TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. At a time when many journalists are facing increasing threats around the world, my guest, Maria Ressa, has stood up to one of the world's most dangerous leaders. Ressa is a co-founder and executive editor of Rappler, an online media organization based in Manila. She's been covering the rise of the populist authoritarian President Rodrigo Duterte since he was a mayor in the Philippines. When he became president in 2016, Ressa and her reporters covered Duterte's bloody war on drugs, his expanding grip on all parts of the government and his crackdown on the press.
Ressa and Rappler have faced 13 government investigations. She now faces nine criminal charges. In June, Ressa and another reporter were convicted of cyberlibel, defaming someone online. It's a Filipino law that's being applied retroactively because the law didn't even exist when the alleged crime was committed. They are appealing and are still fighting other charges. They also face constant threats of assassination and jail from Duterte, his supporters and the army of Internet trolls they unleash. Ressa sees this abuse of power and the weaponized use of the Internet as a danger to democracies everywhere.
Maria Ressa was born in the Philippines and grew up in the U.S. She worked for CNN for two decades. She ran CNN's bureau in Manila and then the Jakarta bureau and served as CNN's lead investigative reporter focusing on terrorism in the region. Ressa decided to make Manila her home and created Rappler. Her fearless work has garnered attention worldwide. In 2018, she was named Time magazine's Person of the Year. Now there's a documentary about her work called "A Thousand Cuts," directed by Ramona Diaz. It will be shown this Friday on the "Frontline" series on PBS stations and online.
Maria Ressa, welcome to FRESH AIR. And I so admire your courage and the journalism that you have been doing. So thank you for coming on our show.
MARIA RESSA: Thank you for having me.
GROSS: I want to quote some of the things that President Duterte has said. And this first one got a lot of applause. He said, if you don't kill me now, four months from now, I'll roast you like a pig. He said, just because you're a journalist, you think you're exempted from assassination? In a speech he said, when I became president, I said, do not do drugs because I will kill you. I have three more years. I'm really going to finish you off. You'll see. At his inaugural address, he said, if you're into drugs, someday, you'll make a mistake. And I will kill you. It's just horrifying to hear a president speak about killing his citizens like that. Do you take him at his word, especially with journalists, saying that just because you're a journalist, you're not exempt from assassination?
RESSA: I think that's the one thing he's always delivered, his threats. You know, the funny thing is in 2015, which was when we were trying to figure out was he really going to run or not, I sat down with him. And that was the first time I'd interviewed him since 1989. So I interviewed him a long, long time ago and then in 2015. And in that interview, he admitted that he killed three people on camera, you know? And at that point - maybe the way American journalists covered Trump - it was like, I didn't quite know what to think or how to react. But since then, every quote that you've said, it creates a new beginning of how the president uses his power, right? He doesn't lie about it. He threatens.
And, you know, he creates a list of the - of people he says are drug addicts. And in that - he gave me this list. This is now in 2016. December 2016, he's already president. We're sitting at the palace. And he gives me a thick list, like almost a foot long. And he says, this is - these are all the drug addicts. And I was like, is this proven? He said, well, no, not yet. But then slowly, over the next few years, those people on that drug list, they wound up dead. So I think the difference between the United States and the Philippines, between Trump and Duterte, is you have institutions. And while Americans say that your institutions aren't strong enough, they were strong enough to hold a strong president. We have a president who's boasted of killing people and continues to encourage the police and the military to kill people. We don't know what to do with that.
GROSS: In one of your interviews with President Duterte, you said to him, you break the law. You've threatened to break the law. You've said you killed. And yet you have the task of keeping the rule of law. Is it important that people be afraid of you? And he answered, yes. For the rule of law, there must be fear. So that's a very brave question to have asked him, especially since his government has been investigating and threatening you. What is it like for you to confront him with questions like that?
RESSA: You know, that was December of 2016. And I was one of four reporters that he gave an interview to at the palace. With President Duterte at that point, I was really curious because all of the things that he had said - you know, he believes that he understands the Filipino psyche. And, really, he is - his understanding of the psyche is all about bullying. He believes that Filipinos do not follow the law and that they must be threatened into doing that. I'd asked him earlier, you know, how are you going to make this country - we're 110 million people.
