“First they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that,” says journalist Maria Ressa, quoting a solemn line from a Philippine newspaper, inspired by Martin Niemöller’s postwar poem “First They Came.” The striking quote comes during a scene from the new documentary A Thousand Cuts, out Aug. 7, which highlights attacks on press freedom and democracy in the Philippines and draws parallels with other parts of the world.
As the chief executive officer and co-founder of the Philippine news website Rappler, Ressa knows firsthand the risks that journalists in the country are facing. Her conviction on dubious charges of cyber-libel in June marked the latest in a series of legal attacks against her and Rappler. The site has drawn attention for publishing stories critical of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and in particular his war on drugs, which Human Rights Watch reports has led to the deaths of more than 12,000 Filipinos. “It’s so dangerous to be a journalist right now,” Ressa told TIME after her conviction. “But the mission is more important than ever. We have to stand up for it or we will lose so much.”
Directed by Ramona S. Diaz and filmed during 2018 and 2019, A Thousand Cuts follows Ressa as she and her colleagues persist in holding the regime to account, despite continued attacks and harassment from trolls on social media, in real life and by the president himself. In the the PBS-Frontline documentary, Ressa, a TIME Person of the Year in 2018 and a TIME 100 honoree, explains how quickly disinformation ripples throughout the country’s social media networks, and how she and her colleagues are targeted with dangerous accusations of lying as well as death threats.
In the exclusive clip above, several people behind troll accounts targeting Ressa and Rappler go to the news outlet’s offices in person, live-streaming from their location and amplifying their hateful messages on social media.
“We have to realize that something horrific has already happened, and we are at this existential moment where, if nothing significant is done, journalism is only the first part. Journalism and democracy as we know it, is dead,” Ressa tells an audience at an event in Washington D.C. in the documentary. On her return back to Manila’s airport, she is arrested on fraud charges and flanked by police officers. “This is not the Philippines I knew,” she later says.
A Thousand Cuts also follows figures on the other side of the divide, including a pop star-turned-government secretary known as “the Philippines’ Queen of Fake News,” and an unrepentant politician intent on his public execution campaign targeting drug addicts. But it is Ressa who captures most of the attention. “What do you do when the president lies,” she asks, “then it’s repeated a million times so people have no idea what the truth is?” Diaz shows viewers why the journalist, despised by many in her country for allegedly “betraying” the Philippines with Rappler’s critical coverage, is so revered across the globe—a living symbol of holding truth to power.