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Small But Mighty: The Filipino Journalist Who’s Changing the World from Jail

Maria Ressa is known for many things – a Nobel Peace Prize, her website Rappler – one of the Philippines top digital news sites that is leading the fight for press freedom in the Philippines – and her multiple arrests due to her fight for freedom and democracy. 


Ressa was born in the Philippines in 1963 before moving to New Jersey in 1973, where she spent most of her childhood. She graduated cum laude from Princeton University with an A.B. in English and certificates in theater and dance. Following her graduation, she was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study political theater at the University of the Philippines Diliman. 


Maria began her journalism career in the Philippines, founding a production company called Probe in 1987 and serving as CNN’s bureau chief in Manila before transitioning to the Jakarta bureau. As a top investigative reporter in Asia, Ressa specialised in investigating terrorist networks. One of her most notable early-career articles was written for The Wall Street Journal criticising the Philippine President Benigno Aquino III’s handling of the bus hostage crisis. 


In this strain of presidential criticisms, Ressa interviewed Rodrigo Duterte, the 16th president of the Philippines, first in the 1980’s and again in 2015 during his campaign. In this latter interview, he confessed to murdering three people as mayor. Rappler has focus on Duterte in particular, criticism his policies on the war on drugs, police abuse under Duterte, and a 'troll army' which were creating and promoting fake news articles positively depicting Duterte. 


Duterte fired back by initiating an investigation by the Philippine Securites and Exchange Commission (SEC) against Rappler, accusing it of being fully American owned. This led to Rapplers business license being revoked in 2018. 


Ressa faced her first major run in with the law in 2018 when she was subpoenaed under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 over an article published on Rappler that discussed alleged bribery of the Chief Justice. Human rights lawyers Amal Clooney, Caoilfhionn Gallagher, and Can Yeginsu joined Ressa’s legal team alongside the Philippines leading human rights law firm, the Free Legal Assistance Group (FLAG). She was arrested in 2019 for 'cyber libel' and released on bail shortly after. This arrest made global shockwaves due to suspicion of the arrest being political motivated by Ressa’s outspoken criticism against President Duterte. 


Ressa was found guilty in 2020, a decision illuminated the real threat to freedom of press in the Philippines. The guilty ruling has been criticized by Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, and Reporters Without Borders. Furthermore, in 2023, 15 Nobel Peace Prize laureates wrote an open letter to the Philippine government asking for a resolution to her arrest. 


Despite attempts to infringe on Ressa’s work and the freedom of press in the Philippines, she was nominated for and awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize alongside Dmitry Muratov ‘for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.’ 

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