Guest Event: Screening and Discussion of "A Thousand Cuts"

Tuesday, February 2, 2021
Mohd Sarajan/Getty Images

Filmmaker, A Thousand Cuts, FRONTLINE, PBS

Senior Fellow for Southeast Asia, Council on Foreign Relations; @JoshKurlantzick

Author and Journalist; Cofounder and Chief Executive Officer, Rappler


Cofounder and Chief Executive Officer, Pushkin Industries, Inc.; CFR Member

Panelists discuss the regression of democracy and rights in Southeast Asia, with a particular look at the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte. A Thousand Cuts follows renowned journalist Maria Ressa, who has become a top target of President Duterte’s crackdown on the news media, and explores the escalating war between the Duterte government and the press.

CFR members are encouraged to watch the PBS FRONTLINE documentary A Thousand Cuts prior to the virtual discussion. The film is available to watch on the PBS FRONTLINE website.


WEISBERG: Thank you. I want to welcome everyone to today's Council on Foreign Relations discussion of the new documentary, A Thousand Cuts. I am Jacob Weisberg. I'm the cofounder and CEO of Pushkin Industries, which is a podcast production company and an audio publisher. I'm going to preside over the discussion today. We will talk for about half an hour before opening it up for questions. I want to start by very briefly introducing our panel. First, it's my real honor to introduce one of the—I can only describe her as one of the heroes of independent journalism and certainly one of the people I most admire in journalism and in the world today, Maria Ressa. She's an author, journalist, and the cofounder and CEO of Rappler in the Philippines. We also have Ramona Diaz, who's an independent filmmaker, who made A Thousand Cuts in partnership with PBS Frontline. And we're also pleased to be joined by Joshua Kurlantzick. He's a senior fellow for Southeast Asia at the Council. So welcome, everybody.


DIAZ: Hi, thank you. Thanks for having us.


WEISBERG: Ramona, I wanted to start with you. I think a lot of the members have already seen the film, which I thought was just terrific, by the way. It's such a wonderful, descriptive portrait of Maria and of Rappler and of what they've been dealing with in the Philippines. But I want you to talk, especially for people who haven't seen it, to describe the film a little bit and tell us why you wanted to make it, how you ended up making it.


DIAZ: Hi. Yes, so thank you for the kind words about the film. A Thousand Cuts is a documentary feature film, really about the intersection of the erosion of democracy, disinformation in the age of social media, the rise of authoritarianism, and the fragility of democracy as told through the eyes and the experience of one very embattled, but larger than life journalist, Maria Ressa, in the Philippines. It also features some allies of the president, President Rodrigo Duterte—you know, a karaoke-singing general and a pop star turned politician. And because this is the Philippines, it is full of spectacle and drama and, of course, humor. So it's kaleidoscopic in nature and also very global in its resonance. And I wanted to make it because I was born and raised under martial law when the Marcoses were there and then left for the States to study and then live here. And, you know, became a documentary filmmaker and when President Duterte became president in 2016, it seemed very regressive to me. And of course, the drug war started immediately after he became president. He ran—I mean it was part of his campaign, which is ironic because he ran on law and order but ran on a drug war, right, which was actually the opposite of law and order. And when I went back to the Philippines, I discovered that a lot of people were doing the film about the drug war, and I just looked around to see what else was going on and, of course, Maria Ressa and Rappler were going on. Not only were they questioning the numbers of the dead from the drug war, but they were also questioning impunity and connecting it to the weaponization of social media. And because Maria was talking about algorithms and Facebook back in 2016, so to me that seemed more—it was one of those light-bulb moments, right? I'm like, oh, my God, because it is very still specifically the Philippines, but it made it more globally resonant. It transcended the specificity.


WEISBERG: Yes. Maria, the film isn't just about you trying to do independent journalism in the Philippines in the face of tremendous threat and risk, it also inevitably tells a lot of your personal story. You know, we see you with your family. We see you getting dressed before a gala in New York and not very happy to be doing it. So, you know, a film like this is inevitably revealing in ways possibly that you don't bargain for going in. I want to know why you wanted the film to be made and why you decided to cooperate with it.


RESSA: Well, first of all, Jacob, thank you so much for having us. It's great to be at the Council on Foreign Relations. Look, by the time Ramona came we had been under attack for, I believe, more than a year already at that point. So I knew something different was happening. I also felt personally under threat. And so, you know, the journalists' only weapon in speaking truth to power is to shine the light. And actually having the filmmaker there, having Ramona and Gabriel and Jeff, her two cinematographers, having them there assured me of two things. One, that regardless of what happens, it's there, right? And then the second is that Rappler was—we were running around like chickens with our heads cut off. You know, we were running around in so many directions because we wanted to keep doing our jobs. You know, we still do exclusive stories that expose corruption, government corruption. We challenge—we continue to do that. And in order to do that, I have to keep the sky up so my team can keep working. So again, in that sense, chronicling, there's really three stories and I keep telling Ramona, you know, that all of the hours of video she has, it also shows you a news group struggling with how to deal with not just the values of illiberal democracy, but also how to survive. Not in terms of the business model, a collapsing business model, the money being taken away by the very same platforms they're used to erode trust, not just in us, but in anything, in facts. So there's that. There's how we pivoted during crisis. There is how you—what's the most effective way of standing up when you come under attack, right? Because I think the easiest thing to do is to stay quiet. And I hope that's what you take out of the film, that this is one of those times where if you believe in democracy you have got to do more than just vote.


