The Norwegian Nobel committee’s decision to award its Peace Prize to the journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia is a shot in the arm for the countless journalists who’ve been fired at, sued, attacked and savagely trolled in their line of work around the world. But more than that, it’s recognition of the critical role journalism plays in upholding human rights and democracy at a time when autocratic governments are vigorously undermining them. Social media companies have also been playing a dangerous role.
Ressa, a former investigative reporter for CNN, co-founded the Manila-based news site Rappler. She and her team of journalists have taken aim at the abusive rule of the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, exposing large scale killings as part of his government’s “war on drugs”, as well as government corruption.
Ressa didn’t just take on Duterte’s administration. She was also one of the first journalists to recognise the dangers that Facebook posed to democracies around the world. In the Philippines, Facebook offers free data through its mobile app, so for much of the population the internet exists only on Facebook. As result, much of the online discourse is manipulated by Duterte supporters, who spread dangerous false information about political rivals. “Facebook is now the world’s largest distributor of news and yet it has refused to be the gatekeeper,” Ressa warned.
As a result, Ressa – and Rappler – were subjected to a vicious online campaign of hatred, including misogynistic attacks. Facebook was a main vector for this violence, according to a March study by the International Centre for Journalists.
In June 2020, Ressa was convicted of criminal libel and received an “indeterminate sentence” of up to six years. She and her colleagues have been charged, arrested or convicted in multiple libel cases and the government also initiated an investigation into Rappler’s taxes and finances.
The picture gets darker in Russia. Ressa’s co-laureate, Dmitry Muratov, is co-founder and editor-in-chief of the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta, whose reporting has exposed human rights abuses, corruption, and abuse of power by Vladimir Putin’s government. Novaya Gazeta’s staff found out about the laureate announcement a day after commemorating the 15th anniversary of their colleague Anna Politkovskaya’s assassination. Politkovskaya spent years documenting torture and killings in Chechnya.
The prize comes at a time when Russian authorities have been trying to eviscerate independent media in the country, part of their broader effort to paralyse civil society and stifle critical voices. In the early 2000s, they drove out independent television. In more recent years, independent-minded editors and reporters were forced out of mainstream outlets by editorial and ownership takeovers engineered by people linked to the Kremlin. These reporters founded new, exciting platforms for independent reporting.
Ressa and Muratov both acknowledged that they stand as proxy for the unsung journalists who labour on under increasingly hostile conditions. In an interview, Muratov said: “This is not my merit. This is Novaya Gazeta. It is for those who died defending the right of people to freedom of speech.”
Muratov knows the ranks of truth tellers has been thinned considerably. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, the number of journalists murdered in retaliation for their work more than doubled in 2020. At least 83 governments worldwide have used the Covid-19 pandemic to justify violating the exercise of free speech, Human Rights Watch found.
Russia’s latest attack on journalists is to tar them with the “foreign agent media” label, which is toxic in Russia. Hours after the Nobel Prize was announced, Russia designated the investigative outlet Bellingcat and nine more journalists as “foreign agents”.
Mei Fong is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and now chief communications officer at Human Rights Watch. Follow her on Twitter @meifongwriter
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