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Against all odds: Maria Ressa, Etta Rosales on courage in the face of challenges

Hours before taking the stage for her keynote speech at Tapatan 2019, Rappler CEO Maria Ressa was arrested at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA). She was charged for a supposed violation of the Anti-Dummy Law but was able to post bail at Branch 265 of the Pasig City Regional Trial Court. Despite the problems she faced upon her return to Manila, Ressa was still greeted with applause upon entering the Teresa Yuchengco Auditorium last March 29.

The renowned journalist, however, was not the only guest of honor during the three-day proceedings. Days prior, former Commission on Human Rights chairperson Etta Rosales watched from the sidelines as Art Rally MNL and Sining Kadamay performed a live exhibit on the life of Filipinos under the Duterte administration. Rosales, who is known for her activist work during the Marcos era and her anecdotes of various torture methods she was subjected to at the time, remains a staunch critic of the extrajudicial killings (EJKs) brought about by the war on drugs.

Being a ‘single voice of dissent’

In our culture, we tend to shy away from conflict. We don’t want to say no. We don’t want to talk about things that are unpleasant, especially to someone very powerful,” Ressa openly admitted. Drawing from her experiences of facing backlash for her critical views, she urged the audience to remain fearless and speak out. She continued by saying that breaking the norm of silence will matter most during the upcoming election, or else “we’re going to have a roomful of people who have power, who can decide together—without a single voice of dissent.”

For Ressa, the midterm elections will give the people the opportunity to mend the “collapse of checks and balances in the system” by electing new leaders. However, Rosales admitted that this is no easy feat given the challenges faced by opposition and independent candidates. The former Akbayan representative shared that even the partylist system has been overrun by those seeking political power instead of those championing representation for minority sectors.

“Partylists [were] established para sa mahihirap. You now have 46 dynastic clans who have hijacked [the partylist system]. Tapos, kinukuha nila yung boto ng [ibang] mga partylists,” Rosales disclosed.

(Partylists [were] established for the poor. You now have 46 dynastic clans who have hijacked [the partylist system]. After that, they take away the votes meant for other partylists.)

Apart from the surge of dynasty-backed partylists, Rosales also found herself troubled by the administration’s covert attempts at blocking the campaign efforts of certain candidates. “Yung Otso Diretso pagpunta nila sa mga lugar, tatawag ang Malakanyang. Takot lahat ng LGUs. Umaatras [sila]. It has never been so difficult. Kaya kaming mga authentic partylist organizations—Bayan Muna, Gabriela, Akbayan—yung mga real na lumalaban, hindi namin alam kung paano ang mangyayari,” she lamented.

(When the Otso Diretso slate goes to places for their campaign, Malacañang will call ahead. The LGUs are scared. They back out. It has never been so difficult. For authentic partylists that truly champion causes like Bayan Muna, Gabriela, and Akbayan, we don’t know what will happen.)

On to the next

Both women have opted to continue their work, acknowledging that although they may have critics of their own, they chose not to be irked by them.

Ressa, in particular, remains unfazed about Rappler’s ongoing legal battles. “These cases against Rappler are politically motivated. They are meant to harass us and intimidate us into silence,” she argued. “I’ve tried to hold government to account. It is not just weaponizing social media. It’s weaponizing the rule of law.”

Days after her arrest at NAIA, Ressa posted bail again last April 1. The arrest warrant had been issued for a separate case based on a complaint filed by the National Bureau of Investigation last year. In total, Rappler has shelled out more than P2-million for travel bonds and bail since 2018. The continous crackdown on the news agency will not deter them from continuing their work, Ressa said, adding, “We will not stop. We will continue doing investigative reporting. We believe in our democracy. We believe in our future.”

On the other hand, Rosales has returned to the life of an educator. She has since served as a faculty member under the Department of Consular and Diplomatic Affairs in De La Salle-College of St. Benilde (DLS-CSB). Although she initially left government service after being diagnosed with cancer, Rosales continues to involve herself in human rights-centered programs through DLS-CSB’s Center for Social Action (CSA).

Speaking on her work with mothers of EJK victims, the 81 year-old activist shared that the CSA has agreed to train the women of Samahan sa Hilom at Edukasyon in culinary arts. Helping these women attain alternative livelihood sources outside of drug peddling is part of the solution to the large-scale issue of substance abuse, she argued. “Sabi nga ni Vice President Leni Robredo—and I agree with her—if you want a woman not to break down, she has to be economically independent. That to me is the solution to the problem. Yung justice, access to justice, kasama na iyon,” she concluded.

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