The head of a popular Philippine online news site has been arrested and charged with libel and tax evasion. She is threatened with death and worse – all because, she says, her Rappler news site has been reporting the truth on the country's populist president Rodrigo Duterte and his government. Maria Ressa tells Bill Whitaker the environment is worse than being in a war zone in an interview for the next edition of 60 Minutes, Sunday, November 10 at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
"This is far worse than any war zone that I've been in," she says. "In a war zone you know exactly where the threats are coming from. We've been living through three years of this kind of hell."
The threats are spread on social media, many from what Ressa says are "fake" accounts run by paid trolls. The posts also accuse Ressa of having ties to the CIA and of being corrupt. "I've been called every single animal you can think of… sexual attacks, rape, murder, behead. At one point I was getting 90 hate messages per hour," says Ressa.
Ressa and her young staff have exposed corruption in Duterte's administration but also kept a light on the thousands of extrajudicial killings carried out in President Duterte's war on drugs. Philippine authorities claimed 5,000 have died. "If you look at our own Commission on Human Rights and the UN's estimate of the number of people killed in the drug war, since July, 2016, at least 27,000 people killed," she tells Whitaker.
She has been arrested twice and harassed by officials and says those actions are meant to "pound me into silence." Ressa says they want to silence her staff as well. "The head of that arresting group told our reporter, 'Be silent, or you're next.' And that is exactly what the government is doing, systematically. Be silent, or you're next." The staff is resolute, however. Members have posted a video detailing threats against them and vowing to never be silent.
Duterte's spokesman, Salvador Panelo, says Ressa enjoys the limelight cast on her when she is arrested. "I mean, that's a ridiculous statement," she responds. "I have done nothing except to be a journalist and I will not stop being a journalist…"
Ressa says the charges against her are false; they still carry prison sentences that could stretch to decades. The Philippines may be home to Asia's oldest democracy but Ressa says under Duterte, some of its most precious rights are being abrogated. "Enshrined in the Philippine constitution, which is similar to the United States, is the bill of rights: freedom of expression, freedom of the press. These are enshrined. And yet, freedom of the press has been curtailed."