessman Wilfredo Keng. On June 15, 2020, a court in Manila found her guilty of cyberlibel. As she is an outspoken critic of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, her arrest was seen by many in the international media and the opposition Liberal Party as a politically motivated act by Duterte's government. Ressa is one of the 25 leading figures on the Information and Democracy Commission launched by Reporters Without Borders.
Ressa was born in Manila in 1963 when her mother was 18 years old. Ressa's father died when she was one. Her mother then moved to the United States of America, leaving her daughter and her sister with their father's family, and would visit her children frequently. Subsequently, her mother married an Italian-American man and went back to the Philippines and took both her children to the United States when Ressa was ten years old. Ressa was adopted by her stepfather and took his last name. Her parents relocated to Toms River, New Jersey where she went to Toms River High School North, a public school nearby.
Ressa studied molecular biology and theater as an undergraduate at Princeton University, where she graduated cum laude with a B.A. degree in English and certificates in theater and dance in 1986. She then was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study political theater at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
Ressa's first job was at government station PTV 4. She then co-founded independent production company Probe in 1987, and simultaneously served as CNN's bureau chief in Manila until 1995. She then ran CNN's Jakarta bureau from 1995 to 2005. As CNN's lead investigative reporter in Asia, she specialized in investigating terrorist networks. She became an author-in-residence at the International Center for Political Violence and Terrorism Research (ICPVTR) of Nanyang Technological University's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
From 2004, Ressa headed the news division of ABS-CBN, while also writing for CNN and The Wall Street Journal. In September 2010, she wrote a piece for The Wall Street Journal criticising the then president Beningno Aquino III handling of the bus hostage crisis. This piece was published two weeks before the president's official visit to the United States of America. Speculations were rife this among other reasons finally led to Ressa leaving the company in 2010, after deciding not to renew her contract.
She is the author of two books concerning the rise of terrorism in Southeast Asia—Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda's Newest Center (2003) and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism (2013).
She established the online news site Rappler in 2012 along with three other female founders and with a small team of 12 journalists and developers. It initially started as a Facebook page named MovePH in August 2011 and later evolved into a complete website on January 1, 2012. The site became one of the first multimedia news websites in the Philippines. The site has since been a major news portal in the Philippines, receiving numerous local and international awards. It currently is the fourth largest website in the country employing about 100 journalists. She serves as the Executive Editor and Chief Executive Officer of the news website.
"Real Content Oversight Board"
Alleged ownership irregularities:
Ressa first interviewed Rodrigo Duterte the 16th president of Philippines in the 1980s when he was a mayor of Davao. She again interviewed him in 2015 during his presidential election campaign where he confessed to killing three people when he was a mayor. Under her leadership, Rappler has been consistently critical of Duterte's policies, especially his policies on war on drugs with their stories demonstrating that the abuses were being carried out by the police with Duterte's approval. The website under her stewardship also wrote about the alleged pro-Duterte online "troll army" which according to their article, were pushing out fake news stories and manipulating the narrative around his presidency.
In July 2017, in his State of Union speech, Duterte declared Rappler to be "fully owned" by the Americans and hence in violation of the constitution. He also said, "Not only is Rappler's news fake, it being Filipino is also fake." Subsequently, in August 2017, the Philippine securities and exchange commission (SEC) initiated an investigation against Rappler and demanded to check its documents. In January 2018, it revoked Rappler's license to do business. The case went to the court of appeals, where it was remanded back to the SEC for having no basis. Duterte told a Rappler reporter in 2018: "If you are trying to throw garbage at us, then the least that we can do is explain – how about you? Are you also clean?" The government under his leadership revoked the site's operating license.
Arrest and conviction
On January 22, 2018, Ressa appeared before the Philippines' National Bureau of Investigation (NBI), to comply with a subpoena over an online libel complaint under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which the administration of Rodrigo Duterte has wielded to punish criticism of the President and his allies. The subpoena was issued on January 10 to Ressa, together with former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos, and businessman Benjamin Bitanga. The subpoena was filed in October 2017 by a Filipino–Chinese national, Wilfredo Keng, after Rappler published a story on Keng's alleged lending of his sports utility vehicle to now-deceased Chief Justice Renato Corona as a bribed form of favor. Though the article was written in 2012 before the act criminalizing cyberlibel was signed into law by Benigno Aquino III, the Department of Justice considered it republished after a typographical error was corrected in 2014. In 2019, prominent international human rights lawyer Amal Clooney joined the legal team (consisting of international and Filipino lawyers) defending Ressa.
In November 2018, the Philippine government announced that it would charge Ressa and Rappler's parent company, Rappler Holdings Corporation, with tax evasion and failure to file tax returns. The charge concerns the investment in Rappler by the Omidyar Network in 2015. Ressa has denied wrongdoing, originally stating that the foreign money was "donated" to its managers, later stating the investments were in the form of securities. Rappler issued a statement denying any wrongdoing. The Philippines' Bureau of Internal Revenue, after a study of Ressa's explanation, ruled that Rappler's issuance of securities-generated capital gains was taxable. It concluded that Rappler evaded payment amounting to ₱133 million in taxes.
