Ramona Diaz on the Persecution of Maria Ressa

Ramona and Maria

Journalist Maria Ressa (L) and filmmaker Ramona Diaz in NYC, April 2019

Since coming to power in 2016 (a bad year all around), Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte has presented a portrait of brutal, undisguised authoritarianism that makes Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and even Viktor Orbán look like acoustic guitar-strumming liberal snowflakes.

Under the guise of a “war on drugs,” Duterte has engaged in a wanton campaign of extrajudicial murders that has terrorized the people of the Philippines; openly mused about enjoying committing rape; and above all, sought to crush freedom of the press in his country. In his sheer bluntness, Duterte even dwarfs a smoother—if no less homicidal—autocrat like Putin.

Duterte’s chief antagonist is an intrepid five foot two journalist named Maria Ressa. Ressa spent two decades as CNN’s lead investigative reporter in Southeast Asia, and was later head of the news division of the Philippine TV network ABS-CBN before founding the Manila-based online news site Rappler in 2012. In that capacity, she has been a constant thorn in Duterte’s side. By way of retaliation, he has revoked Rappler’s operating license, barred its reporters from the presidential palace, and had Maria arrested over and over again. Indeed, in a field with many strong contenders, there may be no more vicious mano a mano duel between despot and journalist than this one.

In February 2019 Ressa was again taken into custody and charged with “cyberlibel” for a story Rappler had published in 2012. In a turn worthy of Kafka, her alleged crime occurred four months before “cyberlibel” was even made illegal in the Philippines; in order to charge her, the government claimed that Rappler’s correction of a typo in the seven-year-old story constituted re-publication, exposing Maria to criminal liability.

To the surprise of many who saw this charade for what it was and expected the case to be dismissed, this past June a Manila court found Maria Ressa guilty and sentenced her to up to six years in prison. Taken with the other seven cases the Duterte government has pending against her, she could face between 60 and 100 years. And that, my friends, is not a typo. Sixty to a hundred years.

In a time of rising right wing authoritarianism worldwide, Ressa’s story is among the most chilling examples of the suppression of the free press and attacks on dissent full stop. It is grippingly told in the new feature documentary A Thousand Cuts by Ramona Diaz, which premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and will be released theatrically and in virtual cinemas today, Friday August 7th. It will be broadcast on PBS’s Frontline in January 2021. (Watch the trailer here.)

Far and away the most prominent Filipino-American filmmaker in the United States, Diaz is the director of numerous feature documentaries including Spirits Rising (1996), about Corazon Aquino and the People Power Revolution, which won a Student Academy Award and the Ida Lupino DGA Award; Imelda (2004), the definitive portrait of the infamous former First Lady of the Philippines, which won the Sundance Cinematography Prize for director of photography Ferne Pearlstein (full disclosure: my wife); and Motherland (2017), a cinéma vérité portrait of a hospital in one of the poorest parts of Manila, home to the busiest maternity ward on earth, which won a Special Jury Award at Sundance and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and a Peabody.

But of all Diaz’s films, A Thousand Cuts is the one that actively takes place in the midst of a life-and-death battle over democracy itself, unspooling right before our eyes.

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THE KING’S NECKTIE: For people who may not know Maria’s story, can you give us the broad outlines?

RAMONA DIAZ: Maria was born in the Philippines and lived there until she was ten, when her mother remarried and moved her and her sisters to the US. She actually grew up in Toms River, New Jersey, so she’s a Jersey girl. She went to Princeton and then back to the Philippines on a Fulbright, because she wanted to find her roots. Her idea was that she would just stay a year. But that was in 1986, right after the People Power Revolution, when everything was opening up, and I think that excited her a lot. So she decided to stay.

CNN was just starting up in Southeast Asia at that time and they needed someone to report for them, and she was cheap and could speak English. (laughs) That’s always what she says. Pretty soon she was bureau chief in the Philippines even though she was still in her mid twenties, and then Jakarta. And she did that for 20 years.

Then she was offered the chance to run the biggest broadcast news operation in the Philippines at the time, the news division of ABS/CBN. She had like 10,000 people reporting to her. Then after six years she left ABS and formed Rappler, which was the first completely online publication in the Philippines.

And it was great. Rappler grew, and Maria thought she had found her niche……until 2016 when Duterte became president. And of course, Rappler started questioning the drug war and the numbers that were piling up; they’ve been the loudest voice questioning everything Duterte does. And Duterte hit back immediately. He threatened to close them down, revoked their licensed to operate, and filed case upon case against the organization and against Maria. And they’ve been fighting ever since.

