MOSCOW — The Norwegian Nobel Committee sent a strong signal of support Friday for independent journalism in an era of increasing threats and crackdowns, awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to editors Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia for their work amid authoritarian pressures in their countries.
The decision also sought to call attention to the potential dangers to democracies posed by disinformation and other false narratives presented as facts on social media and elsewhere.
“Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Nobel Committee, in announcing the awards.
Under Russian President Vladimir Putin, journalists have been assassinated and many independent new outlets have closed or been taken over by Kremlin-friendly oligarchs. Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta is one of the few strong, independent newspapers surviving in Russia.
In the Philippines, Ressa and her news organization, Rappler, have repeatedly been targeted through campaigns of online harassment and criminal charges widely seen as politically motivated under the direction of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Reiss-Andersen praised Ressa and Muratov as standard-bearers for “all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.”
In the Philippines, 87 journalists have been killed since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, while 58 journalists have been killed in Russia in that period and seven are missing.
The number of journalists jailed hit a high last year, the group said, with at least 274 journalists behind bars around the world as of late 2020 because of their work.
Joel Simon, executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, itself a nominee this year, said in a statement that the selection of Ressa and Muratov “is a powerful recognition of their tireless work, and that of journalists all around the world. Their struggle is our struggle.”
In a tearful interview after the award was announced, Ressa, 58, described the peace prize as “a recognition of the difficulties, but also hopefully of how we’re going to win the battle for truth, the battle for facts: We hold the line.”
Muratov, 59, who co-founded Novaya Gazeta in 1993, said the prize was a tribute to the courage of his newspaper’s journalists.
“I’ll tell you this: This is not my merit,” he told the Tass news agency. “This is Novaya Gazeta. It is for those who died defending the right of people to freedom of speech. Since they are not with us, they [the Nobel Committee] apparently decided that I should speak for them.”
Former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1990, donated part of his prize money to buy Novaya Gazeta’s first computers and owns a part of the newspaper.
“This is good, very good news — not just news but an event,” he said Friday. “This is a great addition to our ranks, among the Nobel laureates. This award raises the importance of the press in today’s world to great heights.”
Gorbachev won the prize for allowing the Berlin Wall to fall and helping bring the Cold War to a peaceful end.
Independent news media in Russia are under increasing pressure as Putin seeks to crush perceived enemies, including activists, human rights lawyers and opposition politicians.
Russian authorities have labeled 26 independent media outlets as “foreign agents,” or “undesirable organizations,” threatening their survival, and applied similar designations to 47 individual journalists — labels that carry echoes of the Soviet past when individuals were branded enemies of the state. Independent journalists have been harassed, searched and arrested, and many have fled the country.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he was pleased to congratulate Muratov for the award and described him as “talented and brave” and “committed to his ideals.”
Just hours later, Russia designated nine more journalists as “foreign agents,” including members of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and the BBC Russian Service. Russian authorities also added the designation to Netherlands-based Bellingcat, an investigative reporting group.
The award could extend some kind of protection to Russia’s broader community of journalists, said Yevgenia Albats, an independent editor, journalist and political analyst.
“I hope that this status of Muratov will protect Novaya Gazeta from being designated a foreign agent,” she said in comments to Russian media. “I hope it will help Russian journalism to survive in these difficult conditions.”
Since its founding, six journalists from Novaya Gazeta have been killed, including Anna Politkovskaya, who reported on human rights abuses in Chechnya and was shot dead outside her apartment in 2006.
Yuri Shchekochikhin was investigating Russian authorities’ role in a series of 1999 apartment bombings for Novaya Gazeta when he contracted a mysterious illness in July 2003 and died. His medical documents were deemed classified by Russian authorities.
Natalia Estemirova, a close friend of Politkovskaya, investigated and exposed the torture, disappearances and murders of civilians in Chechnya. In 2009, she was kidnapped outside her apartment in Grozny, Chechnya, and her body was found in neighboring Ingushetia. She was fatally shot, execution-style.
Novaya Gazeta has reported on corruption, electoral fraud, police violence, Russian military actions and the presence of Russian mercenaries in Syria, parts of Africa and elsewhere.
In the case of Ressa, the Nobel Committee’s statement said she exposed abuses of power, the use of violence and the “growing authoritarianism in her native country, the Philippines.”
Ressa is the chief executive of the Rappler news website, which she co-founded in 2011 after covering Southeast Asia for two decades for CNN. Time magazine named her, along with other journalists, a “person of the year” in 2018.
Ressa was found guilty of cyber libel in June 2020 and has spent recent years shuttling back and forth to courts in the Philippines, defending herself and her news organization against a litany of charges.
Ten arrest warrants were issued for her in less than two years, and she is fighting nine separate cases. Throughout, she has remained a staunch advocate of freedom of the press. After her conviction last year, she said the case was not about Rappler but about every Filipino, “because freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen.”
She has also emerged as a strong opponent of violence against female journalists more broadly and along with Rappler has done pioneering reporting on cyber harassment, online trolls, and disinformation and misinformation campaigns.
Ressa has repeatedly warned Facebook about the dangers of misinformation campaigns in her home country and elsewhere. She noted in a Washington Post op-ed in May that she first wrote about Facebook’s problematic algorithms in 2016, arguing that they have only gotten worse five years later.
“When we live in a world where facts are debatable, where the world’s largest distributor of news prioritizes the spread of lies laced with anger and hate and spreads it faster and further than facts, then journalism becomes activism,” she said Friday in an interview.
At the height of online harassment against her, likely the work of paid troll farms, Ressa recorded 90 hate messages an hour sent to her on social media — after Rappler ran an investigative series on the weaponizing of social media.
Philippine activists and journalists celebrated Ressa’s win as a step toward ending a culture of impunity within the country. The Philippines under Duterte has been devastated by a brutal “war on drugs,” itself fueled by social media and sophisticated online propaganda.
The Duterte administration has repeatedly pushed back against accusations of human rights abuses and says it does not oppose the free press. Duterte has called Ressa a “fraud.”
In a tweet responding to the Nobel announcement, Philippine Foreign Minister Teodoro Locsin Jr. said that “it was a fight and she won.” He previously defended her arrest and said Ressa had “failed to defend herself” in court.
The prize is a gold medal and an award of $1.14 million dollars.
It was set up by the will of Swedish businessman and inventor Alfred Nobel in 1895 with the aim of celebrating the people or organizations working for “fraternity between nations,” reducing standing armies and promoting “peace congresses.” Over the years, those criteria have been interpreted to also include the promotion of human rights.
Nobel also endowed prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine and literature.
Unlike the other prizes, which are selected and awarded in Sweden, Nobel chose a Norwegian committee, selected by that country’s parliament, to administer the peace prize.
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Mahtani reported from Hong Kong, and Schemm reported from London. Regine Cabato in Manila contributed to this report.