The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced in October that the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded to journalists Dmitry Muratov from Russia and Maria Ressa from the Philippines “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
Both are recognized for their crusade to preserve press freedom under the dictatorial regimes of Vladimir Putin and Rodrigo Duterte, when journalists are being attacked and the truth is being undermined.
Dmitry Muratov is the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, a Russian independent newspaper launched in 1993 with fellow Nobel Peace laureate Mikhail Gorbachev. He has since led the newspaper's investigations on political corruption, civil war, and human rights violations in Russia, which made him a thorn in Putin’s side.
Under Russia’s intensified attack on press freedom, Muratov and his team have been repeatedly targeted for fearlessly reporting on the conflict in Chechnya, exposing the offshore accounts of Russian officials close to Putin, and uncovering the abuses against LGBT people. In honour of his colleagues’ sacrifices, Muratov dedicates his award to six of Novaya Gazeta’s journalists who were murdered for their work.
This proves the adverse conditions journalists deal with in Russia under Putin: “There are different centres of power in the government… trying to control what could be reported in private or state-backed media,” says Yevgeny Kiselyov, an independent journalist in Russia. “And sometimes journalists lost this fight,” signaling what he calls the “creeping strangulation” of press freedom.
Another Nobel Peace Prize awardee is Maria Ressa, co-founder and head of the digital news site Rappler. Established in 2012, Rappler is recognized for its investigative journalism, which has since produced critical stories on Duterte’s “war on drugs” that is notorious for human rights violations and extra-judicial killings in the Philippines.
With Ressa at the helm, Rappler has also reported on how the Duterte administration “weaponized” social media by using Facebook to spread fake news, harass government critics, and manipulate public discourse.
In retaliation, the Duterte administration filed multiple cases against Ressa accusing her of cyber libel, tax evasion, and violation of the anti-dummy law.
Duterte himself accused Rappler of being a “fake news outlet” that produces articles “rife with innuendoes and pregnant with falsity.” He also ranted: “You are going overboard. You’re not only throwing toilet paper. You’re throwing s*** at us.”
Such threats against Ressa and Rappler fit into Duterte’s disdain for independent journalism, going as far as justifying the murder of journalists: “Just because you are a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination if you are a son of a bitch.”
By honouring Muratov and Ressa’s sacrifices to uphold press freedom, the Nobel Peace Prize similarly reveals the harsh political realities of the countries they represent.
According to the 2020 Global Impunity Index of the Committee to Protect Journalists, the Philippines ranks 7th while Russia places 11th among 12 countries with the world’s most unsolved murders of journalists.
In the 2021 World Press Freedom Index of Reporters Without Borders, the Philippines places 138th while Russia places 150th out of 180 countries that exhibit declining freedom for journalists.
Both awardees also draw international attention to the authoritarian leaders whom they seek to hold into account. In 2021, the Reporters Without Borders included Putin and Duterte in its list of the world’s “predators of press freedom” who jail journalists arbitrarily or incite violence against them.
It is uncertain whether the award’s international prestige will prompt Russian and Philippine authorities to cease the political harassment against Muratov and Ressa and their news outlets.
The Novaya Gazeta is at risk of being labelled as a foreign agent, a cold war term that implies journalists and media companies receiving foreign funding and are engaged in secret political activities.
Just a few hours after the Nobel announcement, the Russian Justice Ministry added nine more journalists and three more media organizations to its list of foreign agents, which will impose burdensome financial reporting on them and will undermine their credibility.
Meanwhile, Rappler is threatened with possible closure after the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) revoked its license to operate in 2018. It however continues to operate while challenging the SEC decision since it is not yet "final and executory."
Even with their international recognition, Muratov and Ressa’s battle for press freedom in Russia and the Philippines continues.
Despite the uncertainties, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize shines a piercing light on the dark realities against independent journalism.
According to Muratov: “The fight against the media is not just a fight against the media. It is a fight against the people.” Ressa warned that the sustained and methodical attacks against the press will soon erode a country’s democratic foundations: “What we’re seeing is a death by a thousand cuts of our democracy. When you have enough of these cuts, you are so weakened that you will die.”
But with the inspiring courage of these journalists under fire, the burning hope is that their awards will serve as global symbols to rally around, for the protection and revival of freedom and democracy.
- Asia Media Centre
About the Author: Andrea Chloe Wong holds a PhD in Political Science at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She previously worked as a Senior Foreign Affairs Research Specialist at the Center for International Relations and Strategic Studies at the Foreign Service Institute of the Philippines.