Commentary

War of posts on Maria Ressa: Don’t lose sleep over it

While she may not have done it the way Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc did, she fought her battles in her chosen arenas

Maria Ressa on 2018 TIME cover

A friend from overseas messaged me a few days after Maria Ressa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She wanted to know why it wasn’t bannered in the local press, even as it was in the world news. She texted, “Why rather tepid?”

My reply to her: “No worries.”

Really, no worries. Don’t lose sleep over it.

In the first place, news consumption has changed dramatically and irrevocably this decade. Traditional media (print, broadcast or even digital) has long ceased to be the only source of daily information, or opinion. For better or for worse, our children—okay, even our parents (meaning across age and class demographics)—get their on-the-minute, on-demand (mis)information, (mis)views from friends, their ex-es, other contacts on social media. The critical ability of the muscle that is the brain is overpowered by one’s oversized forefinger on the keyboard.

And in this case, anyway, Ressa already got so many hearts/applause/thumbs ups on social media from the world over. So why lose sleep over the no-show broadsheet banners?

Predictably, there erupted a war of posts between those (specifically writers and journalists) who believe there are other Filipino journalists and press freedom martyrs more deserving than Ressa, and those who exult Ressa’s unique contribution to the fight for press freedom, especially in a regime that doesn’t prioritize freedom.

There’s no denying the former. Of course, there have been journalists and martyrs who made the supreme sacrifice for press freedom, or who devoted their careers to—an unheralded—struggle against media censorship and in the pursuit of truth and democracy. They were those who toiled long hours in the newsroom, without fanfare and press release, turning out stories beyond the traditional beats and on to the protracted and noble task of fighting for democracy in the Philippines.

Of course, there were those who gave up their lives fighting martial law and the dictatorship. Or, even if they didn’t die, they suffered press censorship and human rights abuses. In my own lifetime shone the likes of Eugenia “Eggie” Apostol and Letty Jimenez-Magsanoc (LJM) who, as journalists of comfortable means, nonetheless left their comfort zones in pursuit not only of their profession but also of the restoration of democracy. These two women, hailed by Time magazine as heroines of People Power, used the power of the pen—they’d live and die on exposés and scoops—to fight dictatorship, and thereafter corruption, human rights abuses, and threats to democracy.

It is no exaggeration to say that as editor in chief of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, LJM helped bring down the Erap administration

It is no exaggeration to say that as editor in chief of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, LJM helped bring down the Erap administration (and survived the consequent boycott of the newspaper), likewise the GMA administration (“hello Garci”), derailed the “chachas,” and exposed the Napoles pork barrel, among many others. LJM did all that behind the scenes, in almost full anonymity to the country at large, working every day (no days-off until in her last years, and even then she worked the phone) directing coverages and penciling copy. Indeed, she worked the newsroom every day, into the wee hours, setting the news agenda that the rest of media followed, albeit grudgingly. As they said in the newsroom, she had libel and death threats for breakfast. There were those who didn’t agree with her take-no-prisoners kind of journalism (“arsonista,” said one), but even her detractors would agree that LJM didn’t seek the limelight—“we’re not the news,” she’d say each time she turned down interview requests. And definitely, she never faced the camera.

That was her generation, her school of journalism. Now, do the heroic feats of LJM and other journalists who came before and with her cancel out the achievement of Ressa and the accolade she’s getting from the world? (“Cancel out” is only for the GenZ; we’re rather too old for that.)

It shouldn’t. Ressa is at the right time and the right place—and asserts her position before the world’s cameras (plural). She called out a dictatorship taking shape early on, defended press freedom no matter the odds, faced libel cases and arrest warrants, and as a broadcast journalist, knew how to maximize the power of images and soundbites. Just as LJM and her peers were the product of their eras, Ressa is a native of her digital generation. While there are those who believe she may not have been hands-on in the newsroom to the degree the likes of LJM had been, she fought her battles in her chosen arenas, in this case the world media, her Rappler expansive as much as, if not more, than it is investigative. Ressa became—to use a pre-pandemic term—an influencer, a highly articulate one (one of the few Filipino journalists who are), approaching iconic status. Turned out, more than being an influencer and icon, she’s become a symbol of democracy, or of this war by attrition.

The Nobel Peace Prize is proof that Philippine democracy is still or is back on the world radar

Ressa is wise and right to accept the award on behalf of her country’s journalists and other democracy fighters. The Nobel Peace Prize is proof that Philippine democracy is still or is back on the world radar. It is like Western democracy serving notice—flex!— that it is watching the country’s backslide to one-man rule, to revisionism, and its pivot to China. And this riles up those who see this as the West meddling into the country’s affairs—again. (Well, grow up!)

Ressa’s Nobel Prize has that historic context. The country is at a crossroads—yet again—and she stands right at it, by choice. Visible, not hiding in the bushes. Loud and clear, not tepid or self-censoring.

To those who say Ressa was solely a product of hype, come on, get a dose of your own medicine. Image-building isn’t the exclusive tool of demagogues and trapos.

So like I said, don’t lose sleep over this debate on whether she deserves the Nobel or not. Instead, let’s wake up collectively from a nightmare.

About author

Articles

After devoting more than 30 years to daily newspaper editing (as Lifestyle editor) and a decade to magazine publishing (as editorial director and general manager), she now wants to focus on writing—she hopes.

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