Two journalists, Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa, win Nobel Peace Prize
The quest for peace often takes a journalist to theatres of conflict and violent discord. Sometimes, such sacrifices do get some recognition while the journalist in question is still alive. But only on rare occasions do journalists get credit for the risks they run in defence of democracy and freedom. This rare note has just been struck in this year’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists: Dmitry Muratov of Russia and Maria Ressa of the Philippines.
Ms Ressa is the founder of Rappler, a digital media company founded in 2012 and devoted to investigative journalism. A former CNN regional correspondent, Ressa has been a very influential journalist in the Philippines for more than two decades. Her media organisation, Rappler, has been consistent in exposing the murderous excesses of the Duterte regime in its war against drug trafficking which has degenerated into targeted mass killings and unprintable rights abuses. Rappler has methodically documented instances of killings that are so large as to resemble casualty figures in a real war. And for that, the Philippines government has consistently harassed Ressa through a barrage of censorious court cases and threats to life. She is currently appealing a jail sentence of 15 years in a suit instituted by the outgoing government of President Duterte.
In the case of Muratov, the newspaper, Novaja Gazeta, which he helped found in 1993 and has been editor-in-chief since 1995, consistently challenges the autocratic tendencies of the Vladimir Putin regime in Russia. The insistence of Novaja on sticking to the tradition of open, independent, and factual journalism is what has put them at cross purposes with the Putin autocracy. In the process, he has faced a series of brutal attacks in the hands of the Russian secret police which is suspected to have led to the violent death of at least six of his colleagues in recent years.
In what appears a thematic departure from the predictable, the Nobel award committee indicated that the journalists were being honoured for their commitment to factual journalism and its use to counter the rampaging forces of fake news sponsored by a new breed of populist autocrats. This thematic shift is largely determined by the fact that we are in a realm where the flowering of the social media and the return of elected authoritarians has elevated falsehood and alternative truths to the status of competitive facts. Alternative truths have also become tools in the hands of rulers who use democracy to rise to power only to deploy the power of falsehood to subvert the ideals of democracy especially freedom of expression. The rise of leaders like Donald Trump in the United States, Vladimir Putin of Russia, Victor Orban in Hungary, and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has witnessed the most outrageous instances of the trend in question.
In general terms, what is at issue is the ancient confrontation between freedom of expression and the forces of authoritarianism. What has complicated the picture is that the license of the social media is also available to determined autocrats who use it to propagate falsehood and elevate it to alternative truths. This is therefore a Nobel Prize devoted to the protection of universal freedom.
No other group in society is better situated to bear the burden of defending the freedom of expression than journalists. In their daily work, they carry the risk of factual reporting and informed editorialising on the challenges which every democracy faces when confronted by the forces of authoritarianism. At no other time is this challenge cast in bolder relief than now. That is the message being sent by awarding the 2021 Peace Prize to two distinguished journalists.