Rappler is the Philippines' leading online magazine. In this interview, three of its executives speak about a holistic safety approach and the importance of focusing on a young, digitally native audience.
Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa, center, is escorted as she arrives to attend a court hearing for a cyber libel case at Manila Regional Trial Court, Philippines
The Philippines is one of the deadliest countries for journalists in South East Asia. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), the country belongs to the five countries with highest impunity rates for crimes against journalists. Since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016, violence in the Philippines has increased dramatically. More than 5,000 people were killed in Duterte’s proclaimed war on drugs within the first two years of his presidency alone.
President Duterte is also known for his hate towards the media, stating shortly after his inauguration that some of the many journalists killed in the country had deserved to die. Despite this environment and despite being under constant attack, Rappler, the first online-only news organization in the Philippines, became an internationally recognized and awardwinning media site.
DW Akademie spoke to three of Rappler’s founding members, Chief Executive Officer Maria Ressa, Executive Editor Glenda Gloria and Managing Editor Chay Hofileña, about the importance of focusing on a young, digitally native audience and of founding your media outlet based on a holistic safety approach.
DW Akademie: Rappler has been under permanent attack—offline and online. Your office has been searched, National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) agents entered your premises in Manila armed with an arrest warrant. Is there anything you can do to prevent escalations?
Maria Ressa: I am a planner. You prepare for the worst and you hope for the best. Embrace your fear. Shine the light—and tell the world. What is happening to us is emblematic of how journalists around the world are being attacked: bottom-up exponential attacks on social media eroding trust, seeding lies that make us more vulnerable. That’s followed by top-down attacks by President Duterte himself and the weaponization of the law: eleven cases filed against me and Rappler in 2018; ten arrest warrants issued against me in less than two years.
On June 15, 2020, former researcher Rey Santos Jr and I were convicted for cyber libel—for a crime that didn’t exist when we published a story eight years earlier that I didn’t write, edit, or supervise. This Kafkaesque move can send each of us to jail for up to six years. I was convicted for a crime that didn’t exist and a story I didn’t write, edit or supervise.
Chay Hofileña: Maria and Rey Santos Jr are not in jail because this is a bailable offense and the case remains pending with the Court of Appeals.
After the arrest warrant was hurled at us there was a lot of international support but no strong outburst from the local media. In summer 2020, ABS-CBN, the country’s largest network, was closed down by this administration. This decision in the middle of a pandemic shows the shamelessly skewed priorities of this government. When media operations are closed down on account of twisted facts and an inability to accept criticism, democracy’s death is hastened.
In the Philippines, both online and offline, our world is ruled by violence and this violence leads to fear. When the government attacks, you make a decision: Are we going to pursue hard-hitting investigative reports against a vindictive government or are we going to duck and wait it out? Well, you can’t wait this out. It’s really about courage. Investigative stories require courage in any environment, but even more so in this environment, where you have a president openly saying that journalists are corrupt, and a government inviting violence.
Democracy is under threat in this country; the media should be pushing back but we’re not seeing enough of that. We can understand because other media could be facing the same consequences. All Duterte needs to do is to hit them publicly. Rappler soon became the platform of the millennials, with the majority of the readers being between 18–34 years old.
How important is a strong connection to the audience for your success?
Maria Ressa: It’s incredibly important. We build a community because we stand by our principles: the standards and ethics, the mission of journalism, which the world needs today more than ever. When social media, the world’s largest distributor of news, become behaviour modification systems that spread lies faster than facts by design, journalists fight for facts. We have to become activists in a battle for facts, for truth, for democracy. Our audience trusts us because we stand by our principles despite great personal cost. Our largest audience are people from the age-group of 18–34. This is part of the reason President Duterte targeted us. Like Rappler, they’re young, scrappy. They know how to have fun, but they care about the same enduring values we do. Glenda Gloria: We’re in touch with our readers, know what they want and how much they can take. After our analysis showed that the readers were just skimming through lengthy articles, we turned to series-led investigations and increasingly to video.