WEISBERG: Yes. Bring us up to date about what's happened since the film. I mean, it's very up-to-date but this, you know, this Kafkaesque court case or group of court cases against you have proceeded. In fact, I think we're going to need to excuse you a few minutes early today because it's morning in the Philippines and you need to be in court—again. What's going on with all of these cases?


RESSA: So since the film you saw the conviction and it is Kafkaesque. You know, it is for a crime that didn't exist when the story that was the topic of the case was published. The story was published in 2012—a story I didn't write, edit, or supervise. So here's a nonexistent crime and here I am retroactively being convicted for it. That's on appeal at the Court of Appeals. But beyond that, since the June 15, 2020, verdict, I've since gotten two more—I've posted bail two more times. Two more arrest warrants, two more criminal cases, and they are crazier than the legal acrobatics for the first eight to get me to court, right? One is for screen grabbing a newspaper article. How many people do this, screen grab a newspaper article and share it? I have a criminal case for that. The second is for another cyber libel case. So I have two more cyber libel cases since then. This week I have already filed an, you know, appeal in court on Monday. I go to court today. I go to court tomorrow. I go to court on Friday. Imagine trying to run a news group during this time period? We're doing it and we're going to keep doing it.


WEISBERG: Yes. I mean, I think I didn't maybe fully process the irony, though, that the court charges against you are sharing inaccurate information online.


DIAZ: The tweet, just to be clear. It was a tweet.




RESSA: Written by the newsgroup. I don't even know—yes, you're right, it is about, you know, as our data has shown, our research has shown, the government's propaganda machine is extremely strong. Very similar to the information ecosystem of the United States. The information ecosystem is almost like seeing asymmetrical warfare. For a long time people who stood up for the facts were a small subsection of, you know, a huge ecosystem that believed the lies. And part of that is because the very same platforms that deliver the news, our social media platforms, now the world's largest distributor of news, their underlying design actually prioritizes the distribution of lies laced with anger and hate over really boring facts. So it feels like here we are having to actually fight even harder to get you facts, which I know is really boring. So we have to find better ways of getting it to you. It's just like, it's stacked against us right now. And we need to do something about how we deliver you the facts.


WEISBERG: Well, so often when you were answering that question it popped into my head, all right, she's talking about the Philippines. But, Josh, I just wanted to ask you, you know, having seen this film, what did you take away from it?


KURLANTZICK: What I took away that it's emblematic of regional and global trends and creating a separate ecosystem. I do think that the comparison with the U.S. is partially true. But one difference between the U.S. and the Philippines is, while some politicians in the U.S. have tried to create a certain alternative ecosystem and there is plenty of misinformation, the counterweight in the U.S. is that you also have powerful figures, regulators, politicians, who are able to apply pressure on Facebook, Twitter, and the other social media companies and they do listen or they may sometimes listen. Whereas in the Philippines or previously, for example, in Myanmar, there is an issue in which misinformation sparked massacres in Rakhine State in western Myanmar in the genocide by some definitions. And people who are standing up against misinformation or want to push back in the Philippines or Myanmar, some countries don't have the weapons to push back that those who want to push back United States have. So the situation is actually worse, I would say, in comparison to the U.S. And also, I mean it reminds me that this region, going back to the '80s, and early '90s, was actually seen as, so the Philippines and the other countries around it, was seen as a sort of a beacon of global democracy. Many of the countries in the region, including the Philippines, starting with the Philippines in 1986, moved from authoritarian states to fairly robust democracies—the Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia, and some others to lesser extent. And now almost all of them except, one might argue, Indonesia, have regressed in different ways. Thailand is essentially a military state again. The Philippines is a quasi-democracy with Duterte sort of filling the role of an illiberal populist. Myanmar was taken over by the military again. And so the Philippines is both a [inaudible] of regional trends and of these global trends of, sort of, misinformation and the rise of this type of illiberal populist leader like Duterte.


WEISBERG: Yes, and what do you think is fundamentally driving it? I mean, assuming that the coup in Myanmar and the rise of Duterte and of authoritarianism in the Philippines are connected phenomenon. Do you see it as fundamentally driven by disinformation, by social media, or are there other causes that you think are equally or more important?