And it's been a tough - a democracy that's kind of, you know, had weak institutions, weak law enforcement, endemic corruption. How are you going to handle this? And he says, no, no, no. I'll be different because I know how the Filipinos think. And then he said how he would use institutions like the tax agency to run after and make his - make Filipinos follow. Well, little do I know - little did I know then that the tax agency would come after me because I'm doing my job, right? I face five tax evasion cases that the government has filed, and all because we've been reclassified from a news organization to a stock brokerage. Like, what's the - let me think of the exact...
GROSS: What (laughter)?
RESSA: Yeah, yeah, yeah. See; this is what - when I actually go into it, I just go, oh, my God. So we are no longer...
GROSS: Because that makes no sense, yeah.
RESSA: Well, we were reclassified as a dealer in securities. That's the exact quote. So Rappler, as an entity, is not a news organization. We are a, quote, "dealer in securities." And because we are, we then should have paid all the taxes that a stock brokerage agency would, right? That makes perfect sense, doesn't it?
GROSS: Well, that makes as much sense as being tried retroactively for a law that didn't exist when the so-called crime was committed, which is what happened to you with the libel case. So it is really remarkable what you're facing now. One of Duterte's first moves as president was to initiate a war on drugs, which he promised you in an interview would be bloody. And he wasn't kidding. There were bodies on the street. What did he say he was trying to do? Like, in all of the clips that I've heard from him and from the man he appointed as the leader of the war on drugs, they're going after addicts. I don't hear them talking about the big dealers who are, basically, addicting other people. They're talking about the addicts who have, like, a health crisis because they're addicted.
RESSA: Yes. And that's - you know, I think you look at Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International - all the reports that we have done will show you that the poor have borne the brunt of the drug war. And the number of people killed - you know, that's the first casualty in our war for truth. It goes the government - the police will say it's about - they rolled it back this year to 5,500. But, you know, as of - my gosh - the end of 2016, the beginning of January 2017, it was at 7,000. But we watched in plain sight as the police rolled back the numbers. And yet on a daily basis, our reporters would come home with - you know, with at least eight dead bodies a night. So from the end of 2016 to 2017, we knew something bad was happening, but - human rights groups are saying that up to 27,000 have been killed.
GROSS: Do you think that the victims were really addicts, or do you think that they were targeted for other reasons? And an addict should not be killed. I mean, that's just, like, horrifying.
RESSA: Yeah, exactly, right? You see the difference right there. Right, right. And so...
GROSS: Yeah. I mean, obviously, addicts should not be murdered by the government, but I'm not even sure they were addicts. Was there another agenda underneath that?
RESSA: Well, the first agenda is exactly what President Duterte said, right? Fear, violence - this is how he leads. It worked in Davao City, where he was mayor on and off since 1988. His family has essentially ruled Davao City. It's a city of about a million people. But the big difference is COVID. At the very beginning of - you know, before the lockdown happened, he made light of it, and he said, I'm just going to slap that virus. Where's that virus? And now, you know, 10 months in, we're still - I think the Philippines has had the longest lockdown. We're going to be in, like, our 42nd week of lockdown.
GROSS: Wow. Wow.
RESSA: So it's not - and the virus has brought out the weaknesses of the administration, of Duterte's style of leadership, as it has with Trump. But I think the difference is that in the Philippines, the lockdown has allowed the government to consolidate power even more.
GROSS: How has it done that?
RESSA: May 5, in the middle of the lockdown, the government, a small regulatory agency - as it did with Rappler - demanded that ABS-CBN, the largest broadcaster in the Philippines, shut down within hours. It did. That's unheard of. I mean, I just didn't think that could be possible. Again, this is - the largest network was shut down by Ferdinand Marcos when he declared martial law in 1972, and it stayed shut for 14 years.
So to have this happen again, the chilling effect that happened - and then you have, during this time period, 130,000 people arrested for quarantine violations. People were killed. President Duterte threatened to kill people for quarantine violations. And an anti-terror law was enacted close to when Hong Kong put out its security law. And under this anti-terror law, anyone who's designated a terrorist can be jailed without a warrant. And so you can be arrested without a warrant and jailed for up to 24 days. So it's a different time. There have been 37 petitions at the Supreme Court to declare this law unconstitutional. The pleadings will be heard in January. So let's see.
