‘The Only Defense You Have Is to Shine a Light’

Maria Ressa remembers her arrest and detention by Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte’s government on February 13, 2019, “the day before Valentine’s Day,” as a moment of clarity. When agents of the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) unceremoniously entered the Rappler newsroom around 5 p.m., Ressa had been preparing for her upcoming seminar on press freedom at the University of the Philippines. “We’ll go to the NBI. It’s a shock—it’s a shock, but we’re going,” she said to cameras as the group pushed through a crowd of colleagues and reporters. Denied bail, Ressa spent the night in police custody.

The hours of forced reflection proved to be enlightening for Ressa. “When they did that they unshackled me, because I could see firsthand their abuse of power. I realized that I’m going to have to fight for my rights,” she told me. “I’m also a citizen … that’s asymmetrical power.”

It’s the kind of event that might inspire one to become a politician, to improve the system from within. But after 35 years covering Southeast Asia’s ruling elites, journalist and author Ressa has no political ambitions of her own. I broached the question well into our hour-long conversation hoping to unearth a fresh development in her career trajectory. Instead I got a modest laugh and a curt head shake. 

“I’m a journalist. And I think people forget that journalists originally fight power, they hold power to account. That’s always been the case,” Ressa told me. “So why did I become a journalist? And I’ve thought about this a lot—it’s because I care about justice.”

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