Last May, when it became clear that Ferdinand Marcos Jr. would ascend to the presidency of the Philippines, Maria Ressa, the Nobel laureate (and Atlantic contributing writer) who has become legendary in her fight for freedom of the press and democracy, was despondent. “This is how it ends, I said to myself that evening,” Ressa wrote in her book How to Stand Up to a Dictator. “You can’t have integrity of elections if you don’t have integrity of facts. Facts lost. History lost. Marcos won.”
Marcos’s win represented a decisive victory for authoritarianism in the Philippines. The new president is the son and namesake of the dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled the Philippines from 1965 to 1986. His victory also represented a direct threat to Ressa. Marcos’s supporters are among those who, like his predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, have targeted and harassed both Ressa and Rappler, the Manila-based news organization she co-founded and runs.
This week, however, Ressa is celebrating an unexpected victory of her own. A Philippine court acquitted her, and Rappler, of four charges of tax evasion—charges drummed up in “a brazen abuse of power” that was intended “to stop journalists from doing their jobs,” she told reporters who had gathered outside the courthouse after her acquittal. The charges would have carried a maximum prison sentence of 34 years if she were convicted. “Of course it was emotional,” she said, her voice breaking repeatedly. “Today, facts win. Truth wins. Justice wins.” When I spoke with Ressa shortly after the verdict, she told me she was feeling “triumphant.” Also: very tired.
Her fight is nowhere near over. Before her acquittal, Ressa had 10 criminal charges against her, all brought under the former presidential administration in quick succession, prompted by Rappler’s aggressive coverage of the administration’s corruption during the country’s drug wars. “We kind of live in this uncertainty,” she said, referring to the remaining pending cases, which include another charge of tax evasion and her appeal of a cyberlibel conviction. (That conviction stems from a publishing decision that Rappler made before the cyberlibel law even existed.) But in some ways, she told me, “we’ve been through the worst already. We survived six years of Rodrigo Duterte and we did our job.”
Ressa’s steadfastness and devotion to that story, despite Duterte’s attempts to silence her, helped earn her the Nobel Prize in 2021. Several journalists who have spoken out against government corruption have been murdered in the Philippines, including 23 under the Duterte administration and two since Marcos took office last year. In September, the radio journalist Renato Blanco was fatally stabbed. In October, the broadcast journalist Percival Mabasa was shot dead in what police claim was a hit ordered by the country’s prisons chief.
Now, Ressa says, she wants to focus all her energy on “2024, which is, I believe, the tipping point for democracy globally. As of now, 60 percent of the world is living under autocracy. We’ve rolled back to 1989.” By that, she means that the level of democracy experienced by the average person around the world has reverted to 1989 levels. The number of liberal democracies was down to 34 in 2021, the lowest it has been since 1995. Closed autocracies are on the rise. Thirty-five states now suffer from major deteriorations in freedom of expression at the hands of governments, compared with only five a decade ago. The situation is particularly bad in the Asia Pacific, Eastern Europe, Central Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, according to a report last year by the Varieties of Democracy Institute at the University of Gothenburg, in Sweden.
For Ressa, today’s democratic backsliding also calls to mind September 1972, when the elder Marcos declared martial law, citing a national crisis of communism and crime, and promised to build what he called “the New Society” while retaining for himself virtually unlimited presidential powers. Marcos oversaw the torture, kidnapping, and extrajudicial executions of tens of thousands of citizens. At least 50,000 people—many of them human-rights activists, journalists, labor leaders, and church workers—were arrested and detained from 1972 to 1975 alone, according to Amnesty International.
During this tumultuous time in the Philippines, Ressa was in the third grade. She had just moved from Manila to New Jersey. She was not thinking primarily about martial law. She was trying to figure out what a pajama party was.
It’s a party where everyone wears pajamas, her mother told her. But when she showed up to her friend Sharon’s house dressed for bed, she saw that none of the other girls was in pajamas. “I turned in panic to my mom, who sheepishly admitted she didn’t really know what a ‘pajama party’ was, either,” Ressa wrote in her autobiography. Ressa remembers how her friend shrugged it off and quickly helped her inside the house to change. Her lesson from that day: “When you take a risk, you have to trust that someone will come to your aid; and when it’s your turn, you will help someone else. It’s better to face your fear than to run from it, because running won’t make the problem go away. When you face it, you have the chance to conquer it. That was how I began to define courage.”
Few people have had their courage tested the way Ressa has in recent years. For now, she has a to-do list with three very big priorities on it: (1) avoid prison, (2) fix the internet, and (3) save democracy. “If we don’t put any guardrails—significant guardrails—around technology, we’re jumping off the cliff,” she told me. “What’s at stake is the future of journalism and the survival of democracy.”
Ressa co-founded Rappler in 2012, in part because she could see the immense potential of the web—and she was drawn to the idea of harnessing people’s snap emotional reactions for good. People like to think of the internet as a marketplace of ideas, but Ressa understood early on that its current architecture makes it first and foremost a marketplace of feelings. So while sites like Facebook built algorithms that invisibly rewarded and prioritized posts that elicited anger, Rappler gave its readers a mood map, crowdsourcing reactions to articles and sharing the findings openly. “If you actually go through the exercise of identifying how you feel, you’re more prone to be rational,” she told me at the time. “If you can identify how you feel, will you be more receptive to the debate that’s in front of you? I hope.”
Ressa built Rappler in a far sunnier era of web history, when people were still celebrating the Arab Spring as a success for democracy, and the big social platforms seemed like they had the potential to be positive forces. Today she puts it starkly: “Social media prioritizes the spread of lies over facts,” she told me. “Our information ecosystem, it’s corrupted right now. If your information ecosystem is corrupted, then that leads to the corruption of your institutions. And when you don’t have working institutions, you don’t have checks and balances. We’re electing illiberal leaders democratically, and they’re corrupting the institutions from within. And when the institutions are corrupted, when that happens, you lose your freedom.”
Yet despite horrific targeted harassment, death threats, and attempts by some of the most powerful men in the world to silence her, Ressa has been relentless in her belief that it does not have to be this way. She believes that global democratic decline is a temporary condition; that authoritarianism will be beaten back; that the people and the press can be free; that tyranny will be stopped. She believes all of this because, for one thing, she is basically the Energizer Bunny of Nobel Peace Prize winners, and also because she knows that any other outcome would be intolerable. “Compared to others in hiding, in exile, or in jail, I am lucky,” she wrote in her latest book. “The only defense a journalist has is to shine the light on the truth, to expose the lie—and I can still do that.”
Ressa has watched in real time as government operatives have attacked her and her news organization, attempted to discredit her and destroy her livelihood, and charged her with numerous crimes to frighten her into submission. You can see why Ressa has argued that we ought to treat this technocultural moment not as a beginning but as an ending—as the aftermath of a war. She argues for the creation of NATO-like partnerships and a new Declaration of Human Rights to protect democratic values in the age of the social web. The outcome she is after may not come to pass. The solutions she poses may not be exactly right. But what she is fighting for is most certainly worth the risk.