Nobel laureate Maria Ressa says she keeps a prison “go bag” with bundles of cash for bail and runs simulations of police raids with her staff as she fights for press freedom in the Philippines.
The editor of news website Rappler won acquittal on four tax-evasion charges on Wednesday but said she was prepared for the worst from the three further outstanding cases that could see her sent to jail or her online news organisation shuttered.
Ressa, who shared the Peace Prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov in 2021, has been battling a series of cases that media advocates say were brought because of her criticism of former president Rodrigo Duterte and his drug war, which claimed thousands of lives.
“I think what President Duterte did there was, he created a climate of fear. And that’s for everyone: for journalists, for business, for institutions,” she told Agence France-Presse in an interview.
“And he made a point of making an example of people who stood up to him.”
Since her legal troubles began – soon after Duterte’s election in 2016 – Ressa said she had taken steps to prepare her reporters for the prospect of police raids on the Rappler office.
The drills have continued even after Ferdinand Marcos was elected to succeed Duterte last year.
“Yes, we have because who knows what will happen? When you’re on quicksand, you’re on quicksand,” Ressa said.
After the country’s corporate regulator ordered Rappler to shut down in early 2018, Ressa said she gathered her young work force – 120 people with a median age of 23 – and offered to help them find new jobs if they wanted to quit.
No one took her up on it and Rappler has continued to operate while fighting the closure order in court.
“The best part of it is, I think, these six years – we’re coming up on seven actually – made us stronger. Nietzsche was right – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”
Ressa, 59, said she has kept an emergency bag with a change of clothes, sheets and toothpaste close by after being convicted of cyber libel in 2020.
“You have to pack a go bag in case you get arrested and you have to go to jail,” she said, adding she kept a bag ready even as she was granted bail while appealing against the verdict.
“There was a period of time when I carried bail money with me all the time because we didn’t know when we were going to be arrested.”
She and Rappler staff have also had to deal with online harassment and death threats.
“When we were planning what was going to happen today, the first thing we thought about was conviction, and then acquittal, right? Because this is the very first time since President Duterte took office that we have had a legal win.”
Ressa, who also has a US passport, insisted she would never leave the country to avoid prosecution.
“You take your emotion and push it to the very, very bottom of the pit of your stomach,” she said, adding she slept well at night.
Nonetheless, Ressa said a “shift” had taken place, as shown by her tax acquittals, “because we held the line”.
“I’m much more hopeful today than I was last night.”