Maria Ressa & the fight for our future

BREAKTHROUGH - Elfren S. Cruz - The Philippine Star

My friends, former students and people who know me in general, know that I have an insatiable passion for reading. And yet I have seldom made these glowing comments I will be making on “How to Stand Up to a Dictator: the Fight for our Future” (Harper Collins, New York, 2022), written by Maria Ressa.

This is a very interesting and readable book that is so relevant to our time when democracy is being continuously tested not only in the Philippines but around the world. At the same time, it is one of those rare books that narrate the effect of modern technology on modern journalism and its influence on political systems.

This is a memoir that I read in one sitting. Yes, it is a book that is factual and historical and yet, is written like a novel. The scenes and the dialogue are reported in a way that, with a little imagination, you can almost imagine yourself in the middle of all the action being described in the book.

In the Foreword, Amal Clooney, the internationally acclaimed human rights advocate, writes: “When you think of a superhero, you may not imagine a five-foot two-inch woman with a pen in her hand.  But today, journalists operating in authoritarian countries need superpowers… They face daily threats to their reputation, freedom and –in some places – their life. And Maria Ressa is one of them.”

This is a book that has several layers of storytelling. On one level, there is the personal story which begins with her grade school days in St. Scholastica’s, to her attempt to adjust to life in the United States where the family was exiled, to her Princeton days and her return to the Philippines.

The next layer is about her days in journalism from her CNN days to her introduction to broadcast news, to her time with the ABS-CBN News and finally, to the struggle to create the now famous Rappler.

The third layer is on her personal views on the mission of journalism, the transformation of the world due to Big Data, to her views on social media and its effects on society.

The fourth layer is her personal struggle with the Duterte regime and the persecution that she suffered during this period.

Finally, there is her advocacy and her glorious days as the first Filipino to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.

And yet, the most fascinating discovery is how she was able to weave all these five layers into a single intertwined narrative. Each scene enables the reader to vividly envision the environment of the book. At the same time, the dialogue where she quotes from the different personalities in her stories makes this sound like an epic saga.

Among the most significant topics in the book was Ressa’s ten-point plan to address the information crisis which was presented at the “Freedom of Expression Conference” at the Nobel Peace Center, Oslo, Norway on Sept. 2, 2022.  In her introduction to the ten-point plan, Ressa said: “We call for a world in which technology is built in service of humanity and where our global public square protects human rights above profits. Those in power must do their part to build a world that puts human rights, dignity and security first, including by safeguarding scientific and journalistic methods and tested knowledge.”

“To build that world, we must: bring an end to the surveillance for profit business models; and tech discrimination, and treat people everywhere equally; and rebuild independent journalism as the antidote to tyranny.”

In her book, Ressa said that the rest of the world could look at the experience of Rappler in the Philippines and “… use it to understand its own political context and situation on how to fight back. My hope is that others can replicate our three pillars: technology, journalism and community to fight back and build forward.”

Ressa stressed that the only way to fight technology is with technology. Then, the next pillar is to protect and grow investigative journalism.  Finally, journalists need funding and protection within the law. There must be no impunity.

In a recent issue of The Economist, it says that Asian democracy is declining. It cites three important countries in the region – Indonesia, Thailand and Cambodia – where democracy is struggling.

This phenomenon even makes Ressa’s book more relevant. In the book’s blurb, it says: “Democracy is fragile. How to stand up to a dictator is an urgent cry for readers to recognize and understand the dangers to our freedoms before it is too late. It is a book for anyone who might take democracy for granted written by someone who never would. And in telling her dramatic and turbulent and courageous story, Ressa forces readers to ask themselves the same question she and her colleagues ask everyday: What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?”

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