KURLANTZICK: I think social media is one factor. But a number of these states still have fairly weak democratic roots. Duterte didn't appear out of nowhere as I'm sure you know. Duterte draws on themes and he draws on flaws in the Philippines that were left by the United States and then were perpetuated by Marcos and an earlier populist named Joseph Estrada, who was a president for a short period of time. So the United States left a system that was fairly uniquely able to have a strong-man appeal, a very strong presidency, and weak parties and a sort of elite group of families who have control of the country. And Duterte also draws on the Marcos and Estrada tradition of authoritarianism. He purposefully harkens back to the earlier part of the Marcos era, which is Marcos was an autocratic but also something of a populist. And you combine that with a breakdown in democracy, or at least a regression among the countries that would have stood up for democracy—the United States, Western Europe, Japan, etcetera, focusing on our own problems, with the growing power of other liberal powers like China, social media, and a feeling that in the Philippines, at least, the prior administrations, the previous president, Benigno Aquino III, "Noynoy" Aquino, was from these elite families. He presided over a period of fairly high growth, but it didn't put that much dent into inequality in the Philippines. Duterte played on this idea that he was an outsider, even though he's not really an outsider. He's from a prominent political family. But he played on this idea that compared to the Aquino's, compared to the other elite families that are in the Philippines, he would be different. So I think all of those factors, you know, come into play.


WEISBERG: Yes. Maria, I want to come back to the social media question a little bit. The standard that Twitter and Facebook have now applied in kicking Donald Trump off, surely if applied in the Philippines, would result in Duterte being kicked off. I mean, by comparison his threats have been more personal, more violent, more direct. So the question arises, first of all, is it a strategy to try to get them to do that? But second of all, why haven't they done that if what they do is supply neutral standards?


RESSA: Because they don't. I mean, they just, you know, so I guess, again, if you look at the design of social media, so, Jacob, just jumping off the question that you gave to Josh, you know, yes, the pattern, the nostalgia for the past and I think you saw this right before 2014, right? The election of Modi in India. The election of Joko Widodo in Indonesia, an election that pitted him twice in the succeeding elections against the son-in-law of former President Suharto, right? So this General Prabowo [Subianto]. So we saw this nostalgia for the past that the world is so complex, it's changing too fast. I want someone who will make decisions for me. That was there in 2014 but then what happened with social media, with technology, is that it was like the spark gets thrown into the kindling because in 2014, that was when Ukraine happened and Russia, which has information operations in its military doctrine, Russia actively worked on it. So really the first time and we saw the data for this, Ukraine was targeted.


And in real time, you saw, even on television, it moved out immediately. You know, two different versions of reality being given to you—one from the Russians, one from the Ukrainians. And this was brought to Facebook. Then 2014, again, the election in Indonesia was won by a very small margin via social media post. So it shows you Twitter, Jakarta was then the top Twitter city. The Philippines for the six year running, Filipinos spend the most time on social media globally. Six years in a row, the report was just released a week ago. So then what happened after that once social media was used to bend—when you tell a lie a million times today, it becomes fact. And once that happens and you doubt the truth, all of a sudden you have a lot of people easily manipulated in what has become a behavior manipulation system. And I guess the last part where I really want to show you that social media is not personal, it is about geopolitical powerplay. September 22 last year Facebook took down two influence operations. One was out of China, the other out of the Philippines connected to the police and military. The one out of China was creating fake accounts for the U.S. elections, a small part of it using AI-generated photos. It was also attacking me, right? And then the second was, it was also campaigning for President Duterte for presidential elections in 2022. The Filipino influence operation was attacking human rights defenders, journalists, and yes, it was also attacking me and Rappler. So these are not normal times.


I'm sorry, I wanted to jump in with that. Your question like what happened to Trump could be done to anyone if there was a standard that was actually being imposed? The first is I'd go with what the former UN Special Rapporteur David Kaye said. Content moderation, if you're looking at, it use the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. But the other problem is it is not about content moderation. It is about the machine, part of it, machine learning, artificial intelligence, technology underlying the platform's delivering our news. The gatekeepers are no longer journalists, they're tech. And they've taken the guardrails off everything and the tech design is biased against facts. It is biased against journalists. And it is not a surprise that we are where we are today. Direct answer to your question is that Duterte himself is not on social media, but the propaganda machine that has been built around him helped elect him. Yes, at that point, it seemed okay but by 2016, after he took office, it was weaponized and the first casualty in that battle was the number of people killed in the drug war. So not just tens of thousands according to human rights activists, but then beyond that at a time when lies kill in the time of COVID. It's not a surprise again that the Philippines is not doing well in the battle against COVID.


WEISBERG: Yes, Maria, I think I'm remembering correctly that you started Rappler just on Facebook. Are you someone who was disillusioned and unhappily surprised with the way Facebook evolved in relation to support for democracy and democratic movements? Or was it just the reality in the Philippines that that's where the audience was and the economic realities of journalism meant that was the way to start an independent publication?


