Journalist Maria Ressa (right) at a conference on press freedom last summer. | Foreign and Commonwealth Office
Press Freedom: On Alert
On June 15, one of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists, Maria Ressa, was convicted of “cyber libel” by a Philippines court. This is the first of eight journalism-related criminal cases faced by Ressa. Advocates for press freedom condemn the trial as unfair and part of a larger crackdown by President Rodrigo Duterte on critical news media. Read the summary, watch the video and answer the discussion questions below. This video has been edited for length; to watch the full video and read the transcription, click here.
- ABS-CBN, the largest broadcaster in the Philippines, was shut down by political decree two months ago.
- President Duterte’s administration has also been responsible for attacks on Supreme Court Chief Justice and prominent legislatures, as well as for the war on drugs condemned by the U.N. for killing tens of thousands. Ressa says these crackdowns began with the weaponization of social media in 2016.
- President Duterte and his allies defend his actions by claiming there is rampant crime to control in the Philippines and by pointing to a commission to investigate murders against journalists. However, according to Ressa, the administration has a history of lies and political impunity for governmental crimes.
- Ressa says that press freedoms on a global scale are decreasing because of changes to the information ecosystem from technology and social media, which is being exploited by despots for political oppression.
- In 2020, the U.S. was ranked the 45th nation in the world for press freedom by Reporters without Borders—a downgrade attributed to U.S. “arrests, physical assaults, public denigration and the harassment of journalists” in recent years.
Discussion Questions on Press Freedom
- Essential question: Why is freedom of the press important? How could we ensure it is protected from corrupt political or legal attacks?
- The U.S. has been criticized as an increasingly hostile place for journalists; in the video, Maria Ressa warns that “what is happening here [in the Philippines] is happening to you [U.S. citizens].” How are actions taken by Rodrigo Duterte’s administration similar to actions taken by U.S. presidents? How are they different?
- How has social media changed the “information landscape?”
- Media literacy: In the video, Maria Ressa noted that social media has become “a despot’s tool”—a tool exploited by dictators in order to degrade the integrity of facts. Do you think that social media companies should be responsible for regulating the truthfulness of information dispersed on their platforms? Why or why not?
Press Freedom Case Study: The United States
Have students read the following article from Reporters without Borders and answer questions about press freedom in the U.S.
In 2020 the U.S. was downgraded to 45th in the word for press freedom by Reporters without Borders. The organization cited “arrests, physical assaults, public denigration and the harassment of journalists” in recent years as the reason for the ranking.
- Read this article by the Atlantic on press freedom in the U.S.
- Find and write about a prominent example of “arrests, physical assaults, public denigration [or] the harassment of journalists” in the U.S.
- If you’re stuck, try looking through https://pressfreedomtracker.us/.
- If you can, find an online news report from a foreign publication about the incident you chose. How does foreign news media describe press freedom in the U.S.? How does foreign coverage compare to U.S. coverage of the same people and events?
Reprinted with the permission of PBS NewsHour Extra.