GROSS: My guest is Maria Ressa, the executive editor and CEO of Rappler, an online media organization in the Philippines. She and Rappler have been under attack by the government of the authoritarian president, Rodrigo Duterte. A documentary about her called "A Thousand Cuts" will be shown Friday night on Frontline on PBS stations and online at pbs.org and on YouTube. We'll be back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. My guest is Maria Ressa, the executive editor and CEO of Rappler, an online media organization based in Manila. The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has threatened to shut it down and has warned journalists they're not safe from assassination. The Frontline series will show a documentary about Ressa called "A Thousand Cuts" this Friday night on PBS stations.
One of the things that you and your publication have been investigating is where is all the disinformation, where are all the false narratives coming from? How did you first realize that there was an organized online campaign to attack Rappler and that much of the social media was being sent by fake accounts?
RESSA: Oh, my gosh. So we live on social media, you know. Before the website of Rappler was created in 2012, we - I actually started this on Facebook. We started as a Facebook page. And if Facebook search had been better, maybe we wouldn't have created the website. So we're very aware and attuned to the changes in social media on Facebook. Facebook - 100% of Filipinos on the Internet are on Facebook. So Facebook is our Internet. In 2016, soon after Duterte was elected, we began to sense that there were active campaigns to shut down, to criticize anyone questioning the drug war. And that happened on our pages.
And so we were starting to think about it, and I was like, how do we do this? How do we tell this story? And we started gathering data. So we did a three-part series. It's called Weaponization of the Internet. And two of the three-part series I had written. The second part of that series, the title was "How Facebook Algorithms Impact Democracy." As soon as we ran that story, I got clobbered. Ninety - nine-zero - hate messages per hour. That was when I knew something was wrong.
Look - I knew that when we exposed this - we started calling it the propaganda machine. When we exposed it, I expected we would get attacked, but I didn't know that this weapon existed. You don't know until you become the target. Ninety hate messages per hour. How do you respond to that? You can't even - at the beginning, I was trying to answer everyone. Then you realize, they don't want an answer from you; they just want to pound you to silence. And that's what it's done to many Filipinos. That's how you silence a narrative.
But the second part of that is - that's also how you create a new narrative. So you silence the narrative you don't like, and then you seed the narrative that you want. So what were some of the narratives seeded? And this is something I've lived through. I've seen this. In 2016, they seeded journalist equals criminal. So 2016, that comes up exponentially. You say it a million times, it becomes a fact. You lie a million times, it becomes real.
GROSS: So you can't respond to 90 hate postings an hour. But, really, a lot of those postings were from fake accounts. They weren't even really people, right?
RESSA: We didn't know it then. And that's something that we discovered, right?
GROSS: But you found out. You found out that this was artificially generated.
RESSA: Yes. And, you know, if you go - and the first hint I had was actually by looking over Facebook's disclosures. So in a U.S. disclosure, they actually said that the Philippines - in a footnote, that the Philippines had the higher-than-average number of fake accounts, false accounts. So that's - that was when - and then I realized, as we began to do network analysis of the database that we were building, we were able to then find the networks that were spreading the lies - and not just spreading one lie, right? These are recidivist networks. So I began thinking about them like terrorist networks, and you can chart.
GROSS: And you'd covered terrorism, so you know what you're talking about.
RESSA: Exactly, right? So it was really like - we used natural language processing to look at the clusters of what messages these networks were spreading and then looked at the networks and how they evolved. And in that time period, in the last four years, we've seen at least six different waves. And most recently, the takedown of Facebook on September 22 were two influence operations - one out of China, the other out of the Philippines that are linked to the police and military here. Both of these networks attacked me and Rappler. But, you know, we're minor. We're small fish.
The Chinese network that was taken down had created fake accounts using artificial intelligence, photos, for the U.S. elections - small number of accounts that had done that. So when that was taken down, we discovered everything that those - that that influence network was doing. It wasn't just attacking the Philippines; it was also seeding a campaign for President Duterte's daughter for president in our 2022 elections. This is how far ahead they plan. And then that second net influence operation that was taken down by Facebook, we exposed that network. We mapped it. We showed how that network was attacking civil rights activists, human rights activists and journalists.
GROSS: In the film, you say people often ask you - people who are not Filipino ask you, why should I care about Duterte and what happens in the Philippines? What's your answer to that?
RESSA: I've been saying this for four years, and I now know what Cassandra and Sisyphus feel like combined. We were - you can say we were the canary in the coal mine, or you could go with what Cambridge Analytica whistleblower Chris Wylie said - the Philippines was the petri dish for Cambridge Analytica, and this is where they tested tactics of mass manipulation. If it worked, they then - and the word he used is - ported it over to the rest of the world.
