A Nobel boost for fearless and independent journalism
Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia have won the Nobel Peace Prize for their relentless struggle to protect freedom of expression. Announcing the award, Norwegian Nobel Committee Chair Berit Reiss-Andersen said the duo were receiving the prize for their courageous fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia. "The committee considered Ressa and Muratov to be representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions," she added. The recognition of the struggle for freedom of expression and independent journalism in Andersen's speech is also a source of joy and inspiration for us, because we, too, are part of that long struggle.
The Nobel Committee, in its announcement, noted that "free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda." Justifying its awarding decision, it said, "The committee is convinced that freedom of expression and freedom of information help to ensure an informed public. These rights are crucial prerequisites for democracy and protect against war and conflict."
In addition to independent journalism, the issues that have inevitably surfaced with the awards of Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov are no less important. First, both the countries of the award-winning duo have been under authoritarian rule for quite some time, and there have been reports of serious violations of basic human rights—including violence, illegal detentions, enforced disappearances, and killings. In the case of the Philippines, the committee cited the unusually high death toll of President Rodrigo Duterte's anti-drug campaign as "the equivalent of a war against the country's own people," and called Maria Ressa a "fearless defender" of the freedom of expression. Ressa and the investigative online portal she co-founded, the Rappler, have also documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents, and manipulate public discourse.
Similarly, in Russia, Dmitry Muratov, in his newspaper Novaya Gazeta, highlighted corruption, police violence, illegal arrests, electoral fraud, and the Russian military's troll factories for harassing and intimidating opponents via social media. Due to these works, the newspaper has been subjected to various forms of harassment, threats, and violence. Since the newspaper's inception, six of its journalists have been killed, including Anna Politkovskaya, who was killed for writing about the Chechen war. Despite all the violence and threats, Dmitry Muratov has allowed his journalists to practise independent and objective journalism.
A few hours after the winners were named, I heard Muratov's friend Mikhail Zygar, editor of the only independent TV channel in Russia, TV Rain, telling BBC Radio 4 that his friend had told him that the Nobel Peace Prize had actually been won by six of his slain colleagues. On Saturday, journalist-novelist Mashiul Alam shared a picture of Muratov's quote printed in the Novaya Gazeta, which reads, "Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stanislav Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Natasha Estemirova—are the people who won (the) Nobel prize."
In the history of the Nobel Peace Prize, the only other journalist who received this award was Carl von Ossietzky, and it was 86 years ago. That, too, was amid the rise of Nazism. And the awarding speech given by the then Nobel Committee Chairman Frederik Stang showed greater emphasis on his pacifist role than on his journalism. The German journalist was a former soldier, and war transformed him into a pacifist who became the secretary of the German Peace Society. In that sense, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov have won the award for the first time for fighting for press freedom, and through that strengthening democracy and building peace.
There is no doubt that there are transnational organisations working for the protection and promotion of journalism, and journalists are feeling enormous pride for this award due to professional fraternity. It also rejuvenates all of us who are working in the news media, as reflected in the statement issued by the International Press Institute (IPI), which said the award was a source of encouragement to journalism. Another organisation named Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said, "They represent all those who work with courage and determination for news and information that is reliable, and freely and independently reported, in a world in which democracy and press freedom are increasingly undermined by the spread of fake news and hate speech." The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a New York-based organisation, said the award came at a time when journalists are facing unprecedented attacks, digital surveillance, and a decline of public trust in journalism. CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon said Ressa and Muratov symbolised the freedom of the press and why it was needed. They have continued to defy censorship and harassment in the face of personal threats, and have led others to do the same. And their reactions following the awards certainly indicate that they will continue to lead the struggle for press freedom beyond borders by setting examples.
The Philippines and Russia are at the forefront of countries where journalists have been killed with impunity. Statistics compiled by the CPJ shows that since 1992, a total of 87 journalists have been killed in the Philippines, and 58 in Russia. During the same period, the number of journalists killed worldwide was 1,416. The same CPJ statistics named 23 journalists killed in Bangladesh during the same period. However, our ranking in the World Press Freedom Index, prepared by RSF in conjunction with Unesco, is lower than that of the Philippines and Russia: out of 180 countries, our position is 152, while Russia stands at 150 and the Philippines at 138. The global think tanks (including Freedom House) that survey the state of democracy and human rights regrettably portray us poorly, too.
In 2018, the Time Magazine named a few journalists in "The Guardians and the War on Truth" as part of its annual naming of the Person of the Year. Among them were the murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Maria Ressa of the Philippines, Wa Lone and Kyaw Soe of Myanmar, and Shahidul Alam of Bangladesh. There are many more like Shahidul Alam who have been victims of harassment, intimidation, and torture. Enforced disappearances for some period, arbitrary detentions, and harassment of journalists under the Digital Security Act (DSA) are on the rise. There is an unending struggle to defy invisible and unofficial prohibitions and censors, ignoring the fear of threats and harassment.
Maria Ressa received the Nobel Peace Prize with Dmitry Muratov for persistent defiance of all forms of censorship as editors. It remains to be seen how much our editors and news rooms are inspired and enlivened by the recognition of the courage in journalism.
Kamal Ahmed is an independent journalist. His Twitter handle is @ahmedka1