“I don’t know how to deal with this new world,” said Maria Ressa. “I’m shocked, but living through it.”
The Rappler CEO and editor-in-chief was describing, with incongruous good humour, the dramatic upheaval that she and the news publication she founded were forced to undergo when Filipino authorities began laying charges against them in January last year.
It was a conversation that touched on two of the most prominent themes that emerged out of Sydney Opera House’s Antidote ideas festival this year: how to fight back against hostile state power, and the role of journalism in a volatile world.
Thanks to a grant from the Judith Nielsen Institute, the media was a particular focus of this year’s festival, with one of the earliest sessions dedicated to how news organisations cover the climate crisis.
For Australian scientist Tim Flannery, the issue was “getting very, very personal”. “We should be in a full emergency situation, instead we have a government putting their foot on the brake,” he said. “I want them to stop threatening my children.”
For Indonesian TV news anchor Desi Anwar, however, “personal” took on a much more visceral spin. “We are living it,” she said. Indonesia is one of the greatest emitters of greenhouse gases. From coastal erosion and the lack of piped water systems to annual forest fires, peat land burning and rivers of plastic waste, she said, the country desperately needs to change its practices.
So, panel chair Kerry O’Brien asked, how can journalists do a better job on reporting these issues without becoming climate activists themselves? In some ways, it seemed like a question asked at cross purposes. Climate crisis is inescapably political – repeated failures of governments to achieve any meaningful policy changes to address the issue in conjunction with the various contortions of industry and big business to block the same are a testament to that. But does it necessarily follow that it’s “activist” to chronicle the very real and increasingly catastrophic changes in the natural world, to draw connections to the global scientific consensus that the facts overwhelmingly support, and to interrogate those related machinations of power?
That question about the difference between journalism and activism was touched on again only a couple of hours later in the panel, My Crime is Journalism. News groups cannot galvanise civic society, Ressa said, because “we believe we’re not supposed to be activist”. Yet her hand had been forced, she said, when her own human rights were violated.
Despite finding herself on the receiving end of what she said was an orchestrated social media attack, at one point receiving an average of 90 hate messages per hour (“They weren’t conversing with me, they were pounding me to silence”), she said it was critical that journalists embraced technology in the long term because “there’s no going back”.
Calling her situation a “weaponisation of the law” that followed “the weaponisation of social media”, Ressa drew a clear line between the unchecked power of the corporate tech giants to manipulate information and repression of journalists by the state.
“If you cannot agree on the facts you cannot have trust, you cannot have truth, you cannot have democracy,” she said.
On the same panel, Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, expressed concern about “a creeping set of cases that are criminalising the very act of traditional reporting”. The concern extended to the trial of Julian Assange – later the subject of no less than three questions from the audience. His case would have very real repercussions for journalism, Coll said, whether or not you were willing to call Assange a journalist.
Within and around the programming stream on journalism was a strong focus on how to respond to systems, mainly in the form of economic and state structures, that were almost uniformly understood to be failing.
In the sunny northern foyer, Sydney city councillor Jess Scully led a conversation with journalist Peter Mares and urban sustainability experts Louise Crabtree and Jason Twill on social inequity created by the housing market. Later, Black Lives Matter activist DeRay McKesson gave a talk on the principles of activism, highlighting “the work” as opposed to “the conversation”. “There are a lot of people who are in love with the idea of resistance rather than the work of resistance,” he said.
Scattered around the edges were opportunities for feelgood creativity – a Collective Tarot reading and a haircare class especially designed for fathers of young girls were both well attended. There was a workshop on how to make tea from native plants, and a session on self-care featuring Guardian Australia columnist Brigid Delaney alongside journalists Zing Tsjeng, Patrick Lenton and TV presenter Faustina Agolley.
But the spine of the festival was about grappling with politics and power. And nowhere did that pulse more strongly than in the room with Hong Kong pop star turned pro-democracy activist Denise Ho. The queue for the sold-out session snaked all the way through the downstairs foyer of the Sydney Opera House and outside; the conversation inside focused entirely on the last three months of protest in Hong Kong, and 48 hours of mostly state-inflicted violence immediately preceding the event.
The fervour and anxiety was like an electrical current running through the room. The conversation was both emotional and strategic; the audience wanted to know what they could do from Australia; they wanted to suggest directions the protest could take; they wanted to play their part in what Ho described as a “leaderless, centralised movement”.
The audience who came to see Ho did so because they felt that something very important was at stake. At the close of the event, they stood, cheering, and Ho led them in protest chants. It was an exhilarating moment – a moment in which you realised that although it happened all too rarely, sometimes being in a room with likeminded people talking about what was important could be a very powerful thing indeed.