Argument

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Maria Ressa’s Nobel Peace Prize Is a Call to Action

The last time a working journalist was honored, it was a German editor as World War II loomed.

By , the global director of research at the International Center for Journalists.
Maria Ressa speaks onstage at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 25, 2020.
Maria Ressa speaks onstage at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, on Jan. 25, 2020. Ernesto Distefano/Getty Images

When Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa and Russian editor Dmitry Muratov were named Nobel Peace Prize laureates last week, for fighting courageously to “safeguard freedom of expression,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee described them as “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.”

The committee’s choice was a strategic act. It has been 85 years since a working journalist won the Nobel Peace Prize. German editor Carl von Ossietzky was made a laureate in 1936, “for his burning love for freedom of thought and expression and his valuable contribution to the cause of peace” while he languished in a Nazi concentration camp. Earlier, he had been convicted on a criminal libel charge for his work to expose the secret rearmament of Germany in breach of the Treaty of Versailles.

In 2021, with similar urgency and conviction, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has recognized the unprecedented hybrid threats facing independent journalism and its essential democratic function, while seeking to galvanize the global struggle to defend press freedom and end impunity for crimes against journalists. The 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureates practice journalism as resistance in the context of escalating threats in a world that once again tilts toward fascism.

When Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa and Russian editor Dmitry Muratov were named Nobel Peace Prize laureates last week, for fighting courageously to “safeguard freedom of expression,” the Norwegian Nobel Committee described them as “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.”

The committee’s choice was a strategic act. It has been 85 years since a working journalist won the Nobel Peace Prize. German editor Carl von Ossietzky was made a laureate in 1936, “for his burning love for freedom of thought and expression and his valuable contribution to the cause of peace” while he languished in a Nazi concentration camp. Earlier, he had been convicted on a criminal libel charge for his work to expose the secret rearmament of Germany in breach of the Treaty of Versailles.

In 2021, with similar urgency and conviction, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has recognized the unprecedented hybrid threats facing independent journalism and its essential democratic function, while seeking to galvanize the global struggle to defend press freedom and end impunity for crimes against journalists. The 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureates practice journalism as resistance in the context of escalating threats in a world that once again tilts toward fascism.

Muratov leads Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining independent news organizations in President Vladimir Putin’s Russia, which is progressively designating journalists and news outlets as “foreign agents” or “undesirable organizations” to damage their credibility and hinder their critical reporting. The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Novaya Gazeta’s “fact-based journalism and professional integrity,” along with its “fundamentally critical attitude towards power.” Six Novaya Gazeta journalists have been killed since the newspaper was launched in 1993. Muratov, who has led the newspaper as editor in chief for 24 years, said the Nobel Peace Prize was “for them.”

The Philippines—home to Ressa’s fiercely independent digital news outlet Rappler—remains one of the deadliest countries on earth for journalists, with press freedom violations increasing dramatically since Rodrigo Duterte came to power in 2016. Ressa and Rappler have been firmly in the Duterte government’s sights for their fearless reporting on thousands of extrajudicial killings in the so-called drug war, and their exposure of state-linked disinformation campaigns. Duterte has falsely accused Rappler of being a “fake news outlet” funded by the CIA. He has also mused that journalists are not “exempt from assassination,” and that they should be treated as “spies.” Meanwhile, Ressa has been a canary in the coal mine, sounding the alarm about the global threat to democracy posed by Facebook—a major vector of viral disinformation and hate speech, and a company that Ressa holds partly responsible for her predicament.

The press freedom battles of Ressa and Muratov are as emblematic and prescient as those waged by von Ossietzky before he was recognized by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Their fêting as Nobel laureates at this point in history should light a fire under global efforts to counter disinformation, fight extremism, and reinforce democracy by protecting critical independent journalism and the journalists who produce it.

But I want to focus on Ressa’s case here, because her situation best illustrates the convergent political, technological, commercial, and legal threats hobbling contemporary independent journalism and risking the lives of journalists around the world. As only the 18th woman to ever win a Nobel Peace Prize, this award also highlights the experience of women journalists, who sit at the epicenter of risk on the new front line in the global struggle for media freedom and journalists’ safety.