RESSA: Look, I believed in the technology and so you can say I drank the Kool-Aid. I believed in the enabling power of social media and it is still there. It has just, I think, greed has just overshadowed this and then the whole idea of a business protecting the public sphere. That was new to Facebook and maybe if, you know, journalists have dealt with this all the time. We have standards and ethics to be able to do that and it is still a struggle. I think users, that's how Facebook, how social media, and let's not just look at Facebook, right? YouTube is the second largest search engine globally. Google, Google search—we are all on it. This technology—Shoshana Zuboff wrote a book called The Age of Surveillance Capitalism, like most everything, everything is about power and money. And I think Facebook was able to capture big chunks of the world without having to do what news groups do in setting up a bureau. It took me a year to set up a bureau for CNN in Jakarta—a year—because I needed to know the laws, the customs, and hire people. Facebook, the social media platforms never had to do that. So they're not culture specific. They're not country specific. Given the U.S. laws in Section 230 they were able to go global to hit 2.7 billion—this is Facebook alone—around the world. So in a way, let me end that positively by saying human beings have a lot more in common than we have differences because the social media platforms have shown that to us, but they've shown it in a negative way by insidiously manipulating the biology of what we have. And I think, Jacob, the biggest problem was stated by an American biologist, E.O. Wilson, he said that we're facing “Paleolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and godlike technology.” We need to come to terms with that.


WEISBERG: Yes. Here's a question for you, Josh. Pre-Trump, the U.S. State Department and previous administrations were very much on the side of independent media. And, you know, you could expect as a matter of course, you know, extremely strong statements if not something more than that if someone in Marie's position, a leading independent journalist, was prosecuted on trumped-up charges by an authoritarian. Obviously the Trump administration had a totally contrary view of that. I wonder, first of all, how much difference do you think that's made in the Philippines and Maria's case if you can speak to it? And also, you know, is it too soon for us to see any reversal of that? Are we going back to a norm where the intervention and statements of the United States around independent media matter?


KURLANTZICK: Sure, just to go back for one second. I think one of the challenges between Duterte and Trump would be, and Maria just alluded to this, is Duterte tends to make statements himself directly to local media who are sympathetic to him or through his allies, like Bong Go, whose close allies with [inaudible] or spokesman Harry Roque, they issue intimidating statements, they make statements. He doesn't even need to go to social media and then the social media network blossoms after that. So you would have to dig into the entire social media network or you'd have to somehow cut Duterte off from that and it's not as easy as just, you know, Trump. But to your question, the Trump administration, despite generally being largely uninterested in independent journalism and not standing up for Jamal Khashoggi and others around the world, was actually fairly aggressive overall in democracy promotion in Southeast Asia and Cambodia and Myanmar, to some extent even in the Philippines. I mean, the U.S. government, this wasn't Trump, but denied a visa to the former police chief of the Philippines, who was a close ally of Duterte, who is almost surely involved in extrajudicial killings and probably other things. So, the U.S. policy before, which had been pretty pro-democracy in Southeast Asia, continued, sort of, through the Trump administration, not because of Trump, but because they were fairly active people in the State Department and the NSC who are still committed to this and in the National Endowment for Democracy and others. But certainly the overall message that was delivered on Khashoggi, was delivered by Trump's, you know, the U.S. press, etcetera. And Trump and Duterte had a mild bromance for a while until the Duterte eventually told Trump screw off on some other issues. It doesn't help. I mean, obviously, it creates the environment that allows other authoritarian leaders to sort of say that they feel that there's going to be no pressure or [inaudible] and copy them. And in Southeast Asia the picture is a little more mixed. Others in the Trump administration, not Trump, but others on a lower level did do a fair amount of advocacy for democracy.


WEISBERG: Ramona, I want to bring you back in and I wanted to ask you about the audience for your film in the Philippines in particular. I understand that you've already made it available on a brief basis to an audience there and I wonder both what reaction you've had to it so far and what effect you think it could have on people like you and Maria and me to believe that ultimately good information and truthful journalism can win out over fake news, but, you know, faced with the massive forces of government-sponsored propaganda in the Philippines, it seems a risk with your film might be that even if people can see it, it just, you know, doesn't have a vast impact compared to what they're getting every day. You're muted, I'm afraid.


DIAZ: Yes, that's like the mantra of the aged, right?


WEISBERG: It always happens at least once in every Zoom call.


