Journalism facing its biggest threat ever in ‘fake news’ era, says prominent investigative journalist Maria Ressa

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Rappler CEO Maria Ressa speaking at the launch of TIJ in London. (Supplied/The Investigative Journal)
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Rappler CEO Maria Ressa speaking at the launch of TIJ in London. (Supplied/The Investigative Journal)
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Rappler CEO Maria Ressa with CEO and founder of The Investigative Journal Mohamed Fahmy at the publication's launch in London. (Supplied/The Investigative Journal)
Updated 16 July 2019
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Journalism facing its biggest threat ever in ‘fake news’ era, says prominent investigative journalist Maria Ressa

  • Rappler CEO Ressa said the rise of technology had exacerbated attacks on media professionals
  • Ressa added that news gathering and investigative journalism are under severe threat

LONDON: Journalists and their profession are coming under attack now more than ever, and more needs to be done to protect them, according to a prominent investigative journalist.

Speaking in London last week at the launch of the Investigative Journal, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa said the rise of technology had exacerbated attacks on media professionals, and social media had failed to take on the responsibility of journalistic integrity.

“While social media platforms have taken over and they’ve become the world’s largest distributors of news, they didn’t take over the gatekeeping powers. Journalists are the gatekeepers of facts,” she added.

The award-winning Filipina journalist said the current generation of journalists is trying to fight for facts and wrest back control of the “truth” from those with the “largest megaphone and the most power.”

Ressa added that news gathering and investigative journalism are under severe threat, not just in her own country but all over the world, in what she called a heightened era of “fake news.”

She said: “Journalism is in crisis. We’re under attack, not just as sustainable news organizations but as individual journalists, (in a sphere) where online violence and abuse can turn into real-world violence.”

Ressa added: “Online attacks against me were enabled and technology was the accelerator, and we’ve seen this in many other parts of the world.”

She founded the fake-news monitoring site Rappler in the Philippines, which partnered with the Investigative Journal and is currently facing prosecution by her country’s government.

At the London event, she announced that she had enlisted the support of human rights lawyer Amal Clooney to lead a team of international experts to fight her case against charges related to tax evasion and other accusations, all of which Ressa denies.

She has been a prominent journalist in the Philippines for three decades, and is an outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte.

She has come in for online abuse and attacks due to her covering of the brutal drug war currently being waged by Duterte’s government against organized crime.

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READ MORE: Investigative reporting, press freedom journal launches in London

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The UN says the crackdown has claimed 27,000 lives since 2016, when the president was elected.

Ressa said Duterte “was elected just a month before Brexit, and (they both show that) disinformation works. I’m not even going to call it misinformation — it’s disinformation that works. It pounds on the fracture lines of society, spreading hate and violence.”

She added: “A lie told a million times becomes a fact, and if you’re a traditional news group and you don’t respond — which is what we were all taught to do —you’ve just helped the lie become a fact. This is why our world is upside down, because without facts we don’t have truth, and without truth we have no trust.”

Ressa said: “The Philippines is a cautionary tale. It’s both a curse and a privilege to be a senior journalist in my country today.”

She added: “We’ll look back on this period in 10 years and say this was a critical moment in history. Silence is consent to unspeakable violence and impunity. But aside from that impunity, right now you’re talking about the insidious mass manipulation of information and information operations within our society.”

Ressa said the dangerous power of social media, and its role in the manipulation of information, are felt most in the developing world.

She cited cases such as the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Myanmar — countries that have no say in how social media algorithms are developed.

She called for social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to be held much more accountable for the way in which information is shared on their platforms, to prevent the spread of “disinformation” and protect those who are working hard to share facts and truth.

Ressa’s comments on the threat facing journalists were echoed by Egyptian-American journalist Mohamed Fahmy, founder of the Investigative Journal, who also spoke at the launch.

“We’re living in an age of unprecedented attacks on journalists, with 80 colleagues murdered and 348 imprisoned in 2018 alone,” he said, citing Reporters Without Borders’ figures.

Fahmy, who has been a campaigner for press freedom since 2013, when he was accused of being a terrorist and imprisoned in Egypt during the Arab Spring, added: “Journalists should never be the story. They should never be on the wrong side of the microphone.”

He said: “I see no better time to work with the world’s investigative journalists on stories often overlooked by the mainstream media.”

The Investigative Journal is a web publication for long-form investigative journalism, and will cover topics such as press freedom, terrorism, corruption and climate change.


Turkey tries Bloomberg reporters, accused of economic sabotage

Updated 20 September 2019

Turkey tries Bloomberg reporters, accused of economic sabotage

  • They were among dozens of defendants, including some who had simply written jokes about the currency crisis on Twitter
  • Conspiracy theories are widely believed in Turkey

ISTANBUL: Two Bloomberg reporters on Friday appeared in a Turkish court accused of damaging the country’s economy by writing an article about last year’s currency crisis.

Numerous other defendants, including economists and journalists, have also been charged in the case over their critical comments on social media about the financial turmoil in August 2018.

If found guilty they could face up to five years in prison.

Bloomberg’s editor-in-chief, John Micklethwait, said: “We condemn the indictment issued against our reporters, who have reported fairly and accurately on newsworthy events. We fully stand by them and will support them throughout this ordeal.”

The case, which opened in Istanbul on Friday, was brought after a complaint from Turkey’s banking watchdog BDDK and Capital Markets Board. The criminal court will begin hearing the second session of the prosecution on Jan 17.

The Bloomberg reporters’ article angered Turkish decision-makers and financial institutions after it claimed that the country’s Central Bank would be holding an emergency meeting over a plunge in the value of the lira against the dollar — the biggest currency shock to hit Turkey since 2001 — mainly brought on by a diplomatic crisis with the US.

The independence of the Turkish Central Bank has been high on the agenda for some time in the recession-hit economy, especially after the dismissal of its governor by a presidential decree in early July with no official reason given.

Experts said the trial was a continuation of a campaign of intimidation against journalists working in independent local and foreign media in Turkey. One local journalist, Cengiz Erdinc, has been convicted of “ruining the prestige” of the state-run Ziraat bank.

Last year, the Turkish Interior Ministry said it would take legal action against 346 social media accounts it claimed had created negative perceptions about the Turkish economy.

In another attempted press crackdown in Turkey, the pro-government SETA think tank in Istanbul recently published a report profiling Turkish journalists working for foreign media organizations, including Arab News, accusing them of “carrying out a perception work” through their “univocal line of reporting.”

Dr. Sarphan Uzunoglu, assistant professor of multimedia journalism at the Lebanese American University, said Turkey’s existing foreign policy and the government’s discourse over the last two years, totally fitted what was going on in the Bloomberg trial.

“The (Turkish) Justice and Development Party’s paranoid and conspiracy-driven political discourse is directly reflected to accusations against these journalists,” he told Arab News.

“Journalists are accused of attempting an ‘economic coup.’ The tweets and stories they published, like in all trials of journalists in Turkey, are used against them. I think one of the most important factors here is that Bloomberg seems to be a handful of comparatively independent, economy focused newsrooms.”

On the day of the trial, the US dollar/Turkish lira exchange rate rose to 5.7140, from 5.6980 on Thursday. The Turkish economy has contracted for the past three quarters.