I have known Ressa since 2014. Initially, I researched and reported on her pioneering work building communities around Rappler’s journalism, which was (ironically) born on Facebook and leveraged “social media for social good.” Fast forward to 2021, and this sounds like a utopian fantasy. Ressa now lives at the center of a very 21st-century storm. It is a furor of disinformation and attacks, one in which credible journalists—and especially female journalists—are subjected to online violence with impunity, where facts wither and democracies teeter. “The relentless campaign of harassment and intimidation against me in the Philippines is a stark example of a global trend,” she said in response to news she had become a Nobel laureate.

The brutal harassment Ressa experiences—both online and offline—is designed to shut her up and shut down Rappler. Earlier this year, with computer scientists from the University of Sheffield, I conducted a big data analysis of the online violence Ressa experiences, published by the International Center for Journalists. After examining half a million social media posts directed at Ressa over 12 months, we concluded:

  • Almost 60 percent of the attacks on Ressa we extracted from Facebook and Twitter were designed to undermine her professional credibility and public trust in her journalism.
  • Credibility or reputation-based attacks frequently used disinformation tactics and abuse, conflating Ressa and her journalism with “fake news” (such as calling her “Queen of Fake News,” “LIAR,” and “#Presstitute”).
  • More than 40 percent of the attacks in the combined data sets targeted Ressa at the personal level—often viscerally—with misogynistic and racist hate speech routinely deployed.

There is also direct evidence that online violence targeting Ressa has offline consequences. It subjects her to very real physical danger, with frequent rape and death threats, and it has created an enabling environment for her persecution, prosecution, and conviction. She has been served 10 arrest warrants and detained twice since 2019. In July 2020, Ressa was convicted on a trumped-up charge of criminal “cyber libel,” which saw her sentenced to a jail term of up to six years. That case—based on a law that criminalizes journalism in contravention of international human rights law obligations—is currently under appeal before a Manila court. But she is concurrently fighting a slew of legal battles, ranging from cyber libel to tax- and foreign ownership-related cases, which could see her jailed for decades.

Yet despite being a dual national with U.S. citizenship, Ressa has always returned to the Philippines to face her accusers and fight to clear her name with facts, a cross-border legal team, and assistance from a global movement of supporters heeding her call to help her “hold the line.”

Again, there are parallels between Ressa’s case and von Ossietzky, who was also convicted and jailed for criminal libel associated with his journalism. Von Ossietzky was detained by secret police the day after the infamous Reichstag fire in 1933, and he was ultimately sent to a concentration camp where he died in 1938 on the eve of World War II.

So, what are the implications of the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s strategic decision to once again recognize a journalist under constant fire? When truth itself is at stake, journalists must become activists, in Ressa’s view. “We have not seen such serious threats to press freedom and democracy since World War II, and this Nobel prize is a global call for action to defend independent journalism everywhere,” she told me. “We’re waging a battle for truth, a war against disinformation and hate speech, a fight for facts—and we can’t afford to lose. We can’t let independent journalism die in the toxic sludge of surveillance capitalism exploited by populist politicians and authoritarian regimes.” In this 21st-century war, propaganda and disinformation are viral and virtually unmediated.

In 1936, Adolf Hitler was reportedly furious about von Ossietzky’s win, and he banned all Germans from receiving the Nobel Prize. The laureate’s passport was confiscated to prevent him attending the Nobel Prize ceremony in Oslo, Norway, while state propagandists maintained he was free to travel. Ressa has publicly lamented the travel ban she has been subjected to since her conviction in mid-2020. In light of her status as a Nobel Peace Prize winner, let’s hope her cyber libel conviction is now overturned on appeal so, at the very least, she is free to be honored in person in Oslo this December.

Julie Posetti is the global director of research at the International Center for Journalists (ICFJ). She has a doctorate on digital threats to investigative reporting, and she is academically affiliated with the Centre for Freedom of the Media at the University of Sheffield and the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Posetti leads the ICFJ-UNESCO Online Violence Against Women Journalists project. With representatives from the Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders, she also co-leads the #HoldTheLine coalition. She writes in an independent capacity. Twitter: @julieposetti

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