DIAZ: Right? And I've done this a lot, too. So anyway, it hasn't been formally released in the Philippines, but we did release it for twenty-four hours right before Maria's verdict last June because we just felt like no one was paying attention. Well, it was the pandemic, right, and the Philippines has had one of the worst lockdowns actually in the world. And because, you know, we had partnered with Frontline. And Frontline and PBS have just been great partners for this film because they really, you know, it's a film about journalism and journalists and they understand that deeply. And they allowed us to actually release it for free for twenty-four hours before anyone had seen it. Well, we had premiered at Sundance early in the year, but we hadn't really released it anywhere else. And I think any other outlet would have balked at that and said, "No, we can't do that, because no one had seen it." But they allowed us. So we screened it for twenty-four hours, like from Friday night to Saturday evening and then we ended on something, you know, like a webinar of this nature, live, a talkback with Raney Aronson, actually who's executive producer of Frontline, Maria, me, and Julie Posetti of ICFJ. So Frontline was telling me, was warning me, you know, we get an average of maybe twenty thousand views on their YouTube channel with a lot of advance notice, but this was like, we did it in two days, right? So they said, "You know, maybe five thousand people." I said, "Well, five thousand people is a lot." I mean, five thousand more people who know about Maria's verdict. It was like 233,000 full views in twenty-four hours. Something happened. It's hit the zeitgeist. It was also Independence Day and they were out in the streets marching and they were dispersed by the police and everyone went home. The minute they went home, we went live. So it was one of those very—you couldn’t plan it, right? And I think that reaction really was mostly—I expected anger but what this film does is put it all together for you, right? Things you know, things, not everyone, but things that people in the Philippines know. It's no secret but once you put it together in this sort of filmic narrative fashion, it's different. It hits differently. So a lot of people were very sad because they do remember that, like, you know, like me, I remember the martial law days and it was just a disappointment in themselves for taking their eyes off the ball and realizing that it was so fragile that you have to constantly work at this thing we call democracy. And it's messy and it's hard, but, yes, it was a sadness and disappointment. Will it change things? I think awareness is key, you know. If this thing does something different than all the other social media noise, it just is, I think, because of the way it tells the story, because it's a film form. It's longer. You're immersed in it and it's a perfect time to release it because we're all home and have time to watch a ninety-minute film, right?


WEISBERG: Now you say Netflix or Amazon might not have been open to releasing it for twenty-four hours for commercial reasons, but it's even a bigger issue than that. I mean, neither of them would pick up this documentary about Jamal Khashoggi, really for political reasons. And you know, the Philippines' Duterte might not be quite as powerful economic actors, but as platforms they don't have the core commitment to independent journalism or journalism at all that PBS and Frontline and a filmmaker like you do. I mean, they're making entertainment and to the extent that people would be entertained by this and pay for it, they're interested. But they're not doing what PBS or the networks will still do in supporting documentary film.


DIAZ: Yes, I mean, you know, PBS Frontline, they acquired this out of Sundance. It's not commissioned work. They acquired this as a finished film. And there were offers on the table. There were other offers on the table but we just felt that Frontline was a perfect partner, because they truly understood what we wanted to do with the film. I mean, we want a lot of eyeballs on it, obviously, but also keeping the storylines because we're, you know, if, as you know, it's not done. The story isn't finished yet. It's not going to be done for a few years. Maybe cross fingers but Maria is going to court right after this, right? So they truly are in that space where we needed to be. So they're the perfect part in this. But, who knows, right? I mean, yes, we could have signed up with Netflix and Amazon and stuff, but who knows, too? Maybe they would have but, you know, we did choose Frontline.


WEISBERG: Yes. So, well, before Maria has to go for court I want to invite members to join the conversation with questions. And just to remind everyone this meeting is on the record and the operator will remind you how to join the question queue.


STAFF: [Gives queuing instructions] We will take our first question from Heera Kamboj.


Q: Hello, I'm a State Department FSO currently on sabbatical to Georgetown teaching a course on disinformation. So thank you so much. Two quick questions for you. What is it that the U.S. government or the U.S. government or congressmen or senators can do to support people like you overseas or even what the State Department can do? What would have helped, you know, during these two years while this documentary was being shot? And then a corollary question, sort of unrelated, is about deep fakes and whether you've seen the advent and the usage of them in the Philippines thus far? Thank you so much.


WEISBERG: Maria, go ahead. Yes, fire away.


RESSA: Yes, had to unmute myself. So thank you for your question. So I dumped some things onto the chat, which was that, you know, while President Trump's bombast was encouraging Duterte and they did encourage each other, there was a little love fest. I was actually there during one of the APEC summits where both of them were there and there were senators who held the line and three of them have been banned from entering the Philippines. This is Senators Ed Markey, Dick Durbin, and Patrick Leahy. Patrick Leahy, who I remember from his work in Indonesia, right? So they're holding the line. And then in December 27 President Trump signed that appropriations, the huge bill that became law. That one included a clause that protects journalists all around the world, but specifically mentioned me and El Faro in El Salvador. It's essentially a mini-Magnitsky. You know, so that the focus is on the government official, any government official now who harasses, threatens, intimidates journalists. The U.S. Secretary of State can deny them a visa and their family. So it's not just them, but their families. These things are important, I think, to Filipino officials. Can the U.S. government do more? Absolutely. Because, you know, what you say becomes reality in so many instances. If the beacon of democracy of free speech is so injured or is moving in exactly the wrong direction, which was the case for a period of time, and you still have to recover. When disinformation is rampant, it just flows downhill. So I'm looking forward to seeing stronger actions and there already have been to some degree just words, but words matter.