It’s a chicken and egg thing. The sceptics were discouraging us from pursuing longform because they felt like it would not take off online. But the market will never be ready for anything unless you try it. I mean, in the same manner the market wasn’t ready for something like Rappler. But as journalists, we have perennial faith in the reader. That ultimately, the reader will choose quality journalism.
Chay Hofileña: Rappler was successful with the adjustments it made. Readers were loyal, and our stories also led to a changed and broadened perspective among the Filipino public about their President’s dealings. Since Rappler was founded, you have built a newsroom of more than 100 staffers—most of them young and mostly female.
Why this approach?
Chay Hofileña: We’re building for the future. When we started, we hired reporters as young as 23, fresh out of college or with just a few years work experience. They were very open, willing to learn and had no bad habits. And it was easy to train them. Now they’re encouraged and empowered to do these stories. We have a section called “Nation” which essentially covers national news, with about 10 reporters who are encouraged to do longform stories too, including investigative or in-depth stories. The pandemic has, however, made it much more difficult to produce as many investigative reports as we may have wanted.
Glenda Gloria: The assumption here is if you’re a reporter at Rappler, you have the capacity or the potential to become an investigative reporter. Reporters are told right at the start that they will have to do breaking day-to-day reports and produce in-depth investigative stories, because that is Rappler’s branding. Our young reporters find personal fulfilment in doing so.
How do you protect your journalists?
Maria Ressa: Online violence leads to real world violence. Research has proven that globally. The amount of hate and violence, the dehumanization we were being subjected to on social media worried me, and when Duterte supporters came to our office and doxxed us, published our address, asked their supporters to attack us, we increased our security. We offered counselling to our reporters and social media team, among the first globally to recognize this new personal weapon against journalists. We focused on digital security, not just for our site, which has always been a priority but also for each Rappler.
Glenda Gloria: We’re also asked to sweep the office for bugs every now and then. We don’t talk about sensitive issues and there’s no fixed equipment here. All employees bring in laptops that can be quickly packed up.
What about psychological side effects from reporting?
Chay Hofileña: After doing stories about the war on drugs, some, not all of our reporters had been having nightmares. We connected them to someone who could help. The trauma of journalists who cover violence and dead bodies is different from the trauma of others who go through similar challenges. Journalists are trained to bury their trauma and fears, and soldier on for the sake of their stories and the public they have sworn to serve. Not many psychiatrists know how to deal with tough and sceptical, if not cynical, journalists and draw them out.
Glenda Gloria: Counselling is not commonly offered here for journalists who find themselves in an area of trauma. This type of counselling, trauma reporting, is a new field in the Philippines. How has the pandemic influenced your safety situation?
Chay Hofileña: The pandemic has made our work much more difficult. It’s harder to reach out to sources who have sensitive information to share. Gadgets and communication channels are presumed to be unsafe and therefore it takes longer to gather information. It’s not as easy to set face-to-face appointments because of quarantine restrictions. And we don’t want to risk putting our sources’ lives in danger, too.
Add to the pandemic our new anti-terror law that makes it easy to justify surveillance by state actors. The pandemic has empowered the Duterte administration and legitimized human rights abuses and possible surveillance in the guise of contact-tracing for the pandemic. This has made not just journalists, but also government critics, more vulnerable to attacks both physically and virtually.
Did you expect to be attacked digitally?
Chay Hofileña: When we started, we never imagined there would be threats against our journalists. Social media held a lot of promise. The slogan we had then was “social media for social change” or “social media for social good.” We never imagined social media would be a source of intimidation and harassment. We learned our lessons the hard way and learned to anticipate the worst that could happen in any situation and prepare accordingly. We fine-tuned processes and protocols along the way, depending on the levels of threat we perceived.