The cyberlibel case, where the verdict was handed down on June 15th, just a few weeks ago, is only the first of eight cases, and was actually the outlier. That was the case her lawyers were sure was going to be thrown out, because the law she was accused of breaking hadn’t even been implemented yet when the article in question was published. In any case, there’s no prison sentence for libel—it’s a fine. But the court found Maria guilty and gave her six months to six years in prison. She’s out on bail and is appealing. So that’s where she’s at.

TKN: And what is the specific issue that’s at the heart of the case?

RD: The case has to do with a businessman named Wilfredo Keng. Rappler had written that he was involved in lending his armored SUV to a Supreme Court judge who was later disgraced, and also that he was involved in drugs and in a murder case. Not that he murdered anyone, but just involved in the case. So that was what Keng said was libel.

As I said, it should have been thrown out from the beginning. Basically they got her on a technicality. The court considered changing a typo “re-publication” and therefore ruled that the cyberlibel aw applied, even though the original publication was before the law was even passed.

And even on re-publication, the thing that’s not being talked about is that they contested the law. The case was at the Supreme Court with a temporary restraining order when they “re-published.” So even if you believe that fixing a typo constitutes “re-publication,” there was a TRO in effect. So how could you break a law that wasn’t in operation at the time?

TKN: So how much of a threat do Maria and Rappler really pose to Duterte?

RD: A lot. Simply because Maria has a global reputation.

There are other people in the Philippines that have suffered under Duterte. There’s Senator de Lima, who was falsely accused of drug trafficking and has been in prison for three years. But she doesn’t have this global following. Maria does, because she’s very well known in the region: for a long time she was the face of CNN in Southeast Asia. She traveled a lot, she knows a lot of journalists and reporters because she was out there. When I filmed with her this past a year and a half she traveled constantly, to a lot of journalism conferences and conventions, and she told her story very clearly. And then she was Time’s Person of the Year in 2018, and one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in 2019, and she kept racking up all the awards, last week she just got another big journalism award, because she wouldn’t shut up! (laughs) And then she started talking about Facebook, and algorithms, and how Facebook was destroying democracy—she was one of the first to write about that, in 2016. No one then was talking about that then, but she was. She would always go back to the social media platforms and how they were destroying democracy.

In some ways Maria is beyond Duterte’s comprehension, because he’s very provincial. He jumped from being mayor to being president. And not even mayor of Manila; he was mayor of a town down south, and he went from local politics to national politics. That has never happened before in Philippine history. So in a way Maria’s incomprehensible to his provincial mind. She can’t be handled.

TKN: But why does a guy like Duterte care? I mean, he’s so blatant about his autocracy. Most people outside the Philippines would never have heard of Maria Ressa if he hadn’t done this— until your film. Wouldn’t he have been better off just ignoring her?

RD: Yes, but she pissed him off personally.

TKN: So it’s just ego?

RD: It’s macho politics. Especially coming from a woman? And a woman who’s sort of American, who has this American accent, and is not really of this place? He always makes her out to be foreign, because she has dual citizenship. Always. And every award or recognition she’s earned in the outside world is a threat to the sovereignty of the Philippines. His trolls even say that she’s Indonesian, just because she lived in Jakarta when she was CNN bureau chief there.

TKN: Obama lived in Indonesia too, and he got the same attacks from the American right wing.

RD: Duterte wants us to believe Maria’s not Filipino enough, she hasn’t earned her stripes here, she hasn’t really worked with the people. Even some on the extreme left have cut off their nose to spite their face because they’re not in solidarity with Maria. It’s really stupid because they should all be on the same side. And the Duterte people are using the narrative of the extreme left against them.

HOW DO YOU SOLVE A PROBLEM LIKE MARIA?

TKN: What do you think the chances are that she will go to prison?

RD: I don’t know. It’s a little scary, because the government is so unpredictable. If they really had their act together, you could predict what’s going to happen, but because they are so inept, it’s harder to read.

TKN: And if it comes down to it, will she go to prison or would she try to flee?

RD: I think she’ll go to prison if she has to. It’s a deeply held belief of Maria’s that she has to stand her ground and stand up for her values. There’s a provision in Philippine law that if you accept the charge, you can just pay bail and not serve the sentence. You can be on probation.

TKN: So is this just an attempt to force her into debasing herself?