And then I think the last part is more important than anything is for the United States to actually regulate technology. You know, I just authored something along with Roger McNamee, he is a Silicon Valley investor. He was one of the early investors in Facebook. We basically said you have to look at laws in three areas—privacy, security, and competition. So, you know, these are things you have to stop the poison or the virus of lies before it enters the information ecosystem, before it enters the blood system of democracy. The film says death by a thousand cuts, right, so body politic of democracy. Well, this one, the virus of lies, is introducing this virus, making us weaker in all democracies around the world. Oxford University's Computational Propaganda Research Project this year just said that now these cheap armies on social media are rolling back democracy in at least eighty-one countries around the world—mine and yours. So I do believe what you're teaching is incredibly important, the role of disinformation, of influence operations, of behavior modification systems, how it changes what we think. Here's the last poll. The Biden administration is coming in and looking at the world, but it is so crippled by the fact that its own people, Americans, are so divided at a molecular level, at the identity level, because of the influence operations that have targeted them. You know, the Proud Boys, QAnon, this is not going to go away overnight. And the fractured media ecosystem is also something that has to help facts move forward, you know, not contribute to taking the lies and amplifying them. Beyond that the people who have been infected by the virus of lies, how do we heal them? That's still really a question we have. So first, stop the virus. Second, rehabilitate the people who have been infected and who am I to say that, right, but it's very much, I mean, this is what we're living through.


DIAZ: But also for starters, I mean, the administration should come out with stronger statements every time Maria is arrested. The fact is Maria is also an American citizen, she has dual citizenship, right? So while we were filming, it would have helped if they came up with strong statements every time there was an arrest warrant or she was detained. That's all, for starters.


WEISBERG: Do we have another question?


STAFF: We'll take our next question from Hani Findakly.


Q: Thank you very much. And thank you very much, ladies, you guys have a lot of courage. I'm not an expert on the Philippines, but I wanted to sort of ask a naive question and that is how does this end? We just saw a coup d’état in Myanmar where the military responded to an election that went against its own views. And the question really is, how is this fight, which looks to me like it's fought on the internet and social media between forces of reform and forces that are opposed to it, how does it end in the Philippines?


RESSA: I don't know how to answer that because I really hope it ends where the Philippines has long been since 1986, protecting the values and principles of democracy. But you know, I am in the middle of it right now. All I do every day is to wake up and commit to these values and principles and fight. Fight for my rights, my personal rights as a citizen. When President Duterte attacks me on nationwide television, it's very asymmetrical. So I fight for my rights and then I commit to fight for my rights tomorrow. Where is it going to go? I mean, look, the worst case scenarios are I'm prepared for them. I could go to jail for the rest of my life. Amal Clooney, my lawyer, actually was the first to tell me a little over a year ago that, you know, I could face a maximum of, like, a little over a hundred years in prison cumulatively. And it took me a while to absorb that. And you have to just embrace it. And I'm hoping that Filipinos find their voice. I understand now how Ferdinand Marcos stayed in power for twenty-one years. I understand how fascism arose. History has repeated itself, is repeating itself, and it is up to the people to find our voice. This is one of those instances I always say silence is complicity, right? And it's still playing out. I don't know, but I know who I am and I know what I'm going to do.


DIAZ: There's also presidential elections in 2022. Duterte cannot run again because it's one six-year term. But his heir apparent is his daughter, Sara Duterte, which is a possibility she might be president. So we'll see. That's a very important, it's very interesting to look at 2022. But then, of course, disinformation and all that, you know, all the social media platforms have to fix itself or someone in Silicon Valley has to fix it because it’s asymmetrical as Maria said.


WEISBERG: If I could just extend. Yes, Josh, I was just going to reframe that for you for a second if you don't mind. I mean, say whatever you were going to say but I wanted to ask particularly about the status of independent judiciary in the Philippines. You know, to what extent are there judges who were still operating independent of politics or is it an expectation that in a case like Maria the judges are going to respond to political pressure?


KURLANTZICK: Yes, well, without undermining Maria's bravery or any of the incredible things she does just [inaudible]. And as an analyst, I have to say that I think the situation in the Philippines is fairly grim. Duterte has overseen one of the worst responses to COVID in the whole world, as well as the most significant economic contraction in the Philippines in decades. And yet in surveys done in the Philippines by Pulse Asia and other respected polling groups, he regularly has some of the highest popularity ratings of any leader in the world. So in a normal cycle, even with Trump, you wouldn't say—Trump probably would have been reelected except for his really atrocious COVID, this is just my opinion, management and the economic contraction. Duterte can't be reelected. But a Duterte-like figure, I think, is very likely to be elected in 2022, if not his daughter, an ally, or another illiberal populist, like Manny Pacquiao or someone else will carry on these policies.


In terms of the judiciary, Duterte is already undermined significant swathes of the judiciary from the Supreme Court on down. I can't comment on Maria's own case but I just wanted to step back a little bit to remind us about one of the differences between the Philippines and the U.S. and that maybe some hope going forward is in 2016 when Duterte came to power, he came to power in a four-way presidential race. Duterte didn't run against one opponent and all of his other opponents were all in various ways more committed to liberal democracy, certainly more than him. But when it came down to it, none of them could agree to get out of the race and provide one soul candidate against Duterte. They fought amongst themselves and Duterte won. By contrast, in 2020, even though the Democratic Party is a very big ship, whatever you want to call it, and Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden and AOC don't have that much in common, there was some common ground made. So if there is to be, I think, in the Philippines, some progress, everyone who is opposed to Duterte-ism—because Duterte himself is not going to be anywhere in 2022—is going to have to unite and that isn't what happened in 2016.


