Journalism and media practitioners have seen their ability to report and gather news come under increasing pressue at a time when the digital revolution and a more interconnected world are supposed to have held out the promise of greater engagement on the things that matter to people and societies. If the migration of ad revenues to newer platforms put a squeeze on resources at the disposal of newsrooms, the rise of fake news and deliberate misinformation campaigns have undermined people’s trust in news in general. Here’s why the Norwegian Nobel Committee chose to honour the Philippines’ Maria Ressa and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov with the Nobel for peace at such a juncture.
What Did The Nobel Committee Say About The 2021 Award?
The 58-year-old Ressa and Muratov, 59, were chosen for the Nobel peace prize for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace", the Nobel Committee said, highlighting their “courageous fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia".
“Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda," it said while stressing that the freedom of expression and freedom of information were “crucial prerequisites for democracy and protect(ing) against war and conflict".
“Without freedom of expression and freedom of the press, it will be difficult to successfully promote fraternity between nations, disarmament and a better world order to succeed in our time," the Committee said, adding that the award to Ressa and Muratov “is intended to underscore the importance of protecting and defending these fundamental rights".
What’s The Work That’s Fetched The Duo The Prize?
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an independent think tank, said that the award to the two independent journalists was “very timely" as it noted that the past few years have seen “an alarming assault on facts, on freedom of expression and on media freedom".
Ressa is the co-founder and CEO of the online investigative journalism platform Rappler, which was launched in the Philippines in 2012. The outlet came into prominence especially for reports on the anti-drug campaign launched by the country’s president Rodrigo Duterte.
A report by Human Rights Watch cites UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights data that says that till June last year, “drug war" fatalities in the country “stood at more than 8,000 since the campaign was started… in July 2016". It notes that Filipino human rights groups and “the governmental Commission on Human Rights believe the actual toll is triple that number".
The Nobel Committee said that Ressa — who was convicted in a libel case with a former Rappler journalist last year — “has shown herself to be a fearless defender of freedom of expression", focusing attention on the Duterte regime’s “controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign". It noted that Ressa and Rappler “have also documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents and manipulate public discourse".
As for Muratov, who co-founded the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta and has been its chief editor since 1995, the Committee said that he has “for decades defended freedom of speech in Russia under increasingly challenging conditions".
“The newspaper’s fact-based journalism and professional integrity have made it an important source of information on censurable aspects of Russian society rarely mentioned by other media," it said, adding that the newspaper’s opponents “have responded with harassment, threats, violence and murder".
The Committee noted that since the newspaper’s launch, six of its journalists have been killed but Muratov “has refused to abandon the newspaper’s independent policy", which has seen it report on subjects ranging from “corruption, police violence, unlawful arrests, electoral fraud and ‘troll factories’ to the use of Russian military forces both within and outside Russia".
Why Is The Award Significant?
Noting the link between freedom of expression, democracy and peace cited by the Nobel Committee, Dan Smith, the director of SIPRI, said that while research shows that democracies do not go to war with each other and tend to be more stable and internally peaceful, “democracy is impossible without freedom of expression and a free media that seeks and speaks the truth".
With the Committee speaking about the “increasingly adverse conditions" for freedom of the press, UNESCO says that “on average, every five days a journalist is killed for bringing information to the public". Earlier this year, Indian photographer Danish Siddiqui was killed while covering the conflict in Afghanistan with allegations having been made that he was deliberately targeted. The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, non-profit for promoting press freedom worldwide, says that between 1992 and 2021, more than 2,100 journalists and media workers have been killed worldwide.
The 2021 World Press Freedom index published by independent watchdog Reporters Without Borders (RSF) said that journalism “is totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others, which together represent 73 per cent of the countries evaluated", noting that it was the case even when it is “arguably the best vaccine against the virus of disinformation". A study by the University of Michigan had last year said it had noted a rise in fake or manipulative stories during the lockdown.
Further, National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) data said that cases related to false/fake news in India jumped to over 1,500 in 2020 compared with less than 500 in 2019.