All month long, News 12 is celebrating Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, and today, we are introduced to a woman from Ocean County who is being recognized around the world for her work on behalf of human rights.
If the Toms River North High School class of 1982 had awarded a student with most likely to be facing years in prison, or most likely to be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for challenging an allegedly authoritarian foreign regime — Maria Ressa likely would not have been the choice.
“I played in the orchestra,” says Ressa. “I embraced being a nerd. It’s okay. I did student government. It gave me so much.”
Ressa is the co-founder and CEO of Rappler, a major digital news outlet in the Philippines that employs 100 journalists.
She has been arrested eight times in recent years by authorities there in what human rights advocates have widely called a blatant abuse of press freedoms by the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte.
All eight cases remain ongoing, including last June’s conviction for cyber libel.
“For a story we published eight years earlier,” says Ressa. “A story I didn’t write, edit or supervise at a time when the law we supposedly violated didn’t exist. So, this kind of gives you world I live in right now where we’re trying desperately to keep doing our jobs to not let the weaponization of the law and the intimidation tactics intimidate us.”
It’s a lesson she learned early in Toms River, as in immigrant kid who thrived in the school’s music and AP programs, but also met the crucial test of facing a neighborhood bully.