DIAZ: Nor did it happen in the midterm elections. It was a fractured opposition, you know, they didn't get together. So yes, it's really key in 2022 they have to come together. They have to coalesce.


WEISBERG: Maria, I know you're going to have to go in a minute. Do you want to make a last comment either on that question on the opposition to Duterte or on the independence of the judiciary? Or both?


RESSA: So you know, the only thing I can say about the judiciary is that I submit myself to the judiciary, the Philippine government, no matter how flawed it is. I am critical as a journalist. I point out and have pointed out the facts that show abuse of power. That show—look, on May 5, the largest broadcaster in the Philippines was shut down, ABS-CBN, which was shut down by Ferdinand Marcos in 1972 and stayed silent for fourteen years until People Power. Again, history repeats itself. It lost its franchise; in May 5 it went dark. So history is repeating itself here. I think the last part and I'm sorry to keep going back to social media, to technology, because the behavior modification system that now distributes the news divides and radicalizes. So, you know, like in the U.S., Trump and Duterte, in the Philippines we all agreed on the facts. We didn't have such a fractured media landscape. But now four years later the division in the public sphere is huge. And if you're pro-Duterte you are almost impervious to facts, right? I mean, it's obvious. So journalists are faced with this new thing of when you say something is the false equivalence doesn't work anymore, just like in climate change, we have to deal with that.


And I guess the last part on the judiciary comes down to the individual battle of integrity of Filipinos. Josh, thank you for what you said about the context of everything but I haven't given up. I think the battle can be won. And I hope that there are enough men and women in the judiciary who will stand by the principles of the Philippine Constitution. Having said that the last two cautionary things are, you know, there are moves to change the Philippine Constitution. The legislature, which has been a captured legislature, has said they would only look at the economic parts, but, you know, very difficult to trust. And the second part is there is now a new anti-terror law. There's thirty-seven petitions against it at the Supreme Court. The oral hearings began yesterday. This law will allow a small group of cabinet secretaries to declare anyone a terrorist and detain them for up to twenty-four days. So you can get arrested without a warrant and detained for up to twenty-four days. This is what we're fighting in court. I signed one of those thirty-seven petitions. So that's a lot. I mean, thank you, thank you so much for listening for the focus on us here. And, you know, I hope for better days.


WEISBERG: Maria, thank you so much for joining us today. We are all thinking about you. We are all rooting for you and as you know, you have so many friends and supporters here.


DIAZ: Good luck, Maria, today.


RESSA: Bye-bye.


WEISBERG: We have a few more minutes. I wanted to come back to Joshua with a kind of broader question. You know, we were just talking about circumstances particular to the Philippines, i.e., that the opposition was so fractured it allowed Duterte to win that election. But at the same time, you know, we see this not just regionwide but, you know, global trends. I mean, in many ways, the People Power Movement, you know, was synonymous with the democracy movement in the '80s and particularly in the region. And in the 2010s we've seen, call it what you want, a democratic recession, a powerful move in the other direction. So I guess, you know, the question is broadly if the authoritarian trend is, in your view, likely to continue. And if it were to be reversed, what would be the drivers and factors back in a democratic direction?


KURLANTZICK: I definitely think it's likely to continue. Freedom House—a disclaimer, I do a little consulting work for their Southeast Asia reports—did a study late last year that showed that democracy and rights had regressed in eighty countries just since the pandemic began because a wide range of illiberal leaders abused the pandemic to impose greater controls. Some of which are reasonable for public health, others which have absolutely nothing to do with public health. They're just ceasing more power. So I expect that this, especially with the pandemic, provides a greater opportunity. And you have like in other waves, either for democracy or against, a wave builds and it isn't cresting yet. You have a sort of effect that keeps going. What would reverse that? I don't know that I have one answer for that. I don't think anyone really does. I mean, I think waves of democratic progress are usually started by several signal events like a major democratic change in a prominent country. In the early '70s it was in southern Europe and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which came right after the People Power Movement, but I don't have an answer to that. But certainly, I think actually the next possible degradation could be the continued degradation for the first time of places that have been consolidating democracy for hundreds of years like the United States.


WEISBERG: Yes. Ramona, I was going to ask you a little more about the film. You know, one of the things I really appreciated about it was, as someone who's followed Maria very closely, I sort of assumed, you know, she was Rappler and Rappler was her. But you get a sense watching the film of Rappler as a journalistic operation and some of the other key people who work there and also the toll this has taken on them. You know, Maria is, you know, she's one of the nicest people in the world but, boy, is she a tough nut? I mean, she, you know, she stands up to all of this stuff but for some of the more junior journalists, boy, is it terrifying to stand up at a press conference and ask a question of the president of the republic and have him pretty much physically threaten you in front of an audience of the whole country and all of your colleagues.


