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The Philippines-based news website Rappler is the recipient of the 2018 Free Media Pioneer award in recognition of the site’s innovative approach to journalism and audience engagement as well as its determination to hold authorities accountable despite aggressive attacks on its operations.

The annual Free Media Pioneer award was established by IPI in 1996 to recognize news or media organizations that have made innovations that have promoted news access or quality, or benefitted journalists and the media community, thereby ensuring freer and more independent media in their country or region. For the past four years, the award has been given in partnership with Copenhagen-based International Media Support (IMS).

IPI and IMS also announced yesterday that Angolan journalist Rafael Marques, who has braved decades of harassment and prosecution to expose corruption and human rights abuses, has been named IPI’s 70th World Press Freedom Hero. Both awards will be presented during a special ceremony on June 22 in Abuja, Nigeria during IPI’s annual World Congress and General Assembly.

Rappler was launched in January 2012 by a team led by Maria Ressa, an accomplished former CNN bureau chief in Southeast Asia known for her investigative coverage of terrorist networks in the region. After leaving CNN, she set her sights on modernizing the Philippines’s media landscape, leading the news and current affairs department at ABS-CBN news before resolving to found her own outlet.

The site immediately distinguished itself by embracing crowdsourcing, citizen journalism and social media as journalistic tools in a way that was radical for the Philippines’s still-traditional media environment but that reflected the widespread use of new technologies in one of Asia’s most populous countries.

“Rappler wants to harness new technology, analyze how it’s changing us as a people and attempt to use it for social good”, Ressa wrote in 2012. “In the process, we redefine journalism, build communities, and crowdsource actions for specific purposes.”

Among the site’s innovations is the Mood Meter, which prods readers to describe how they feel about a particular story. The feature leads readers to share the article on social media but also feeds into a “mood navigator” Rappler uses to establish a “mood of the day”.

Yet Rappler’s digital trailblazing tells only a part of the story. The site has grown into one of the Philippines’s most popular and effective investigative journalism outlets, providing critical coverage of the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, who has presided over a deadly war on drug users.

That commitment to watchdog journalism has made it a target, ranging from repeated, aggressive verbal attacks by the president and his supporters to, most recently, a seemingly politically driven decision by the Philippine Security and Exchange Commission to revoke Rappler’s operating licence. The site continues to operate pending appeal.

In a statement welcoming the Free Media Pioneer Award, Ressa underscored Rappler’s commitment to its mission.

“Journalism is under attack on many fronts: from authoritarian leaders using cheap armies on social media to control the public space to technology companies which have largely abdicated responsibility as the new gatekeepers”, she remarked. “It’s hard to tell fact from fiction. These are new realities. This recognition of the work we do bolsters our courage and reinforces our hope – that despite the challenges we face, the exponential online attacks and harassment cases, there is no better time to be a journalist. Our mission has never been clearer. Democracy is under threat, but we will hold the line.”

IMS Executive Director Jesper Højberg hailed the choice of Rappler.

“Rappler deserves to receive the Free Media Pioneer award”, he said. “Despite escalating threat levels and impending lawsuits, Rappler’s journalists have continued to do what they do best: produce and distribute good quality journalism. Rappler is a leading light in a region where the space for freedom of expression is shrinking. With this award we recognize its tremendous courage and show our support for its important work.”

IPI Executive Director Barbara Trionfi was equally supportive of this year’s award recipient.

“We are honoured to give this year’s Free Media Pioneer award to Rappler, whose commitment to critical reporting and embrace of bold new techniques of engaging with audiences has transformed it over an incredibly short period of time into a journalistic heavyweight in the Philippines”, she remarked. “We stand in solidarity with Rappler in the face of attempts to silence its brave and important news operations.”

The 2017 Free Media Pioneer award was given to the Afghan Journalists Safety Committee, which works courageously to prevent, combat and monitor attacks on journalists in one of the world’s most dangerous media environments.