But for me, it's interesting because we are a former colony of the United States, a protectorate. We also speak English. This is a country where a lot of the tactics, digital tactics, are tested. You know, Yahoo, for example, in the early days - if you were rolling something out in the West, you tested in English-speaking countries like the Philippines. So it's not a surprise.
GROSS: You mentioned Cambridge Analytica. This is a voting profile company that harvested social media profiles and used them to target people susceptible to disinformation and then sent them false narratives. Steve Bannon was involved with the company, and Chris Wylie, who you referred to, was the whistleblower. So, yeah, he says the Philippines was one of the testing grounds before trying it out in the U.S.
Let me take a short break here, and then we can talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maria Ressa, the executive editor and CEO of Rappler, an online media organization in the Philippines investigating the authoritarian president, Rodrigo Duterte, and his government. The publication is trying to fight against the massive spread of disinformation by publishing the facts. She and the publication have been under attack by the government. A documentary about her will be shown Friday night on PBS stations as part of the Frontline series. We'll be right back after a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Maria Ressa, the executive editor and CEO of Rappler, an online media organization based in Manila. The journalists at Rappler have been investigating the authoritarian president, Rodrigo Duterte, and other government officials. Rappler is fighting against the spread of disinformation by publishing the facts. The government has tried to shut down the publication. And Ressa has been arrested several times by the government.
In June, she was found guilty of cyberlibel, defaming someone online, and faces the possibility of six years in prison. The article referred to in the charge was written several months before the cyberlibel law even existed. The series "Frontline" will feature a documentary about Ressa called "A Thousand Cuts" on PBS stations and online this Friday night.
Because you're a woman, some of the hate posts threatened you with rape. And that happened to other women at Rappler, too. And I'm hoping nobody was actually raped.
RESSA: No, no. I mean, the worse it did - all of that online violence did move into the real world when two supporters of President Duterte came to our office, livestreamed them going through our security. And they called people to come out and protest Rappler to go through. But, you know, during that livestream, there were calls to shoot them, behead them, to line them up like a firing squad, so all the threats. And I guess that's the danger, right? And this is my fear is that when you normalize that violence online, it's a hop, skip and a jump to real-world violence. And I think the danger there is the dehumanizing posts, when you're no longer seen.
So yes, women are attacked. My gender has been used against me, the way I look, the way I sound, my skin tones - I've been compared to a cave man - you know, my sexuality. It's the dehumanization that becomes harder because then that sets the stage. When I was showing some of the attacks that we've gotten, a German friend actually said, you know, that's exactly how the Nazis attacked the Jews. And I was like, oh, my gosh. Like, how do you deal with this? I think this is - these are some of the greatest problems we have to deal with. And we need to demand more from social media.
GROSS: In the U.S., a lot of people who do not support Trump have been asking, what is the appeal of somebody who has made so many baseless claims, who has threatened journalists and who's often - seems to have no interest in actually governing? And I'm wondering if you have figured out what is the appeal of Duterte, because he has a lot of followers.
RESSA: Yes, he does. I think there are two things. And one of our reporters actually says this in the film. You know, he - populism brings an illusion of power to people who may feel powerless. And our reporter in the film said he promises revenge. So it's, again, that split of the haves versus the have nots. There's a big gap between the rich and the poor in the Philippines. And president Duterte has styled himself as coming from the poor even though that's not actually true, right? His supporters will say he's like someone you can have a beer with. But he is in his 70s. So he is sexist at best, he's a misogynist at worst. And he says things that you would never expect to come from a leader's mouth.
GROSS: How long is Duterte's term? And what do you expect from him in the future?
RESSA: So a Philippine president is only entitled to one six-year term. So he's in office until our next presidential elections is in - on May 2022. And what do we expect? Well, look; that Chinese network, the influence operations that was taken down by Facebook, was already campaigning for the presidency of his daughter, Sara Duterte. There's - we can certainly see the preparations for the next presidential candidate that his party will run.
But, you know, I think the biggest problem that we're going to have to deal with, like the United States post-Trump, is that the damage of the Duterte administration, the number of people killed - exactly how many? What about their families? What about the rights that have been violated? When President Marcos stepped down - well, when he was pushed out by people power in 1986, it took the Philippine police a decade to bring human rights discipline back. What happens now with this, right? It will take a lot to get over the erosion of our rights.
