Ressa’s crime? According to the government, she’d committed cyber libel (lying online) about a businessman. But according to many journalists and human rights organizations, the government arrested her to keep her from reporting on the president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, and the thousands of people he has had killed in his war on drugs.
That was in 2019, and Ressa is still fighting that charge along with an ever-mounting pile of politically motivated lawsuits — charges that have multiplied as the Philippines’ May 9 elections near, according to Reporters Without Borders. She’s just one example of the many brave journalists around the world who persist in doing their job despite great adversity, says Jodie Ginsberg, president of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
“The major threats come from a number of areas. One is authoritarian governments who only want to have one point of view, heard and seen. And so they’ll use all sorts of means to suppress journalists — from jailing to even supporting the killing of journalists to legal harassment,” she says.
With so much going on in the news, it’s easy to forget about the journalists behind that information. This is why, in 1993, the United Nations designated May 3 as World Press Freedom Day. The goal of World Press Freedom Day is to draw attention to the importance of freedom of the press and the many ways journalists can be silenced.
“Press freedom protects our ability to find out about things that are happening in our world around us, whether it’s in our own neighborhoods, or across the country,” says Jenn Topper. Topper is communications director for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. “It helps us learn about things we’re interested in and about what the people we elect are doing.”
So far this year, 25 journalists have been killed for doing their job, and many more have been threatened and harassed, Ginsberg says. Increasingly, these threats are coming from social media, she says. “We’ve seen a huge explosion in harassment of journalists online, and unfortunately, the highest number of victims of that are female journalists.”
Ressa, for instance, receives about 2,000 “ugly” messages a day on her professional Facebook page ranging from personal insults to death threats, according to a 2017 UNESCO report. Often those who post these messages have been misled and angered by paid online trolls, according to the report. These trolls are trickier to get rid of than the ones in folklore and fantasy novels, and their lies spread faster and further than facts, according to a 2018 Massachusetts Institute of Technology study.
What can people do to fight this tide of false information? Learn how to tell real news from fake news — and don’t spread fake news, Ginsberg says.
“Ask yourself, ‘How did the journalist get this information? What is the source of the information?’ ” she says. Solid reporting always includes lots of credible sources, she notes. Those sources may be a scientist or other expert, a government official or someone who witnessed an event.
Ginsberg also recommends supporting good journalism by subscribing to trustworthy news organizations.
“People don’t necessarily always think that journalism is important enough to pay for, and yet it’s a crucial part of living in a free and democratic society,” she says.
And you might consider becoming a reporter, Ginsberg says.
“Anyone can be a journalist as long as you are curious,” she says. “We need many more people joining this industry from as wide a variety of backgrounds and experiences as possible.”
With more people — reporters and readers — committed to solid journalism, eventually the trolls may leave social media and join their folklore friends under a bridge.