Nobel Peace Prize a challenge to autocrats
On Oct. 8, the Nobel Committee announced that two journalists, Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Dmitri Muratov from Russia, had received the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. They were recognized for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
The global journalist community welcomed the decision with excitement — and unease. The work of journalists has never been more vital; at the same time, it’s never been more precarious and risky. The award is a red flag to presidents Vladimir Putin of Russia and Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, to all other autocrats who use repressions against the media as a political tool, and to the American social media companies that have undermined credible and independent media worldwide by amplifying disinformation and division for profit.
It’s also clear, from the Nobel Prize’s own history, that the committee understood that by naming journalists as prize recipients, it would send an urgent message that actions that undermine and repress journalists need to be understood as the threats to world peace that they are.
It’s not lost on the winners, or the broader media community, that it’s been almost a century since a journalist received the prize — or that the previous journalist who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize did not make it to the ceremony. It was 1936, and Carl von Ossietzky, a pacifist and vocal critic of Hitler, was incarcerated in a Nazi concentration camp.
As Ressa, one of the 2021 awardees, put it: “Essentially the Nobel Committee has told us that this moment is like that moment. . . . We are on the brink of the rise of fascism.”
Ressa, a journalist and editor based in Manila, was named a 2018 Time magazine Person of the Year as one of “the guardians” in “the war on truth.” She came into the international spotlight as the CEO of Rappler, the digital hub for investigative journalism that chronicles the abuses of power of the Duterte government in the Philippines. Following her groundbreaking work, Ressa became the target of a mass online hate campaign and an avalanche of criminal allegations, which could put her in prison for 60 years. But she has refused to be silenced.
Her award is a rebuke not only to President Duterte but also to Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg. Ressa has chastised Facebook for years, highlighting the role the platform plays in manipulating public discourse.
Her fellow Nobel Prize laureate, Dmitri Muratov, works under no less challenging conditions. For the past 24 years, he has been the editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper that has lost six journalists to murder — more than any other media outlet in Russia. “These are the people who have today won the Nobel Prize,” Muratov said on Oct. 8, reciting their names publicly. Over the past decade, the Russian government has launched a crackdown on press freedom, forcibly shutting down independent media outlets and labeling their journalists as “foreign agents.” Despite this, Novaya Gazeta has continued to publish revealing articles on corruption, police violence, the war in Chechnya, and electoral fraud.
The award for Muratov and Ressa signals a dangerous era for press freedom. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, in 2020 a record 274 journalists were jailed for their work — the highest number since 1992. Among the high-profile writers who were murdered in the past decade were Jamal Khashoggi, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Ján Kuciak, and Peter R. de Vries.
The expansion of social media platforms upended the information ecosystem, creating an ever-growing volume of disinformation while at the same time leaving outlets in many countries fragmented and underfinanced. The state of seemingly perpetual crisis has left many journalists working under precarious conditions, which makes them more vulnerable to assault.
Even in democracies, the temptation for officials to stonewall journalists is rising, because fewer and fewer outlets can devote the investigate and legal resources to break down obstacles to transparency. To many authoritarian leaders, meanwhile, independent journalism has always felt like a crime, and the current environment has emboldened them to lash out. Among their weapons of choice against dissenting voices are censorship, harassment, restrictive legislation, and jail. The ease with which populist leaders tend to cast the slogan “fake news” at fact-based, quality reporting (a practice used often by Donald Trump) is disturbing.
The erosion of free media is one of the first stops on the path to autocracy. The awarding of the Nobel Prize to two embattled journalists should be an urgent warning that, in many parts of the world, press freedoms are at a crucial juncture. Not only should American diplomats make protecting the free press a priority globally, but our legislators need to pressure American social media companies to do a better job combatting disinformation worldwide on their platforms. It’s not just American politics and American elections that have been harmed; the rapid spread of disinformation is also a threat to democracy everywhere. As a sign at a protest put it recently, “First they came for the journalists. We don’t know what happened after that.”