To the beat of gongs and the swaying of dancers garbed in the different costumes of the Cordilleras and flanking her petite, five-ft-two frame, Nobel Peace Laureate Maria Ressa arrived for her book launch in Baguio City half an hour ahead of the 2 p.m. schedule.
The theater of the University of the Cordilleras (UC) wasn’t filled up yet, but there she was, striding in black sneakers, folding her hands in Namaste gesture to acknowledge the standing ovation. Suddenly, the air was electric with anticipation.
Emcee Mia Magdalena was prompted to begin the program earlier than the appointed time with a confession that inviting Ressa to Baguio was a dream she and journalist Frank Cimatu nursed. It was their suntok sa buwan (a punch at the moon, to describe a seemingly unattainable goal), unsure about the Rappler CEO’s tight sked. But Rappler got back to them that Ressa would be available on May 31. Then the date was advanced to March 31 and finally to the sixth of March or two days before International Women’s Day—a more appropriate day.
Getting people to attend and buy copies of How to Stand Up to a Dictator: The Fight for Our Future (published by Harper and carried by Fully Booked) by Ressa was another matter. Security measures had to be taken so no open social or print media announcement was made until the day before the event in the community paper Baguio Chronicle. Everything else was coursed, almost like an underground operation in the time of the millennial, through Facebook Messenger and mobile texting.
After quick performances of indigenous dances that had Ressa whipping out her cell phone to photograph/video the scenes unfolding onstage, she and the rest of the audience were invited to a community dance. She joined with no hesitation and moved with grace.
In his welcome remarks, former UC President Ray Dean Salvosa described Ressa’s book as “more than an autobiography” but “one of the most important books of our time” authored by “one of the world’s most significant voices.” He described her as a “profile in courage for truth and freedom” and recalled how the UC chose her as commencement speaker in 2019 and awarded her with an honorary doctorate long before she won the Nobel.
He observed how threats from the government and from trolls in social media had enabled her “to move to a bigger stage worldwide” as she warned of the world’s tilting towards authoritarianism “abetted by big technology…notably Facebook.” Salvosa told of how this technology is controlling “our minds and the minds of our children” and how gadgets are “right in our hands.” That is why, he continued, “we have to heed her.”
J. Albert Gamboa, a Manila-based columnist and reactor, gave the book an overall rating of 9.5 over a total of 10 points. He praised Ressa for her “powerful and compelling storytelling.”
He invited readers to turn to certain pages for some of her reflections on the connection between democracy and journalism.
She wrote: “The ability to discern and question, which is crucial to both journalism and democracy, is also determined by education. Journalists and news organizations are a reflection of the people’s power to hold their leaders accountable. This means that ultimately the quality of a democracy can also be seen in the quality of its journalism.”
She confessed to loving reporting so much. “Being a reporter gave my twenties and thirties a tremendous adrenaline rush for meaning; it was a deadline-driven school about the world. I was privileged to experience and tape some of the most sensitive moments of many people’s lives: tragedy and joy unmasked. Living through those moments together created true connections if I treated it as the privilege it was.”
Poet-activist Luchie B. Maranan of the Baguio Writers Group, another reactor, saluted Ressa for being “tiny in size, but magnificent and bold in spirit who gives dictators and apologists sleepless nights.” She described the author’s life as filled with “a sense of purpose, putting premium on honesty, leadership and determination” that helped mold her “into the journalist who is strong-willed, idealistic and battle-scarred in all sense of the word… Ressa traces the parallel trajectory of our country’s recent history with her path to establishing herself in the mass media industry, becoming the tinik sa lalamunan of the powers that be.”
Magdalena added that the book “is not your typical page-turner. I would stop because her truths were relatable.” She said she would “ugly cry” in between many passages.
As for National Artist Kidlat Tahimik, his task at the launch was to bless Ressa although he admitted that he was neither an ordained priest nor a mumbaki (native priest or ritual specialist). Just the same, he invoked the name of Apo Kabunyan (the God to whom we pray) to give Ressa and Cimatu courage amid the heavy cyber libel cases filed against them, and the strength to be able to continue writing for truth. He also asked for the same strength for the Cordillera artists so they could wake up people to climate change and other environment issues.
Advertising model and improvisational actor-trainor Gabe Mercado created a mnemonic for Ressa instead of reading out a tedious introduction. He based it on the alphabet, beginning with a reminder to her to Always Be Careful, Don’t Ever Forget (our dark past), Go Home Immediately and so on until he ended with XYZ or “Xee You Zoon.”
Ressa told the audience to check their cell phones which have “made facts debatable.” She cited TikTok, a social media platform which is “hacking our emotions by lying and corrupting our information ecosystem.”
She noted how in such an ecosystem, “everything seems vaguely familiar but oozy.”
She conceded that the political situation may have improved a bit compared to the Duterte era when extra-judicial killings were an everyday experience, averaging more than 30 people killed a night, and “anyone who goes against that fact is bashed online.”
As for things improving in the Marcos Jr. administration, she said, “We have to live our way into the answer.”
She warned how “social media allows for lies to travel faster. Do not lose our history. That is up to us.”
She has learned “to bury the anger in the pit of my stomach so we can move forward. We are on the verge of losing democracy. As Filipinos, we may lose it so we must guard it.” In this way, she praised Baguio for moving the Philippines through “small organizations that are there to protect the facts.”
She repeated her mantra: “If you don’t have integrity of facts, there is no integrity of elections. That’s why authoritarianism is spreading.”
She called the year 2024 “the tipping point” when huge democracies like Indonesia, India and the US hold their presidential elections. She challenged the audience, “What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?”
But what is the appeal of lies? Her answer: “Lies, not facts, make more money. Scrolling down your phones is not the way to live life. So shine the light. Do the stories.”
The organizers chose 10-year-old Emma Louise Orendain to thank Ressa. Later, Ressa admitted that she was close to tears listening to the child’s words.
Orendain compared the Nobel laureate to the popular fictive character Harry Potter whose special power was upholding the truth against the menacing Voldemort. She also compared Ressa to the women’s rights activist Susan B. Anthony who had a “good moral compass” and stood for the truth.
The girl said Ressa made her feel that we are part of Dumbledore’s army of truth-tellers and –seekers with the goal of having “good win in the end.”
Most of all, she was thrilled to learn that Ressa could skateboard. “You are not just smart and brave, you are awesome and cool, too.”