I met Maria when democracy came back to life, after “people power” ousted Marcos in 1986. She had just graduated from Princeton and had returned to the Philippines to start life as a journalist in the country where she was born and that was undergoing a democratic rebirth.
I remember young Maria as a sharp reporter who asked probing questions and threw herself into her work. We were both in the early stages of our career—I was reporting for a newspaper that had reopened after its closure by Marcos, and she was a correspondent for one of the first independent public-affairs programs to air on the newly liberated TV stations. It was a heady time. The press had been unshackled so we could roam the country and report freely on the struggles taking place for the soul of our new democracy. Like other Filipino journalists of that generation, we covered coups, bombings, assassinations, and street protests—the rocky transition from repressive dictatorship to flawed democracy.
I had faith that when it came to press freedom, the liberal tradition of Philippine courts would prevail. Moreover, our Bill of Rights has a provision akin to the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. This is one reason the Philippines until recently was known as having the freest press in Asia. Yet even by that standard, Maria was—and still is—in the words of a friend of ours, “Little Miss Sunshine,” an unfailing optimist and believer in democracy and the power of a free press. It was often difficult to convince her that some things were not possible.
About 10 years ago, she told me she was setting up an online news site after leading the news and public-affairs division of the country’s biggest network. Before that, she was the Jakarta bureau chief for CNN. I was skeptical. Digital news start-ups had spotty success, I told her, and the Philippine media market was crowded. She proved me wrong.
The last time I saw Maria was at breakfast in Midtown Manhattan in January, when she said she was returning to Manila despite warnings of an impending conviction in this case and the possibility of a jail term, ignoring advice that she stay away.
Anne Applebaum: History will judge the complicit
The court proceedings and her conviction can only be described as Kafkaesque. To begin with, Maria’s lawsuit stemmed from a story published by Rappler, the independent news site she co-founded, four months before Congress in 2012 passed a law criminalizing libel online. The businessman who filed suit did so only in 2017, the year after Rodrigo Duterte’s election to the presidency. The plaintiff’s lawyers argued that because Rappler had in 2014 corrected a misspelling in the text of the story—evation was amended to evasion—it had effectively republished the report, and could therefore be tried under the new law. It was a lawsuit built around a typo.