RD: She will never, ever accept the charge. That I know. She’ll fight it all the way. Her lawyers have already filed a motion for reconsideration in front of the same judge. And if that’s unsuccessful, they’ll go to the court of appeals and then to the Supreme Court.

TKN: Which Duterte controls.

RD: Yes.

TKN: And what has the American reaction been?

RD: Oh, very supportive. Because in the US people understand that this is a press freedom case, and that Maria’s fighting for democracy.

TKN: What about the American government though?

RD: It’s silent. I mean, there was a statement from the State Department, but it came very late, and it was very tame. Senator Leahy of Vermont said something too. Otherwise they’ve been silent.

Because I’m so in the midst of it, and see all the stuff that’s written about her in the Western press, I think she has a higher profile than she really does. But then I realized very few people in the West really know who she is.

TKN: But she’s an American citizen, right? What happened to civis Americanus? Why won’t Washington stand up for her?

RD: They should. But Duterte loves Trump and Trump loves Duterte.

So much is going on—the pandemic, BLM, and the protests—I’m even surprised that the news of her guilty verdict broke through at all. I think it did because, again, journalists knew her story and they wrote about it, and because it’s so parallel to what‘s happening here in terms of press freedom. When you see CNN journalists being arrested on live television in the US, it sends a chill down your spine. So I think that’s why it resonates.

“CAN YOU COME FILM ME?”

TKN: Your personal history is sort of the opposite of Maria’s, because you came to the US as an adult, or at least as a college student. So do you have a different perspective and a different mindset than Maria because of that?

RD: I think we have a kinship because of it. I’ve never lived as an adult in the Philippines and she lived most of her adult life there. I think maybe that’s why she gave me access. When I approached her, a lot of people were wanting to tell her story, but I think she recognized that she and I both live in this kind of in-between space all the time. I feel most American when I’m with Filipinos and most Filipino when I’m with Americans. And she does as well. So we found this commonality.

TKN: Is she not allowed to travel now while she’s on parole?

RD: We don’t know. She should be. She’s proven time and again that she’s not a travel risk. She keeps going back. People ask her all the time, “Why do you keep going back? You can stay in the States. You’re a citizen.” And she says, “I have to bear witness.”

TKN: So tell me about the genesis of your film. How did it start?

RD: Around August or September of 2016 I was finishing my previous film, Motherland, and I started seeing all these horrific photographs of the “drug war” in the Philippines, because it was just beginning then. A couple of them have become iconic, like the woman cradling her dead husband in the middle of the street. I just couldn’t look away. But Duterte did promise that he was gonna wage this war on drugs. Everyone was just so shocked first that he actually did it, and in such numbers and so blatantly. The numbers were rising. And my gut said, “Oh my God, do I have to make this film? I think I have to make this film.” People kept asking me, are you making a film about Duterte? And I said, I guess I am.

So at the end of 2017 I went to the Philippines for research, and I found that a lot of people were making the drug war film. I don’t like competing with breaking news, and I don’t have the capacity to do it . So I looked around and said, “Who is questioning the drug war? Who’s speaking up?” And it was Maria Ressa and Rappler. Everyone said, you should talk to Maria.

Finally I was introduced to her. At that time, my idea for the film was very Robert Altmanesque: an ensemble, with all these pieces and characters, very much like Short Cuts, with the helicopters hovering over, spraying pesticide. That was Duterte for me, the medfly hovering above the country. So when I met Maria, that was the film I pitched to her, and I made it very clear that I was also talking to Duterte’s allies. And she goes, “Okay, that’s fine.” But you know, when they say yes to you, they don’t really know what that means.

I wanted to make this against the backdrop of the midterm elections, because elections in the Philippines are crazy and wacky and kinetic and really cinematic. So I arrived on February 12, 2019 to start principal photography, and my crew was not there yet, and on February 13th Maria texted me, “Are you in the country already? If you’re not doing anything, can you come? Because I’m going to be arrested.” And I was like, “I think I have time, yes, I’ll come.” And I don’t know if you know traffic in Manila. It is horrendous. But as my car was merging into the main thoroughfare, we actually caught up with the police convoy that was taking her to the headquarters of the National Bureau of investigations, the Philippine equivalent of the FBI.. The likelihood of that ever happening is crazy. I said to her, “I think I’m right behind you.” So we got to NBI. I just pushed my way to the front and I said, “I’m with Rappler.” And Maria goes, “Yeah, she’s with us.“ So I found myself in the detainment room with her that very first day, and I started shooting with my cellphone. That’s when I knew, wow, she’s probably the story. And we never left her side for the next four months.

