The conviction of Philippine journalist Maria Ressa on libel charges is a serious setback for the cause of freedom of speech and press in her home country. The Philippines has had a chequered history when it comes to human rights and press freedom. The situation has only deteriorated since President Rodrigo Duterte assumed power in 2016, riding on a wave of populism and strongman rhetoric. The last few years have witnessed a global trend of strongman leaders emerge in various countries including the US, who have weaponised feelings of discontent amongst the masses to pursue agendas that are an antithesis to human rights and civil liberties.

They relied on the media’s need for sensationalism and ratings to reach and manipulate mass audiences, and now that they are in power, they have launched an onslaught on sections of the media that still dare to offer criticism and call for accountability. While concealing facts and peddling lies as a central feature of political strategy, they accuse the mainstream media of spreading “fake news” and declare them “enemies of the people”, for good measure. As they curb press freedom, their bands of zealots cheer them on and browbeat opponents into submission on social media and elsewhere, emboldened by political patronage and equipped with an army of bots and funds.

Practicing real journalism, which exposes the wrongdoings of the powerful and protects the interests of the vulnerable, the disenfranchised and the weak, has always exacted a cost on its practitioners. In the post-truth world of today, it has only become more difficult to separate facts from fiction, to stand against the wave of populism sweeping across the globe, to stand against the tide, but it has to be done. The survival of democracy depends on it. Those who cannot put themselves at the forefront of this struggle should at least endeavour to stand behind those who do. Yes, journalists should be responsible and follow the ethics of the craft. But beyond that, they should never hesitate from holding the powerful’s feet to the fire.