The award, made in Cascais, Portugal during the opening ceremony of the 70th World News Media Congress and 25th World Editors Forum, recognised Ms Ressa’s unwavering commitment to the values of a free press, as well as her determination to continue exposing stories of vital importance for democracy in the Philippines amidst intense pressure from the government and its supporters.
“You don’t really know who you are until you’re forced to fight to defend it," Ms Ressa said in her acceptance speech, delivered in front of over 700 publishers, CEOs and editors-in-chief from the global news industry. "Then every battle you win – or lose ... every compromise you choose to make … or to walk away from … all these struggles define the values you live by and, ultimately, who you are. We at Rappler decided that when we look back at this moment a decade from now, we will have done everything we could: we did not duck, we did not hide."
Since the 2016 election of President Rodrigo Duterte, Rappler has fallen victim to a deliberate and highly targeted online campaign by supporters of the controversial head of state that seeks to discredit the media organisation and drown out criticism.
In parallel, Ms Ressa has been the target of an increasingly hostile, gender-targeted hate campaign designed to undermine her credibility and the legitimacy of Rappler’s reporting. Rather than retreating from the threats, she has become a vocal spokeswoman in denouncing online harassment and in warning of the negative effects for democracy of the increasing use of technology generally - and social media more specifically - to discredit professional journalism.
Rappler is also currently facing a raft of judicial and legal cases, tax inspections and administrative investigations that have been brought by government agencies and officials who are actively pursuing the company in an attempt to close down its reporting. In the most high profile case, in January 2018 the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked Rappler’s license of incorporation – a decision the company continues to fight.
“We honour a genuinely courageous journalist, a dedicated media pioneer, and a true believer in the power that the craft of journalism can have,” said Dave Callaway, World Editors Forum president, editor and CEO of The Street in presenting the award.
“We stand in solidarity with Maria Ressa and her news organisation as together they face immense pressures, deeply personal attacks, and orchestrated attempts to undermine the professionalism and credibility of a news brand that has captured the public imagination,” Mr Callaway continued. “They have not backed away from publicly denouncing either the policies or the hate that has come as a result of their coverage, and Rappler has continued the reporting that was at the heart of the onslaught - for that we applaud them.”
Maria Ressa has been a journalist in Asia for over 30 years, with a career spanning various media. As the bureau chief for CNN in Manila and Jakarta for nearly two decades she was a senior investigative reporter on terrorism in Southeast Asia. In 2005, Ms Ressa headed up the News and Current Affairs division of Philippine media company ABS-CBN, where for six years she worked to redefine journalism by combining traditional and innovative media models.
Her interest and talents in technology and new media were an impetus for her becoming one of the founders and eventually the CEO of Rappler, a social news network that aims to inspire community engagement and fuel social change. It became one of the first websites in the Philippines to use online multimedia such as video, text, audio and photos, incorporating social media sites for distribution.
Since the website launched in 2012, it has not only successfully brought people together, but has also become the target of growing hostility and attacks from the government and its supporters for coverage of topics considered sensitive by President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration; from questioning the government’s handling of the drugs war and exposing police brutality, to human rights abuses and abuses of power.
“We hope the Golden Pen deters those who seek to undermine media independence and the profession of journalism by showing the solidarity that the award represents,” said Mr Callaway. “When all else fails, we should know that we have each other to rely upon if we are to continue making the kind of impact, breaking the sort of stories, and shining our light into those dark corners in a way our communities have come to expect. The way Rappler has been doing, and will keep on doing.”
"To the men and women of Rappler, this is your courage. You inspire me," said Ms Ressa. "But this award goes beyond Rappler... It’s for all Filipino journalists … for the men and women in government … ALL the Filipinos who continue to fight for our values."