TKN: And did you ever feel that you were being prevented from filming anything, or that the government was gonna get in your way?

RD: They knew I was making the film because I had to go through them to get that close to Duterte and the rallies. His presidential guard knew we were there. It became this running joke. “Oh my God, you’re still here!” Mocha Uson (a pro-Duterte pop singer and politician) knew. Everyone knew. I thought if I was very transparent and very obvious, if they saw us everywhere, it’s better cover for me. If I had done it without telling them and they found out, I think it would be more dangerous.

TKN: Did they treat you differently than Maria because they perceived you as genuinely Filipina?

RD: Probably yes. But I got access from everyone else too. Every campaign director of every candidate I met with was all on board. It was a status symbol for them.

TKN: Oh, so they wanted to be filmed by you.

RD: Yes, yes! (laughs) Because all of them have seen the film Imelda and liked it. That’s why General Bato (Senator Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, formerly the national police chief in charge of Duterte’s drug war) said yes to me, because he thought Imelda was good. Even Mocha Uson would brag, “You know, she filmed Imelda and now she’s filming me.”

REVOLUTION: THE TENTH STAGE OF GRIEF

TKN: What do you think the impact of the film will be on Maria’s situation?

RD: Well, we streamed the film for free in the Philippines for 24 hours, right before her verdict on Monday June 15th, and at the end of the 24 hour period we had a live talk-back with Maria on YouTube’s Frontline channel. It was the fastest way to put it out there, just to raise awareness for the verdict, because I felt like it was going to be lost in the shuffle with the pandemic and the lockdown. You know, the Philippines has had the strictest lockdown in the world. We did it hurriedly. I think I had the idea on a Monday and we had to get everyone to agree; there are a lot of stakeholders in the film, and they all agreed, thank God. And we didn’t really tell anyone—I just started posting on social media chats and stuff like that.

The average viewership of Frontline’s YouTube channel is like 20,000 to 40,000, if there’s a lot of advertising around a broadcast. So we thought, okay, maybe we’ll get 20,000—that would be great. But over that 24 hours we got 233,000 full views of the film.

I expected the reaction to be anger. The way I see it, I make films that decode the Philippines for the West. That’s the voice I have. So I’m used to showing my films in the Philippines and having people say, “Yeah, yeah, we know that already. Why is that a film?” But this time around there was this deep sadness, because the Philippine audience was realizing, “Haven’t we fought this fight before? What are we doing? Why are we back here? What happened? Did we take our eye off the ball?” And it really got to me. It was really, really heavy. It was not the intention to depress people; the intention was to be a rallying cry. But then where will they go? They’re in lockdown.

TKN: Maybe they have to go through this sadness before they can get to the revolution. The new revolution.

RD: But we don’t have time for the stages of grief, Bob! We’ve got to hurry! I guess that’s the power of film: it makes all the connections in a way that news does not. It tells a narrative. Because this wasn’t an exposé. These things were happening right in front of people’s eyes. But if you see it in that kind of format, it’s different.

CINEMA AS TERRORISM

TKN: Has there been any pushback from the Duterte government? What was its reaction?

RD: I heard from some things like, “You didn’t have permission to use this footage or that footage.” And I’m like, “Fair use, man.” (laughs) But not really. We’ll see. It’s just been that 24 hours so far. We’re going to go back. Then we’ll see.

TKN: Are you worried about going back to the Philippines yourself?

RD: I’m not. I carry an American passport—

TKN: (interrupting) So does Maria Ressa!

RD: Yeah, but she’s dual.

TKN: Aren’t you dual as well?

RD: I’m not. I only carry an American passport. If I go back to the Philippines, all they can do is not allow me in the country. I haven’t gotten my dual just because I’ve been really busy.

TKN: Wait a minute. Did you give up your Philippine citizenship?

RD: Yes, I had to. When you take the oath to be an American citizen, you have to renounce your birth country and give up your passport. The onus is on your country of origin to accept you as a dual citizen.

TKN: So how does Maria have dual citizenship?

RD: The Philippines only began allowing dual citizenship in 2003.

TKN: So they trapped her in that regard. If she only had a US passport and they pulled this shit with her, it would put the US in a trickier situation.

RD: But then she couldn’t have done everything. She couldn’t own Rappler and do all that to begin with.

TKN: I’m not convinced the US would do anything anyway.

RD: Me either. Not at this point. But I don’t know—we’ll see what happens after November.

