Journalist Maria Ressa was one of the two recipients of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, the Nobel Prize Committee announced on Friday, alongside Dmitri A Muratov, editor-in-chief of Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta.
The committee praised both Ressa, the editor and chief executive of Philippines-based investigative news website Rappler and Muratov “for their courageous fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia”.
Ressa, however, made a different kind of history as well. She has become the 18th woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in its 126-year-old history.
Ressa is a former Fulbright scholar and has had a career as a journalist for about 35 years. She co-founded Rappler in 2012 and has been a vocal critic of Philippines president Rodrigo Duterte ever since.
The Nobel committee outlined her successful efforts in holding the powerful accountable. Ressa “uses freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country, the Philippines,” it said.
Ressa “has shown herself to be a fearless defender of freedom of expression,” it added.
Her work at Rappler has focused mostly on keeping a relentless watch on the Duterte regime, its notorious countrywide anti-drug campaign and the spread of fake news.
Rappler’s fight as a vocal critic of President Duterte and his government became the subject of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival documentary A Thousand Cuts.
The news website’s coverage of the controversial anti-drugs campaign included documenting how social media was being used to spread fake news across the country, harass the regime’s opponents and manipulate public discourse.
Ressa, who has been instrumental in uncovering the president’s alleged wrongdoings, has not been in his good books. Facing relentless attacks by Duterte loyalists, she has been forced to increase her security.
The journalist has constantly been subjected to misogynistic online hate and has received rape and death threats.
“I’ve been called every animal you can think of. I’ve had my face plastered on top of human genitals. It is barbaric this stuff is allowed. And this is the stuff I wake up to,” Ressa told The Independent in June this year.
In January, Ressa was issued her “tenth arrest warrant in less than two years” for a story over students allegedly paying a professor for passing grades, and has also been accused of plotting a coup against the president. “That’s definitely a pattern of harassment,” she had told news agency AFP.
The 2021 Nobel Peace Prize recipient, back home in the Philippines, faces up to 100 years in prison and investigations for publishing stories critical of the president.
After graduating in 1986, she was awarded the Fulbright fellowship to study political theatre in the capital Manila. She has also taught courses in politics and the press in southeast Asia at Princeton University and in broadcast journalism at the University of the Philippines.
Ressa had earlier served as news channel CNN’s former south Asia bureau chief. She was posted to Manila from 1987 to 1995 and then to Jakarta, from 1995 to 2005.
In 2018, she was included in Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2018, as one of “The Guardians”, a number of journalists from around the world combatting the “War on Truth”. Ressa is the second Filipino to receive the title after former president Corazon Aquino in 1986.
In 2019, she received a slew of awards, including the Journalist of the Year award, the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, the Most Resilient Journalist Award, the Tucholsky Prize, the Truth to Power Award and the Four Freedoms Award. Ressa also won the Columbia Journalism Award from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, the school’s highest honor, “for the depth and quality of her work, as well as her courage and persistence in the field”.
Ressa authored a book in 2003, titled Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Centre of Operations in Southeast Asia. Her second book, From Bin Laden to Facebook, was published in 2012.
In May this year, Ressa received the 2021 Unesco/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize. “To the budding dictators of this world, if you have to abuse your power to make you feel powerful, you’re not powerful – just abusive and small,” she said in her acceptance speech.
The Philippines is ranked at 138 among 182 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
The New York Times reported that Rappler attracted an average of 40 million page views and 12 million unique visitors a month. And during the Philippines election season, these numbers almost double up.
Ressa, when she learnt of Friday’s Nobel honour, said she was “in shock.” Rappler said in a statement that the award “could not have come at a better time – a time when journalists and the truth are being attacked and undermined”.
On her Twitter page, Ressa pinned a tweet about her upcoming book, How to Stand up to a Dictator, which will be published in April 2022.
“I’ve been getting up at 5am since April to write before beginning each day’s work. It’s cathartic, horrific, and very inspiring,” she said.
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