GROSS: I want to hear more about how you think Duterte's attacks on journalists and attacks on other people who oppose him have changed your approach to journalism as the executive editor of the Rappler.
RESSA: So that's a great question. I'll say it from experience, right? So the first target of attack, the woman who went to jail early on in February, 2017, was Senator Leila de Lima, former justice secretary, former head of the commission on human rights. She investigated Duterte when he was still mayor for extrajudicial killings. When all of the charges - when the government was throwing all the charges against her - that she was a drug dealer, that was a charge thrown against her - we were reporting it as if it was still the old world. And I guess there was a part of me that was thinking that would the government really say all these things if they didn't have the evidence?
So it's your question about now it's happening to me, right? Yes. The response is, yes, the government will do it even if they have no evidence. In fact, the president - just in December, President Duterte named lawmakers who he said were corrupt. And then the next sentence is, but I have no evidence. He still named them. And they were then forced to defend themselves the next day, right? So how does it change, the way we report? So the first is you become very skeptical of government and its processes.
Like, in December, when the president named these lawmakers, we didn't print those names because when he said there is no evidence, why would you print them? But in the old days, you would print them because he's the president, right? So the - I guess the norms have changed in that sense. And then the second one is, in my case, I think the big shift for me is I've realized that when you're in a battle for facts, journalism is activism. And that's a big shift because I grew up a traditional journalist. I believe - I helped write the standards in ethics of three different news groups, right?
So getting to that point where - it was actually when I was arrested, and after they detained me and held me overnight. They made a point to arrest me when courts closed. And it was February 13 because the next day was Valentine's Day, right? It was February 13, 2018. And I couldn't post bail. It was too late to post bail, so I had to stay the night in jail.
And the next day when I came out, I was so angry because the government's power was used to make me feel its power; to intimidate me. That was the goal. And that's when I realized I don't have to ask anyone else whether you've done anything wrong. I don't have to look for it. I know this. So that's when I began to speak. And I actually realized in this day and age, you have to call it. You have to say a lie is a lie. You have to challenge in ways that we traditional journalists are uncomfortable with.
GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maria Ressa, the executive editor and CEO of Rappler, an online media organization based in Manila. The president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, has threatened to shut it down and has warned journalists they're not safe from assassination. The PBS series, "Frontline," will show a documentary about Ressa Friday night. We'll be right back after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE WESTERLIES' "PLEASE KEEP THAT TRAIN AWAY FROM MY DOOR")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Maria Ressa, the executive editor and CEO of Rappler, an online media organization in the Philippines investigating the authoritarian president, Rodrigo Duterte, and his government. The publication is trying to fight against the massive spread of disinformation by publishing the facts. She and the publication have been under attack by the government. A documentary about her and her work will be shown Friday night on PBS stations as part of the "Frontline" series.
Part of your arrest is filmed for the documentary that's about to be shown Friday on "Frontline." And you speak to the press after you're arrested. And you are so cool and so calm, and your thoughts are so kind of organized when you make those comments. And I was watching you thinking, how does she do that? How does she remain calm at a time like this and just, you know, say what she needs to say?
RESSA: I was so angry. You know, when I watched that - when I watched the film, it was like getting punched in the gut. Because when you live through it, it's like it happens in slow motion, and you take it, and you move on. You know, I live my life step-by-step. I know which direction I need to go in.
That particular one, I was detained overnight. There's several of these now. I don't know which one that - which one it was. But in each one, I know that I need to tamp down the anger.
It's kind of like doing a live shot, right? This is a good thing that I guess I took from 20 years with CNN and doing live shots. All hell can be breaking loose around you, and you have to take what you know, push your emotion down and have clarity of thought. And like a live shot, I pegged what are the three main things that I want to say. And that's how I speak. The worse it is, the calmer I get.
GROSS: That is so interesting that your CNN experience doing live reporting helped you. That make - it makes a lot of sense. On a related note, do you think that the cameras - the cameras from the documentary about you, the other cameras from the press - do you think that they protect you in any way or do they make things worse because it caused more attention to you?
RESSA: No, they protect. You know, at the beginning, if you come under attack, you think that - you know, just be quiet. At least that's the impact in the Philippines of President Duterte. That's what I saw happen with ABS-CBN. You try to just do your jobs. But that's not the way it works.
