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Democracy on the line: ‘A Thousand Cuts’ depicts the narrative of a nation under siege

“What we’re seeing is death by a thousand cuts [of] our democracy…little cuts to the body politic, to the body of Philippine democracy. And when you have enough of these cuts, you are so weakened that you will die.”

This was what Rappler CEO Maria Ressa told the audience in 2019 after being conferred the Ka Pepe Diokno Human Rights Award at DLSU.

On Independence Day, A Thousand Cuts—a two-hour documentary by award-winning director Ramona Diaz that showcased the struggle of the free press under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte—was made available for streaming for 24 hours. The documentary told the story of Ressa and her battle against the systematic and politically motivated attacks for being critical toward the administration’s war on drugs. 

But the documentary was not just about Ressa; it served as an example of the risks many journalists in the Philippines continue to face. The emerging pattern of silencing the media can be observed from our public officials’ words and actions: the ban of Rappler journalist Pia Ranada in Malacañang, the verbal attacks on the Philippine Daily Inquirer, and more recently, the shutdown order against ABS-CBN. 

The documentary drew a lot of anger online, particularly in a scene where House Speaker Alan Cayetano was filmed telling then party-list candidate Mocha Uson that she could “buy” interviews from the media during the election campaign. As a Filipino, it sickens me to see people in power, receiving taxpayer money, with those kinds of principles. 

Crackdown on democracy

The film shows an embattled Ressa facing cyber libel charges—a clear exhibition of legal acrobatics that aims to intimidate and destroy her—because, as legal experts have separately called out in the past months, the charges should not bear merit for the retroactive application of the cybercrime law. And should the charges even be warranted, it would then be a matter of selective justice because Philippine Star published the same story, yet Ressa was the only one being accused of cyber libel. 

Her company’s critical coverage of Duterte’s war on drugs has brazenly put a target on her back and her colleagues’. The chilling effects of their struggle to shed light on the administration’s actions had also been captured by the documentary; several journalists relayed their experiences covering the war on drugs—Patricia Evangelista, for one, could not hold back tears in a bravely vulnerable and candid disclosure of her fears while on the job. 

Notably, there have been many attempts by the government to shut down her media company: the revocation of Rappler’s license to operate by the Securities and Exchange Commission, the filing of tax violation cases, and the accusation of allegedly violating the Anti-Dummy Law and Securities Code. The attacks urge viewers to remember that an independent media that is critical of the State is essential in a well-functioning democracy. 

The weaponization of the law against staunch critics is a manifestation of tyranny in the country, something this administration seems to have a habit of. The promise of democracy is that those in power will be held accountable for their words and actions but Duterte’s government is inclined to silence those who scrutinize their policies or criticize the President’s behavior. 

Blurred playing field

A Thousand Cuts paints a clear picture of how misinformation spreading online has influenced the outcome of elections. Social media has emerged as a major source of information consumed by the public, but paid online trolls have taken advantage of the platform to disseminate fake news intended to tarnish the reputation of the administration’s critics. Though facts are set in stone, lies, repeated enough times, would evolve into a version of the “truth” that would eventually shape public opinion. 

In 2016, Facebook became Duterte’s main campaign platform, a strategy that helped earn him the presidential seat. After his victory, the same platform pivoted into a propaganda machine that targeted members of the opposition. Ressa was no stranger to this vile tactic, having received countless rape and death threats for simply doing her job. At one point, she received 90 of these messages in an hour.

She has been called “ugly, a dog, a snake, [and] threatened with rape and murder.” One time, a netizen wrote, “I want Maria Ressa to be raped repeatedly to death, I would be so happy if that happens when martial law is declared, it would bring joy to my heart” on Rappler’s Facebook page.

Political platforms

Sen. Ronald “Bato” Dela Rosa, who was featured in the documentary as a then-senatorial candidate, was shown to have resorted to using cheap campaign tactics. “Gusto niyo ‘yung kakanta ako?” he would ask the audience at different stops in his campaign trail before performing a song number onstage.

(Would you like me to sing?)

In contrast, then-senatorial candidate Samira Gutoc, who ran under the opposition coalition Otso Diretso, was shown dismayed after losing the senatorial race. Despite her best efforts in discussing her platform based on women’s rights and peace cooperation, it was outmatched by Dela Rosa’s dance numbers.

The age of social media has redefined how the electorate chooses its leaders, murked by misinformation; the film’s parallel presentation of the two candidates suggested that political success was determined by who was more charming over who has a concrete legislative agenda. 

The documentary had also shown that administration supporters can also be rewarded. Uson, whose Facebook page had played a major role in boosting Duterte’s online popularity in the 2016 elections campaign, lost by public vote but was nevertheless given a new government position after the 2019 elections.

Reality check

The documentary did not simply label who was good or bad, but it captured events that leave the watcher to discern who really is destroying democracy. Many of these events were already known to a lot of us who have been following the press freedom beat, but their portrayal can be eye-opening for many who have been otherwise ignorant of how the attacks have been calculated and targeted to suppress dissent.

With the guilty verdict handed down earlier today, June 15, for Ressa’s cyber libel case, Diaz’s work was a mirror to the future unfolding before our eyes. It depicted the layers of complex issues that plague the country, delving into the gray areas of ethics, society, and power play. If this is not enough of a wake-up call to Filipinos, what is? 

Psychologist Dr. Philip Zimbardo defines evil as “knowing better, but willingly doing worse.” Although the documentary did not dig deep to unravel new insights about the narrated events, it served to raise again urgent questions: given the patterns and evidence of the tyrannical rule of this administration, can we still look away? 

Democracy is on its deathbed because of the blatant abuse of those in power. The shakedown of the free press, the manipulation of the judicial system, and the gatekeeping of the public’s access to factual information piece together the portrait created in the documentary. Now, it is clear that the attacks were not just against Ressa—though she has fought vigilantly and vigorously, she was not the only one under siege. It is all of us.

By John Oliver Dysanco

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