Maria Ressa: We lived through this technology. We embraced it for better or for worse. That’s also why we were attacked. I believed in social media, because it is incredibly empowering. The network effect is incredible. When you live in the world of data the way that we do, you understand the way the world works in a whole different way. We haven’t lost the wonder of the Internet, but American biologist E.O. Wilson said it best: The biggest crisis we are facing is the combination of palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions, and god-like technology. When technology companies took over as gatekeepers, they abdicated responsibility for protecting the public sphere. We need to bring back principles that empower democracy: we must have a shared reality and shared facts. We prioritize three existential battles: truth, climate, health.
Rappler has been targeted with hate messages, especially after you published a three-part series in October 2016 on what later became known as ’patriotic trolling’—online hate speech sponsored by the State to silence anyone who was not in line with the government’s official version of events. Maria alone received hundreds of messages, ranging from threats of rape to ridiculing her looks. What did you do?
Maria Ressa: I saw exponential attacks—an average of 90 hate messages per hour. So, we built Sharktank, our own database of public Facebook posts and pages—to figure out what was going on. Because how else do you know whether it is a troll, or paid, or a real person that you are engaging or responding to?
When we pulled together the data for network mapping, we saw a consistent, organized propaganda machine that was feeding half-truths and manipulating Filipinos, attacking journalists, human rights activists, anyone questioning the Duterte administration. It accomplished two things: pounding the questions into silence; and seeding meta-narratives, lies that became facts. Our data showed government officials and government accounts attacking critics, connecting fake accounts, insidiously manipulating the public. The Facebook takedowns showed this abuse of power.
You identified numerous Facebook accounts, reaching more than three million users, that were spreading false news and inciting violence. Instead of turning your back on Facebook, in 2018 you started engaging with them and joined forces to expose fake accounts controlled by a network of Duterte supporters. Why?
Maria Ressa: In the Global South, every day that YouTube or Facebook doesn’t act, somebody dies. That’s the impact of this technology. Globally, democracy has been rolled back by cheap armies on social media. Technology companies handle the algorithms that now power our lives. The technology has been weaponized by authoritarian-style leaders with the willing consent of the guys who built it.
Together with the independent Filipino non-profit media organization Vera Files, in 2018 we reviewed news stories on Facebook, checked their facts, and rated their accuracy, aiming to identify and prevent disinformation from spreading on the platform. I think change is starting to happen and we’re part of those discussions. That’s what’s exciting because I think everything we do matters now. And that’s really empowering.
We’re not just fighting a government. We’re trying to use technology in a way that can help preserve democracy. If the bad guys can use it, why can’t we use these networks as a force for good?
How has Rappler managed to become a viable media company amidst these difficult circumstances?
Maria Ressa: I know that independence is connected to business and if you make business the top priority then you will not make investigative journalism your top priority. Those two things almost don’t go hand in hand when you are trying to hold power to account. But in Rappler, journalists handle the business, and we’ve found innovative ways to turn journalistic processes and thinking into products that other companies can use.
Glenda Gloria: We have a broad approach. Our media organization relies on revenue from advertising, grants, providing data insight, and membership. In the past years, Rappler has diversified its business model in such a way that it no longer solely relies on one revenue stream such as advertising. Moreover, there is a Chinese wall between journalistic operations and business services, such as offering PR videos to commercial clients. In 2016 we hit near breakeven financially. That was the same year that we came under attack by the Duterte government.
In 2018, the Committee to Protect Journalists named Rappler its first beneficiary of a fundraising campaign to provide legal support for journalists facing extensive legal battles meant to suppress critical journalism. The International Center for Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have also pledged their support. This is important—financially, morally, and in terms of security. It sends a signal that the government can’t bankrupt us.
The majority of Rappler Holdings is owned by journalists. Investors can buy shares, but internal rules ensure that the existing shareholders have first dibs at buying those shares. Assuming one shareholder decides to sell his share, existing shareholders have the right of first refusal. Should an outsider be interested in buying shares, a majority of shareholders must approve. Equally, you cannot sell your shares without the approval of the others. Long-time Rappler employees have also been offered a stock option.