And to me, it all came to a head in December of 2018, when Time made me one of the covers for the Person of the Year. And, you know, I didn't know that that was going to happen. So the first time I saw it was a tweet. And when it came out, I was like, oh, my gosh. The first thing I did was I thought it was false. So I sent it to our social media team to verify.
But when I got the call, I thought, oh, my gosh, now I'm really going to be targeted. I already was targeted. And what I didn't realize and what I embraced later on is that that was a shield. And that's the same thing with the documentary film with - the Washington Post, I think their new banner says it, right? Democracy dies in darkness. Staying quiet when the Constitution is being violated, when your rights are being violated, that doesn't help anyone. And I guess that's the lesson I've learned. That, whatever it is, call it - shine the light. Because if you don't, it's going to happen over and over again.
GROSS: So there's a scene in which you're preparing for the awards ceremony for the Time Magazine 100 - what is it? - most important people?
RESSA: The Time 100. Yeah. Yeah.
GROSS: The Time 100. Yeah.
GROSS: So you're going to be honored at that because you're one of the 100. And you're visiting family while you're there in the U.S. And your sister is holding up this, like, slinky black gown and says this is what you need to wear. And you look at it kind of in horror.
GROSS: You say, I don't dress like that. And she said - and you say, it's - the gown is too long. And your sister says, no, you lift it up. It's supposed to be that way. You lift it up when you walk. Then she holds up a pair of silver high heels, and you just kind of recoil and say, I don't wear heels. I can't walk in heels. And you say, I never dress like this, and I can't dress like this. Usually you're wearing either a hoodie or a blazer and pants.
GROSS: So I just found that very entertaining.
RESSA: I guess for me, it's like - it's comfort, right? I want to be comfortable. And I think you can look good and be comfortable at the same time.
GROSS: And yourself - you want to be yourself.
RESSA: Exactly, right?
GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.
RESSA: So yeah, but my sister and I - yeah. It's funny. It's funny that that's in the film. Oh, God (laughter).
GROSS: But it says something about you as a person, you know. You're going to be comfortable and stand up for your right to wear what you want to wear in addition to just standing up against Duterte. You know, because it's hard. Award ceremonies are really hard when you don't conform in your clothes to what a woman is supposed to wear at an awards ceremony. You can buy a man's tuxedo or - it's just the choices are limited. And you have to, I think, make peace with the fact that you'll be considered the most under-dressed woman in the room.
RESSA: I think I - I have that down now. Like, I guess - you know, I am who I am. And old. I know who I am. And I don't really change that. I know my values. I know my comfort zones. And I actually say these things. So it's the way I am. That's the way I dress. And I don't apologize for it at all. In fact, I'm very proud of it (laughter).
GROSS: I like standing up for a woman's right not to wear heels.
RESSA: Oh, my God - never have. I've done so many of those things, right? And imagine, I think the very first time I had to do a promo photo for CNN, they wanted things that just - when you're on air also you're forced to, like, sound or do things that aren't natural. I - TV is the most unnatural way of being natural. And now with social media, that's not the case anymore, right? Because it's - and I guess that - so I welcome these changes because I think some of the things that we learn, we have to unlearn. And maybe that's why, you know, despite everything, I'm optimistic because there is so much to unlearn right now, this moment, this moment in time. And I hope that we can create. That's what we're trying to do on Rappler. We're trying to build something better. And I think that's where the world is right now.
GROSS: You face nine criminal charges now. You were found guilty of cyberlibel. You faced the possibility of six years in prison. How likely are you to actually be in prison for six years?
RESSA: I don't know. And I guess that's part of what's difficult about the last few years. That's only one of the nine criminal cases that have been filed against me, all of them, of course, politically motivated. I've done nothing wrong but be a journalist. Having said that, all the charges combined could send me to jail for a hundred years, I mean, the rest of my life. And how likely is it? You know, let me - I guess let me put it this way. It's like how I live my life today, how I fight the battle today will make it more or less likely that I go to jail, right? And that's why, in a strange way, I think that the battle is the journey. The journey is the battle, if that makes sense. It's - I feel like what I do today will make a difference, will determine what my future is going to be like. And I guess that's a good thing. It's - sorry. It's late at night my time, right? But...
GROSS: Oh, yes, it's 11 o'clock your time at night. Yeah.
RESSA: Yeah. I think - I don't know what the future will look like, but I do know that every day that we hold the line, every day that we hold power to account makes it more certain that we will remain a democracy and that I stay out of jail.