DIAZ: You know, it's just pretty incredible. And you have to realize that for some of them it's their first job out of college, right? Rappler really hires the smartest 20-year-olds because they want them to be digital natives, because they live on, you know, it's all digital. And when you watch Pia Ranada work, not only has she the presence of mind to then go live on Facebook, but it’s also her go-to, right? But still have the presence of mind to not react to the president and just ask the questions. It's pretty incredible to watch them. But they remind me really of young Marias and I think those reporters will be Maria's legacy more than Rappler even because they're going to go, right, they're going to go on beyond Rappler, her legacy. And they're also very self-selecting, right? They really attract young reporters who are committed to journalism, right? I'm not a trained journalist, I'm a filmmaker. So to me it was very inspiring to see them. They're, of course, afraid. I mean, they'd be nuts if they're not afraid but they really are able to tamp that down. And what's key at Rappler is that the founders, you know, they are called the elders, manangs in Tagalog, really protect the reporters. So, like, when we they were going to be shut down, right, and they're fighting, they're still it in court. Very few of the reporters really knew that they were going to be shut down so they could still work. So they could still ask the tough questions. So they weren't pressured at all to like, you know, you know, just, you know, rein it a little bit. No. They were really protected from that. It's pretty incredible.


WEISBERG: Your film is a very effective fly-on-the-wall sense, meaning that it didn't seem like the situations that you were depicting that people were conscious of you being there at all. It was like there was just a camera in the room and it was happening. And I just wonder, you know, at a technical level, how did you do that? How did you inject yourself in the middle of this sort of crisis-type situation but kind of stay pretty invisible assuming that was how it felt being there or how it really was?


DIAZ: We hung out a lot, right? After a while it's just a matter of time. I mean, of course, they'll never forget us. I mean, we are like, you know, there's a camera in the room. I know they're aware of us but at some point they were just too frazzled and things were moving so quickly that they didn't have time to care that the cameras were there. And everyone took their cue from Maria, you know, when Maria said, "Yes, they're trusted. We trust these guys." We were in places that we had no business being, like legal strategy meetings, for example. And I knew filming that I couldn't possibly put it in the film because it would compromise, right, Maria, and I didn't want to do that—compromise her legal strategy. There was just no time, I think, to tell us, "No, you can't be here. You can't be there. You can be here." So they just opened everything to us and just trusted that we were, you know, that we were going to keep our word.


WEISBERG: How long were you on the scene making the film?


DIAZ: I met her in 2018 so we shot a little bit in 2018 and from the first half of 2019. So close to a year.


WEISBERG: Well, I think we're just about wrapping up. I don't see any more questions. But I don't know if Joshua or you, Ramona, has a last word about any of this—about the film, about Rappler, about the Philippines, about Burma. Final thoughts?


KURLANTZICK: Do you want to go or me?


DIAZ: No, you should go.


KURLANTZICK: I mean, I think that the Biden administration probably will take a more robust approach to democracy promotion in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. They've already taken a fairly robust approach in who they appointed. I think that their ability to wield—one thing we haven't talked about here, which it's just worth mentioning in two minutes is, it's not only sort of the global regression of democracy, the U.S.'s own weaknesses, but the most important influential strategic external actor in Southeast Asia, including the Philippines now, is not the United States. It's China. And this is extremely relevant in Myanmar or Burma and Cambodia and other countries in that the U.S. has influence but China is the biggest trading partner, meaning the country is the biggest donor, the most important investor. And so, you know, twenty or twenty-five years ago, not only was the U.S. perhaps more committed to democracy promotion but there was more leverage. The U.S. could marshal, and Japan too, to say, you know, condition aid and if you had a poor rule of law U.S. companies would not invest, etcetera. But having China be the dominant actor in the region completely complicates this whole calculus on the democracy side as well.


WEISBERG: Ramona, any final thought?


DIAZ: No, I think you said at all. I mean, yes, it's amazing too. I thought I was just going to go there to make a film and I'm still living it, which is, you know, I think it's an important story. And I, you know, I hope it stays alive out there because it's, you know, there is one person who might very well go to jail if her story is not kept alive.


WEISBERG: Yes. Well, I want to thank Josh and Ramona and Maria, now on her way to court, for joining us today. This was a terrific discussion. And if anyone who hasn't seen A Thousand Cuts has not been persuaded to watch it, I don't think there's anything more we can do but click on that link you got from CFR and watch it. And I should also note in wrapping up that there will be a transcript and a video of this session on the Council's website shortly. So thank everyone for joining us today.


DIAZ: Thank you. Thanks so much.



Top Stories on CFR


Peter Trubowitz, a professor of international relations and director of the Phelan U.S. Center at the London School of Economics and an associate fellow at Chatham House, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the reasons for the rise of anti-globalism in Western countries and its consequences for world order.


The Balkans have long been a source of tension between Russia and the West, with Moscow cultivating allies there as the EU and NATO expand into the region. The war in Ukraine could be shifting the calculus.

Climate Change

Scientists say governments need to act with more urgency to keep global warming in check. How much progress is possible at COP28?