Does your audience support you financially?
Glenda Gloria: We’ve received financial support via our crowdfunding efforts for Maria’s legal defence fund, as well as help from international human rights lawyers led by Amal Clooney. Very important is that the business model has to constantly evolve to better understand our readers. They’re staying longer on the site based on the data we have. We’re not a mass-market news organization so we know that they come to Rappler because of the brand of Rappler and that’s the kind of readership that we want.
Chay Hofileña: We launched a new platform, which we call Lighthouse, right in the middle of the pandemic and we thought it was a crazy thing to do, considering that so many things could go wrong. Lighthouse is our new content delivery and community engagement platform. Our new platform was designed with users in mind who mostly visit Rappler from their mobile phones.
So, we designed Lighthouse for mobile-first with an optimized architecture which enables faster loading, taking into account slower connections as well. It took months to clean up bugs and it’s still work in progress. This is part of the Rappler way of innovating and experimenting, exploring what technology can make possible.
How does quality journalism contribute to staying safe and viable?
Chay Hofileña: I am certain that high-quality investigative reports, checking on abuses of power by the government, as well as breaking exclusives lie at the heart of our success. Ironically, it’s Duterte’s attacks that have given us an enhanced global profile and we have been turning the pressure into new opportunities.
If our content were trash, if our reporting was irresponsible, if we did not dare speak truth to power, if we were political partisans, there would be no credibility to speak of. We know that in journalism, credibility is a major currency. Our output and our stories are proof of our independence. In journalism, credibility and independence are the ultimate measures of viability and safety.
Glenda Gloria: Since the colonial years, the Philippine media have played a critical role in either bringing down a dictatorship or the transitioning of a new one. Duterte underestimates the nature of the Philippine media. Rappler is led by women who were products of the revolution. We left college when Ferdinand Marcos was ousted so we benefited from political freedoms that came about after the end of that dictatorship. And we know how to lose it—so we’re not going to.
Especially in a country like the Philippines, quality media holds an important role: In a country with weak political institutions, a weak judiciary, you need a watchdog to speak the truth.
Maria Ressa is President and CEO of Rappler. She is internationally recognized as a fighter for press freedom. Prior to co-founding Rappler, she focused on investigating terrorism in Southeast Asia. In 2018, she was named one of TIME Magazine’s Persons of the Year and in 2020, one of the Magazine’s “100 Women of the Year”, a list of the most influential women of the past century. In November 2019, she was arrested for “cyberlibel” after Rappler was accused of publishing a false news story; seven months later, a court in Manila found her guilty. Her arrest was perceived by international media and the opposition as a politically motivated attempt to silence her, as she is an outspoken critic of the current Philippine administration. In 2020, she was charged with cyberlibel again, this time for re-tweeting a screenshot of an article.
Chay Hofileñam, Managing Editor and co-founder, previously headed Rappler’s Investigative Desk and is in charge of Rappler’s training program. Before joining Rappler, she co-founded Newsbreak Magazine and was a contributing writer. She has written on media issues and authored the book News for Sale: The Corruption and Commercialization of the Philippine Media (2004), published by the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. Chay Hofileña also teaches News Writing and Investigative Journalism to undergraduate students. She is drawn to journalism because it allows her to write stories that have the potential to make a difference.
Glenda Gloria, Rappler's Executive Editor, previously worked for the Philippine Daily Inquirer, The Manila Times and for international news agencies. Revolutions and transitions in the Philippines made her a fighter for freedom and shaped her temperament as a journalist. She was also a fellow at the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism. She co-founded the Philippines’ top investigative magazine Newsbreak, which started as a news weekly. From 2008 to January 2011, she managed ANC, the ABS-CBN News Channel as its chief operating officer. Glenda is the author of several books, including Under the Crescent Moon: Rebellion in Mindanao (2000), that won her the National Book Award in the Philippines.