On February 13, 2019, Philippine judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa of the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch #46 issued the arrest warrant for "cyber libel" against Ressa for an article published on Rappler. The officials of the Philippines National Bureau of Investigation fulfilled this warrant filed under the charge of cyber libel. The "cyber libel" law was passed after the article was originally published, so the charge was based on the technicality that fixing a typo might be considered "republishing". The arrest was live-streamed by many of Rappler's senior reporters on Facebook.
Due to time constraints, Ressa was unable to post bail amounting to ₱60,000 ($1,150) resulting in her arrest and confinement within the (holding) board room office of the NBI building. A total of six lawyers, two pro bono, were assigned to work on her case. On February 14, 2019, at the executor proceeding of Manila city Judge Maria Teresa Abadilla, Ressa gained freedom by posting bail at ₱100,000 ($1,900).
Ressa's arrest was criticized by the international community. As Ressa is an outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte, many viewed the arrest as being politically motivated. In contrast, the official spokesperson for the Malacañang Palace denied any government involvement in the arrest, asserting that the lawsuit against Ressa was set forth by a private individual, the plaintiff Wilfredo Keng.
Madeleine Albright, a former U.S. Secretary of State, issued an opinion stating that the arrest "must be condemned by all democratic nations". Similarly, the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines called it "a shameless act of persecution by a bully government".
The National Press Club, an organization accused of having close ties to the Duterte regime and with a long history of criticising the Rappler organization, has stated that the arrest was not harassment, and that Ressa should not be relegated to "the altar of press freedom for martyrdom". It also warned against politicizing the issue.
Ressa's trial on charges of cyberlibel began in July 2019. In a statement she made on the first day of her trial, Ressa said: "This case of cyberlibel stretches the rule of law until it breaks."
Ressa was found guilty on June 15, 2020. In her ruling, Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa argued that Rappler "did not offer a scintilla of proof that they verified the imputations of various crimes in the disputed article... They just simply published them as news in their online publication in reckless disregard of whether they are false or not." Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa also quoted Nelson Mandela, saying, "To be free is not merely to cast off one's chains but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others." Sharon Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University, argued that the conviction is representative of "how democracy dies in the 21st century."
Ressa faces between six months and six years in prison and a fine of ₱400,000 ($8,000). Ressa warned that her conviction could augur the end of freedom of the press in the Philippines. Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque asked the media to "respect the decision" and affirmed the commitment of President Rodrigo Duterte to free speech, while opposition leader Leni Robredo described it as a "chilling development" and the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said it "basically kills freedom of speech and of the press." Internationally the ruling has been criticized by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and Reporters Without Borders. In its statement condemning the release, Reporters Without Borders termed the legal proceedings against Ressa "Kafkaesque".
Ressa has won an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Investigative Journalism, the Asian Television Awards, TOWNS – Ten Outstanding Women in the Nation's Service (Philippines) and TOYM Philippines.
- In 2010, Esquire proclaimed Ressa the Philippines' "sexiest woman alive", explaining: "Despite her size, fearless enough to write an eyewitness account of Al-Qaeda".
- In 2015, the Philippine Movie Press Club awarded Ressa with an Excellence in Broadcasting Lifetime Achievement award at the 29th PMPC Star Awards for Television.
- In 2016, she was listed as one of the eight most influential and powerful leaders in the Philippines by Kalibrr.
- In November 2017, Ressa, as the CEO of news organization Rappler, accepted the 2017 Democracy Award awarded by the National Democratic Institute to three organizations at its annual Democracy Award Dinner in Washington, D.C., entitled "Disinformation vs. Democracy: Fighting for Facts".
- In May 2018, Ressa received the Knight International Journalism Awards, where she was described as "an intrepid editor and media innovator who holds a spotlight to the Philippine government’s bloody war on drugs."
- In June 2018, Ressa became the recipient of the World Association of Newspapers's Golden Pen of Freedom Award for her work with Rappler.
- In November 2018, the Committee to Protect Journalists awarded Ressa with the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award in "recognition of her journalistic courage in the face of persistent official harassment."
- In December 2018, she was included in Time's Person of the Year 2018, as one of "The Guardians", a number of journalists from around the world combating the "War on Truth". Ressa is the second Filipino to receive the title after former President Corazon Aquino in 1986.
- In April 2019, she was included in Time's 100 Most Influential People in the World.
- In May 2019, Ressa won the Columbia Journalism Award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the school's highest honor, "for the depth and quality of her work, as well as her courage and persistence in the field."
- In June 2019, Ressa received the Canadian Journalism Foundation's Tribute honour, which recognizes a journalist who has made an impact on the international stage.
- In October 2019, Ressa was named on the BBC's list of 100 Women.
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- Ressa, Maria (2013). From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 days of abduction, 10 years of terrorism. Hackensack, NJ: World Scientific. ISBN 978-1-908979-55-1. OCLC 842932664.
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| SVP for News and Current Affairs, ABS-CBN News