“She believes that shining a light is the most important thing.”
A President who claims news outlets lie. Social media bots that spread misinformation. Intimidation of reporters by both governmental and unofficial sources. A leading reporter arrested multiple times. The government, meanwhile, is conducting its war on drugs by killings across the country. Yet the press continues to strive to bring truth to light. A Thousand Cuts shows us the way the freedom of the press is under attack in the Philippines, and by extension in other places.
Documentarian Romona S. Diaz began to do a film about President Rodrigo Duterte’s deadly war on drugs, which has resulted in nearly 30,000 deaths. Duterte is a populist who pushes a culture of fear and portrays an image that relies on toxic masculinity taken to an extreme. He makes no excuse for the killings. When questioned about the legality of it all, he threatens (without subtlety) reporters who raise the issue. He also uses networks of social network bots to spread his venom toward specific reporters, putting them in danger.
Soon, Diaz shifted to focusing on the reporters who are striving to maintain a free press in a hostile environment. The most obvious focus in Maria Ressa, a woman who was included in the 2018 Time People of the Year group of “The Guardians” (reporters around the world facing persecution and arrest). Ressa heads the Philippine news service Rappler. Even when faced with the power of the state, she and others continue to seek the truth. Ressa is arrested twice during the filming. She posts bail and keeps at her work and travel.
As Americans are in the midst of an election season, we may want to pay close attention to the ways news is shared—and often misused. When Duterte’s propaganda people seek to put out misinformation, they use a network of online bots. It is noted that 26 fake accounts can influence 3 million other accounts. (And you wonder why there’s so much political trash filling your Facebook page?)
While it may be easy to make comparisons between Duterte and President Trump (and there are several parallels), it has to be said that Duterte easily outdoes Trump in terms of vulgarity and overt hostility to the press. But because there are some clear similarities, it is worth taking noted that this is not just an issue half a world away. As implied by Time naming The Guardians to its prestigious recognition, a free press is integral to democratic government. When those in power attack the press, they erode the foundations of democracy.
In one scene in the film, Maria Ressa is questioned by someone from the public of why it should matter to them that the press is being harassed, as long as their communities are free of drug dealers. (They aren’t really, but the government keeps killing the poor under the rubric of a drug war.) Ressa riffs on a famous holocaust poem by Pastor Maritn Niemoller, by adding a line, “First they came for the journalists; we don’t know what happened after that.”
How do we judge our sources for news? Are Fox News and MSNBC just two sides of one coin? Do we trust what the government tells us? Do we trust the fact-checking sites? Do we trust the many claims we find in Tweets and Facebook or Instragram posts? If a lie is told often enough and loud enough does it become its own truth? The role of journalism in keeping us informed is vital to any country’s hope of making wise, informed decisions about government.
A Thousand Cuts is available on Virtual Cinema through local art houses.
Photos courtesy of PBS