A Nobel Peace Prize doesn’t solve thorny political problems. It didn’t draw a line under Apartheid when South African activist Albert Luthuli won it in 1960, or bring freedom to the Soviet Union when physicist and human rights campaigner Andrei Sakharov did in 1975. But it does, unfailingly, shed light on causes that need global attention. And rarely has a cause been in greater need of support than press freedom in 2021.
Friday’s win for Maria Ressa — indefatigable Filipino journalist, co-founder of digital media company Rappler and bete noire of President Rodrigo Duterte — and Dmitry Muratov — co-founder and editor-in-chief of Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, an opposition voice in a country that leaves no room for criticism — is a joint victory that highlights their resilience in the face of near-daily harassment. Both continue to publish critical work in countries run by strongmen who will stop at very little to silence them.
Novaya Gazeta has been under pressure throughout Vladimir Putin’s presidency. Fifteen years ago nearly to the day, Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist working for Muratov’s paper who chronicled abuses in the region of Chechnya, was shot dead in Moscow. The statute of limitations for the crime expired on Thursday. Ressa, meanwhile, critical of police violence in Duterte’s drugs war, has been tangled in libel and tax evasion cases. The Philippines remains one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists.
But this year’s prize celebrates more than just the outstanding work of its recipients. It acknowledges many thousands of other reporters who run risks daily — keeping democracy and free speech alive. It’s a victory for civil society.
More journalists than ever were in jail last year and the number of media workers killed rose by a third compared with 2019, numbers that speak to a global attack that is stifling democracy. According to the latest survey from Reporters Without Borders, journalism is completely or partly blocked in nearly three-quarters of the 180 countries ranked by the organization. It’s a grim picture that few pause to take in — much less to consider its consequences.
Russia has been waging the most aggressive crackdown in years on independent media, labelling critical outlets as “foreign agents,” hampering their ability to operate. But there are more pervasive everyday pressures, including the squeeze on media owners, the rise of state-owned outlets and the fostering of disinformation by the powerful. Not to mention basic financial troubles that reduce the ability of any news gathering organization to adequately investigate and report.
It’s significant, in that sense, that the committee chose two different journalists working in different parts of the world, under different political regimes. The Philippines is still a democracy, though one left bruised by Duterte’s years in power. Russia is far harder to define that way. But free speech, assaulted by demagogues and misinformation, is under fire everywhere, and by extension so, too, is democracy and peace. We need only think back to Donald Trump’s years in the White House to remember a time when even in the United States, where press freedoms are guaranteed by the constitution, the president referred to critical media as “enemies of the people.”
The Nobel Prize is often castigated for awarding prizes to those who have not achieved enough. The committee has certainly not always got its choices right. But it very clearly understands its role as an amplifying force, one that takes into account not only what individuals have achieved, but the positive effects that attention might bring to the issue at hand. It loudly proclaimed, in the words of Ressa on hearing the announcement, that a world without facts means a world without truth or trust. And one where giant challenges like coronavirus and climate change cannot be conquered.
There are risks too. Regimes may not take kindly to having their critics lauded, and can come down even harder. But for those who live in countries like Putin’s Russia, those risks already exist.