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Philippines’ Nobel Prize Newsroom Happy But Under Siege

The young editor and journalist of the Philippine news site Rapper was already busy on Friday. It was the last day candidates could file to run in next year’s elections, and reporters were watching to see who would try to replace Rodrigo Duterte, the president who has attacked the rapper for years and his Threatened staff members.

Then maria resaOne of the founders of the news outlet, has heard that he and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for their “daring fight for freedom of expression.” She immediately wrote to her co-founders, “I win.” Word got out, and the company’s Slack channel was flooded with “OMG.”

For several hours, employees said, they were excited by Resa’s award. But they know that tough times are about to come. The news website may still be closed. There are seven active court cases pending against Resa and the rapper. The site’s journalists face enormous pressure from online trolls, who are buoyed by Duterte’s suggestion that journalists should be treated as “spies” who are “not exempt from murder.”

A staff meeting at Philippine news company Rapper on July 3, 2018 near Manila, Philippines. (Jess Azner/The New York Times)

“We need to fight and move on,” said Gemma Mendoza, who has led the rapper’s efforts to address disinformation in digital media. “You feel, when you’re in this situation, it’s bigger than you are. And having that feeling keeps you and you moving forward.”

The future of one of the few independent journalism institutions in the Philippines is at stake. With coverage about police abuse in Duterte’s War on Drugs and stories of corrupt deals involving local businessmen, the rapper has become an icon of fearless journalism in a field where the press continues to operate.

Reporters admit it’s a tough time for the rapper. Access is an issue because of Duterte’s attacks on him. The psychological burden of being a troll, especially in a newsroom, where the average age is only 23, is exhausting. But they’re still trying to — in Resa’s words — “hold the line.”

They know full well that there is a price to pay for challenging Duterte. In January 2018, the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it would revoke Rapper’s operating license, saying the site violated laws on foreign ownership. The action was widely seen by rights activists and other journalists as retaliation for the rapper’s coverage of Duterte’s brutal drug war.

During a staff meeting shortly thereafter, Resa and her co-founders, Lilibeth Frondoso, Glenda Gloria and Cha Hofilena, insisted that was not going to scare the company. Together, the founders are referred to in newsrooms as “manangs” – a Filipino word for an older sister.

B Cupin, a senior reporter, said she entered the meeting feeling “kind of confused and a little worried” but hopeful. “It was clear that our Manangs were going to fight, so I think it helped a lot to us, the rapper’s young people,” Kapin said. “It was like, ‘Okay, maybe we can do this.'”

For years, even before he became president, Duterte has been hostile to the press. In 2016, while campaigning for the presidency, he said that he would not answer any questions from the media. He has accused the media of “skewing” his statements.

His relationship with the rapper has been particularly bad.

Founded in 2012, the news organization uncovered how some of those killed by police did not fight back, as the authorities said, but were rather summarily executed. In this, there has been a demand to hold the responsible people accountable.

Duterte responded by singling out the rapper in his 2017 State of the Nation address, saying it was “wholly owned by Americans,” a violation of the Philippine Constitution. In 2018, after the government announced the revocation of the website’s license, Duterte said it was not a political decision, but called the organization a “fake news outlet”.

In July of that year, the Philippine Court of Appeals asked the regulator to review the case again, allowing the rapper to remain open – for now.

In February 2019, authorities arrested Resa and a researcher in a libel case involving an article they had published four months before the law enforced. In June 2020, Resa was convicted of the charge she is appealing.

The attack makes Resa more determined than ever. “When you’re attacked, all the friction of a news organization, they die, especially with the mission of journalism, if you know what to do,” she said in an interview. said. “I think it’s been incredibly empowering, and it gives us energy.

A speech broadcast by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at the rapper’s offices near Manila, Philippines, July 4, 2018. (Jess Azner/The New York Times)

“You get tired, and you get scared. But I have three co-founders. We alternate fear,” she said. “We never fear at the same time.”

As CEO, Ressa manages the business and technology operations of the newsroom. To compensate for the loss of advertisers due to Duterte’s attacks, Rapper has channeled his resources into data-driven projects and subscriptions. Even with a newsroom of only 15 journalists, it launched more podcasts and short videos during the pandemic, allowing the company to turn profitable in 2020.

Ressa and his co-founders cut their teeth as journalists during the “people power” rebellion that brought down President Ferdinand Marcos in the mid-1980s. Once a black funeral was held at the door of Gloria’s family. Frondoso was once imprisoned with his newborn child.

The leaders of the nearly 100-person newsroom say a portion of not being scared is being prepared. Gloria said the company had practiced preparing for four scenarios: an arrest, a raid, a prison sentence and a closure. In February 2020, a dry run of a raid was so realistic that employees, who were no sane, began broadcasting it on the website. Facebook Live Platform.

Gloria said the fight for press freedom now is far more complex than it was in the 1980s, “because the reputational attacks are insidious, systematic and pervasive.”

Gloria said, “If you are a Filipino journalist who is paid low wages and who works in an environment that is not at all financially and financially secure, your only asset is your reputation.” “But when you are attacked by a troll army online and accused of corruption and baseless claims, you lose that right.

“That’s what our young journalists have done and are doing, and it really hardened them a little bit in terms of their courage,” she said.

The company offers advice for dealing with trolls: Get people involved and dismiss the lies. Report the threat to Facebook immediately. And use investigative skills to expose the people behind the trolling.


Like many newsrooms in the United States, the rapper struggles with the question of what it means to be objective today, especially in an environment where press freedom is under siege. The rapper’s news editor, Paterno Esmaquel II, said he asked interviewers a question about how they felt about the news organization being attacked. There should be no absurd answers, he said.

“People think we just have to be transcribers and stenographers. This shouldn’t happen,” said Esmaquel. “Your survival is at stake, and if you don’t fight back, what are you?”

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