TKN: But will Duterte prevent the film from being shown?

RD: He can’t really do that. But who knows? There’s this anti-terror bill that was signed recently that defines terrorism very broadly. So even dissent can be defined as “terrorism.” So the film might meet the definition of terrorism for them. I don’t know.

TKN: But that looks good on the poster: “The movie Duterte doesn’t want you to see.” 

RD: (laughs) “Banned in the Philippines.” Yeah, we’ll see.

MARTIAL LAW IS SO 1986

TKN: What do you think Duterte’s long term future is?

RD: His term ends in two years—it’s one six-year term, no re-election—so everyone is looking to 2022 for things to change. They say he’s sick too. We don’t know how sick, he’s never really revealed it, he’s hinted at this illness, but no one really knows.

TKN: COVID? Or something else?

RD: Something else. He’s also very open about his addiction to fentanyl. He talks about it. It’s nothing new. 

TKN: While he’s waging a “war on drugs”!

RD: Exactly. So who cares, right? That’s lost in the conversation. I think he’ll survive two years, until 2022, so it depends on who succeeds him. It depends on whether the Philippines is still a democracy in 2022, if you can call it that right now.

TKN: What about the odds of him not leaving office, or declaring martial law?

RD: The odds are good. But he doesn’t even have to declare martial law; the pandemic is really his wet dream. The country is locked down. There’s a curfew. No one can protest. His response to COVID is a police response, not a public health response. If you’re noncompliant and you leave your house, they will see you, they will arrest you, they will shoot you—it’s just like the drug war.

TKN: It’s interesting that he almost alone among autocrats is like that about the virus, because Bolsonaro and Trump both say, “It’s a hoax! It doesn’t exist!” But Dutere is like, “Oh, it exists, and I’ll shoot your ass.”

RD: (laughs) In a way, he’s smarter. He’s also stacked the Supreme Court, and the Senate, so he sort of controls all branches of government.

TKN: Sounds familiar.

RD: So he no longer even has to declare martial law. But we’ll see what happens in 2022. There’s a chance that Sarah Duterte, his daughter will run, and she might win.

TKN: Also sounds familiar.

RD: The problem is that no opposition leader has arisen. My film brought out the anger and the grief and all, but there’s no leader to harness all those feelings.

TKN: Could it be Maria?

RD: She’s not interested in politics at all. She’s a journalist. I can’t imagine she’d do that.

TKN: Cory Aquino wasn’t interested either.

RD: There you go. It’s two years away, so it’s early days. Someone can show up six months before. Duterte didn’t come on the scene until a few months before the election.

TKN: It’s too bad you don’t have your Philippine passport—it could be you.

RD: That’s funny.

TKN: I’m gonna start a “Draft Diaz” movement.  

RD: I have to approve the poster—that’s all I care about. The aesthetics.

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Selfie: Maria Ressa

Ramona Diaz

Ramona Diaz was born in Philippines and came to the United States to attend Emerson College, earning a BA in 1983, and subsequently an MA from Stanford University’s Graduate Program in Documentary Film in 1995. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2016 and is a current recipient of a United States Artist Fellowship.

Diaz first broke through with Spirits Rising (1996), her thesis film for Stanford, about Corazon Aquino and the People Power Revolution that ousted the Marcos regime in 1986, which won a Student Academy Award and the Ida Lupino Director’s Guild of America Award. Her 2004 feature documentary Imelda, the definitive portrait of the infamous former First Lady of the Philippines, won the Sundance Documentary Cinematography Prize, was released theatrically, and broadcast on Independent Lens in May 2005. (In the Philippines, the film grossed more in its opening weekend than Spiderman 2.)

Since then, Ramona’s work has included The Learning (2011), about Filipino teachers in Baltimore, which aired on POV; Don’t Stop Believin’ (2012), about Journey’s search for its new lead singer, the Filipino vocalist Arnel Pineda, which won the Audience Award for the 2013–2014 season of PBS’s Independent Lens; and Motherland (2017), a cinéma vérité portrait of Dr. Jose Fabella Memorial Hospital, in one of the poorest parts of Manila, home to the busiest maternity ward on earth. A bold stylistic departure for Diaz, Motherland won a Special Jury Award at Sundance, had its international premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival, and was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award and a Peabody.

Ramona’s new film A Thousand Cuts, will be released theatrically and in virtual cinemas on August 7th, 2020, and will be broadcast on PBS’s Frontline in January 2021. (For more information, click here for the press kit.)

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