GROSS: Well, listen. I wish you safety. I hope you stay out of prison. And I hope you stay healthy. Thank you for the work that you do. You're a very courageous woman.
RESSA: Thank you. Thank you for having me and for listening to me.
GROSS: Maria Ressa is the executive editor and CEO of Rappler, an online media organization based in Manila. A documentary about her called "A Thousand Cuts," directed by Ramona Diaz, is airing on "Frontline" on PBS stations and online at pbs.org and on YouTube this Friday night. After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new novel, a Western set in 1894 in an alternative America that was torn apart by a flu epidemic. This is FRESH AIR.
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. If you're feeling confined these days, our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a new novel to recommend that she says gallops off into uncharted territory. It's an updated Western called "Outlawed." Here's Maureen's review.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: Talking to friends this past week, I've described Anna North's new novel, "Outlawed," as "The Handmaid's Tale" meets "Butch Cassidy And The Sundance Kid." That's a glib tagline, but there's some justification for it.
"Outlawed" opens in an alternative America of 1894 that was torn asunder by a flu epidemic some 60 years earlier. West of the Mississippi, centralized government has been replaced by a patchwork of independent towns. One of the few things this fragmented America agrees on is that women are put on earth to bear children. That's it. And because too much knowledge, especially medical knowledge of women's bodies, is frowned upon, barren women are regarded as freaks of nature, witches. They're ostracized, imprisoned and sometimes put to death.
That status quo is pretty much OK with the heroine of "Outlawed," a 17-year-old woman named Ada. She's content to be married off to a man chosen for her and settles in to await her first pregnancy, which fails to happen. In less than a year, Ada is expelled from her husband's house and, after a few twists of fate, joins up with the infamous Hole in the Wall Gang.
In North's novel, that real-life band of 19th-century gunslingers is reimagined as a group of mostly nonconforming gender outlaws who identify as female or nonbinary. They're led by a messianic figure called The Kid. In finding a home with the gang, Ada comes to realize that sexual desire can roam as wide and free as deer and buffalo on the range.
"Outlawed," in this quick summary, can sound gimmicky, but there's much more going on in the smart adventure tale than just a sly upending of the traditional Western rooted in macho individualism and violence. For all the ways North ingeniously stretches the limits of the genre, she's also clearly a fan. She doesn't shy away from the expected gunfights, and her rendering of such scenes is jittery and absorbing. But North also dwells on the bloody aftermath of these shootouts and the damage that bullets do to the body.
In common with writers of classic Westerns, North also evokes the rugged landscape of the West, especially the area around the gang's hideout with its salt flats, prairie dog burrows and notched wall of bright red rock many stories high that gives the Hole in the Wall Gang its name. It's there that the final showdown between the gang and the posse of lawmen who are pursuing them will take place.
Most of all, though, it's the affecting character of Ada who's the steady draw here. Once fate tosses her out of her complacent life, Ada, in the time-honored tradition of the Western, becomes a hunter. Like Mattie Ross in "True Grit" or, dare I say, Ethan Edwards in the vexed John Ford film "The Searchers," Ada is on the trail, not of someone, but of something. She wants medical knowledge of women's bodies.
Ada joins the gang for protection, but also to get loot from the holdups to be able to travel and study with a master midwife she's heard about, a woman who practices farther west. Ada aims to save other infertile women from being ostracized or murdered. There's a moment after she settles in with the gang when Ada almost decides to stay put.
She tells us - (reading) I saw how the valley, now blooming into beauty after the long winter, could feel like home. What I had planned instead was so amorphous and uncertain. But if I stayed in the valley, I would learn no more about myself or people like me than I had known when I left. I would die without knowing what made me the way I was.
The heroes of the traditional Western were always sure about what made them the way they were - what made a man a man. For Ada and the other outlaws of this spirited novel, the frontiers of gender and sexuality beckon to be explored.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Outlawed" by Anna North.
Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Lawrence Wright about his article in The New Yorker called "The Plague Year." It examines the mistakes and behind-the-scenes struggles that so far has led more than 20 million Americans to be infected with the coronavirus. Wright is also the author of a novel about a pandemic that he started writing before COVID, but it was published during the pandemic. He's also written extensively about terrorism and has investigated Scientology. I hope you'll join us.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with assistance today from Mike Villers. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
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