By Aby Yap
Maria Ressa’s own story is as compelling as the acclaimed stories she produced.
In the span of two decades, she co-pioneered the investigative newsmagazine format in local television, witnessed and chronicled Southeast Asia’s historic evolution, and authored a book detailing the infamous Al-Qaeda’s terrorist operations for which she landed a slot in the recent Esquire magazine’s Sexiest Women Alive list. An “unorthodox choice,” she tweeted appreciatively.
In the last six years, too, this award-winning journalist served as ABS-CBN’s News and Current Affairs chief, redefining Philippine broadcast journalism to become the force for nation-building. On October 11, however, news spread that she’d no longer renew her contract with the network, which is set to expire on January 3, 2011. She wne ton terminal leave in early November.
Her personal revolution
Moving to New Jersey at 10, Maria realized early on that she was different.
“They were much taller,” she recalls of living in a nearly all-white community. “They had self-assurance that you didn’t have.”
But Maria’s mindset was what probably set her out to a lifetime career as a trailblazer.
“You either retreat from it, or you embrace it and succeed at it,” Maria tells Planet Philippines in an exclusive interview a few weeks before she announced she was leaving her current job. “I wanted to prove that I was good and to prove it to myself, I needed to prove what I could do. So, I tried to do everything.”
“Everything” covered the academics, student council, playing sports and musical instruments. Eventually, it meant taking up molecular biology, finishing an English theatre and dance degree at Princeton University, applying to law school then deferring it for political theatre studies in the Philippines on a Fulbright Fellowship.
Her interest in her native soil, however, was stirred only when everyone began talking about the Philippines after the 1986 People Power Revolution. Though being Filipino eluded her then, she decided that she’d go back and find her roots.
Her journey led to something else.
“Cheche Lazaro changed everything because she asked me to stay and set up Probe Productions. Maybe it was this that changed my life,” she narrates. “I never really moved back to the States after that. I committed to the Philippines and Asia. Now, with ABS-CBN.”
Cecilia “Cheche” Lazaro is the brains behind the award-winning and pioneer investigative program Probe which signed off last June after 24 years and where Maria served as director/writer/producer while simultaneously working for CNN as reporter.
In 1995, CNN relocated the bureau to Jakarta, and Maria lived there for about 10 years. As the Jakarta bureau chief of CNN International, she was lead reporter in East Timor, Indonesia and the Philippines. Her investigative reporting on Asia’s terror networks led to write the book Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia.
“As I wrote the book, I felt like, ‘Phew, what else can I do?’ I’m not doing breaking news for the rest of my life. Now, I want to build something,” recounts Maria.
So, when she was invited to join the network the second time around, she readily accepted.
“I was 40 then. I thought that meant I was old enough to have had real experience and I felt I was good at what I did,” she relates. “At the same time, I felt I was young enough. I still had enough energy to actually try to change something.”
Rebuilding and creating
What Maria describes as a long battle started with the realization “that 90 percent of Filipinos get their news from television.”
“If you watch television and if we do our jobs properly, we can have a big nation-building,” she says.
So, Maria immediately worked on implementing a comprehensive Standards and Ethics Manual inspired by Princeton University’s Honor System. She cites an example, “If someone takes a bribe, we fire them. No matter how good you are.”
She herself took to a Code while moving into ABS-CBN. It was then Indonesia’s newly appointed Trade Minister Mari Pangestu’s advice, whom she asked how she’d reform the bureaucracy of 4,000 people strong.
“She said, ‘Don’t bring in more than four people (of your own). You have to fight the battle from within,’” recounts the feisty journalist who stands barely five feet. “I stuck to those rules, because you have to effect culture change from the ground that the organization must change with you.”
Amused, Maria admits to being culture-shocked with the transition in the beginning. But she understands Filipinos better now, ABS-CBN being the microcosm of Philippine society.
Noticing before that Pinoys seemed to complain a lot, she thought, “We’re unhappy. We don’t like it. But what are we doing about it?”
Launch of citizen journalism
Thus, citizen journalism was launched through Citizen Patrol in 2005. The first Boto Mo, I-patrol Mo came in 2007, followed by Bayan Mo, I-patrol Mo the year after. In 2009, it became Ako ang Simula, adopted from Mahatma Gandhi’s quote “Be the change you want to see.”
“It takes the idea of empowerment. It’s a tipping point approach to nation-building,” elaborates Maria. “You can’t build a strong nation if your people don’t have a stake, don’t care enough to take action.”
The feedback has been increasingly positive. While in 2007, they received 500 messages a week leading up to the elections; today, it’s 500 messages per day—and it’s just for SMS alone.
“I only have 50 reporters, but now I have 90,000 patrollers,” she shares excitedly. “More and more people are embracing. They want to participate and have a voice. Our culture is changing.”
Journalism is also changing, adds Maria, so they’re embracing new media like Twitter and Facebook for news gathering and viewer participation.
“Technology has already changed the way we think. Because the way we think has changed, the way we act has changed,” this Twitter fan opines.
Thus, her focus to redefine what journalism is and how it’s delivered towards the fulfilment of a promise in 1986 that has long been delayed: a nation creating itself.
“I hope that happens in my lifetime,” the 47-year-old journalist wishes aloud. “I’ll be part of it as a journalist to help make that happen.”
Writing another story
Their coverage of the 2010 national elections and the Luneta hostage crisis are a testament to how extensive their reach is. However, it’s not without flak.
There was the alleged bias for then presidential candidate Noynoy Aquino, for one. Also, their blow-by-blow live reporting of the August 23 hostage incident (along with other TV and radio networks) was partly blamed for the failed rescue attempt.
These two issues, along with her critical article, “Noynoy Flunks His First Test,” in The Wall Street Journal (Asia) and long-standing office politics factored in her unexpected departure, naysayers point out.
But as Maria writes in a farewell e-mail for her team, “There is a time and place for everything in our lives.” And hers has already arrived.
“In the end, it comes down to what we can do. You’re only good as your last story. After this, you move on. What’s your next story? You have to put in as much energy, time, and passion to make sure that the next story will be the best that you can do,” she stresses.
But what could be her next story?
On October 16, Maria tweeted for the first time since the news of her leaving broke, “I’m happy and planning what’s next. Will let you know once I know! :-).”