How to Stand Up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa review – tales of a moral giant

With this important memoir cum manifesto, the Nobel peace prize-winning journalist who took on Facebook and the murderous Duterte regime in the Philippines exposes the abuse of power

The Filipino-American Maria Ressa may physically be a diminutive figure (5ft 2in in stockinged feet) but she is a moral giant. In 2021, she was one of two journalists (the other being the Russian Dmitry Muratov) to be awarded the Nobel peace prize for their efforts to “safeguard freedom of expression” in their respective countries. She thus joins two other journalists in a select pantheon of earlier winners: the Yemeni Tawakkol Karman, who shared the prize with two other women in 2011, and the German reporter Carl Ossietzky, who was honoured in 1935 for his reporting of German rearmament under Hitler. Ossietzky was unable to collect his prize because the regime refused him permission to travel to Norway, and he died in 1938 after enduring years of torture and mistreatment in Nazi concentration camps.

Ressa was given the award for her fearless reporting of the corruption and brutality of the Duterte regime in the land of her birth, the Philippines. If the president of that unfortunate country had concentration camps at his disposal, she would assuredly be in one of them. In their absence, the regime has had to be content with convicting her for a crime she did not commit (based on an article she did not write, under a “cyberlibel” offence that did not yet exist), and issuing 10 arrest warrants. If found guilty of these other charges, her lawyer tells her, she could go to jail for more than a century. Since 2018, she has been wearing a bulletproof vest when on the road.

Her book is part autobiography and part manifesto. The manifesto is about the importance for democracy of journalism that exposes abuses of power and which challenges the impunity of those who – like Duterte and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s boss – wield it.

The biography is the story of how a girl born in modest circumstances in the Philippines was taken to the US, where she thrived – winding up at Princeton, authoring a cautionary play that made it to the Edinburgh fringe, and winning a Fulbright scholarship that brought her back to her native land with the idea of exploring the role of political theatre in driving political change.

Ressa became a journalist more or less by accident – first, behind the scenes on a local TV station, PTV4, then on the investigative documentary programme Probe on ABS-CBN, and finally on CNN, where she discovered that “going on camera is the most unnatural way of being natural”. But she turned out to be a natural and a fearless reporter who wanted to be in the thick of things, even when they were indescribably brutal, as they were in Indonesia after the fall of Suharto in 1998. “In one weekend,” she writes, “I saw eight people beheaded by rowdy, partying groups of men wearing coloured headbands designating their ethnic group. I walked out on to a field where there was a group of boys playing soccer. They seemed to be having a lot of fun. Then I realised that the ball they were kicking around was the head of an old man.”

In the end, she left CNN on principle rather than acquiesce in the hiring of a newscaster she distrusted. With three other women, she founded Rappler, a spectacularly original, digital-only website, which rapidly came into the crosshairs of the Duterte regime for the way it started to investigate the killings that were part of the president’s “war on crime”. “Every night since the 2016 election,” she writes, “an average of 33 dead bodies had been found on the streets and in the poor neighbourhoods of Manila”. Rappler started to publish profiles of the people who had been murdered, many of them teenagers or kids, and to publish details of the police “investigations” of the killings. The rest, as they say, is history.

‘She saw the future and knew how it didn’t work for democracy’: Maria Ressa in November 2021
‘She saw the future and knew how it didn’t work for democracy’: Maria Ressa in November 2021. Photograph: Josh Reynolds/AP

It was at this point that Ressa began to appreciate the critical role that social media, and especially Facebook, was playing in undermining democracy in her country. Duterte was the first Philippine politician to understand and use the platform for his own political purposes. His crew also proved singularly adept at exploiting its engagement algorithms to mobilise online mobs and spread disinformation. Rappler started to examine how this worked, and Ressa then engaged with Facebook executives in Singapore to alert them to what she and her colleagues were finding. In the end, she met up with Zuckerberg himself to try to make him pay attention to what was going on. In effect, Rappler had discovered that the Philippines were being used as a laboratory for the manipulation of online platforms that facilitated the election of Trump.

All of these attempts to raise the alarm came to nothing, so it is hardly surprising that Ressa’s inspiring book has an impassioned, frustrated and, at times, angry tone. She saw the future and knew how it didn’t work for democracy. And nobody except the Nobel committee seemed to be paying attention. For which mercy, much thanks.

  • How to Stand Up to a Dictator by Maria Ressa is published by WH Allen (£20). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply

Contributor

John Naughton

The GuardianTramp

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