Honouring the defenders of truth

Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov’s Nobel peace prize win is a recognition of how journalism contributes to lasting peace, and points to the crossroads democracy stands at around the globe.

Journalists Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa will jointly receive one of the world’s most prestigious awards, the Nobel peace prize. This is by all counts a historic event and Muratov and Ressa deserves all the praise they have been receiving since October, when this year’s laureates were announced. Not only is this the first time since 1935 that a journalist has received the recognition of how their journalistic efforts contribute to building lasting peace, but it also points to the fact that we are currently at a historic crossroads globally. Democracy has had a bumpy ride the last few decades and according to V-Dem Institute at the University of Gothenburg we’re now back down at the same level of democratic rights globally as in 1990. So, what do we do now? Where do we go? How do we respond to this development? It’s in this light – to underscore the importance of truthful journalism to democracy – that the Norwegian Nobel Committee chose to award the prize to the two journalists “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” No matter how we look at it, journalists are at the forefront of the battle for the truth – a battle which in recent years is being fought more fiercely than ever. 

Without making too many comparisons between 1935 laureate Carl von Ossietzky – who exposed how Germany was secretly rearming and thus overstepping the boundaries set by the Treaty of Versailles in what essentially led to the outbreak of World War II – this year’s laureates receive the prize in a climate of rapidly deteriorating basic freedoms and increased polarisation, utilisation of propaganda tools and fearmongering, as both Muratov and Ressa are very vocal about. 

Operating in Russia and the Philippines respectively, Muratov and Ressa represent the truly global nature of how democratic freedoms are gradually shrinking and how elected leaders with various degrees of public legitimacy are pivoting towards authoritarianism and occasionally even dictatorship. They have both witnessed – and still are – how the space for critical journalism is slowly shrinking as political leaders chip away at right after right under the guise of safeguarding the “national stability/virtues/identity/security”. 

Two eras of hope and broken dreams 

However, the two editors and media entrepreneurs represent outlets born out of two different eras of modern history. Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta was established in 1993 in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union and the seemingly total victory of the Western, capitalistic way of life. Based on the values of transparency and political accountability, the newspaper famously received economic support from the 1990 Nobel peace prize laureate Mikhail Gorbachev, who spent part of his prize money to buy computers for the newly established newspaper and who has been a staunch supporter for the nearly three decades the newspaper has been operating.  

The years haven’t been without severe challenges, though. Illustrative of the democratic rollercoaster in Russia, from 2000 to 2021, six Novaya Gazeta journalists have been murdered as a consequence of their investigations, and upon receiving the news of the award in October this year Dmitry Muratov didn’t hesitate to dedicate the prize to his late colleagues. All independent Russian media are under increasing pressure, but until now Novaya Gazeta has avoided being labelled as a “foreign agent”, which has been the fate of many media outlets and civil society groups over the last few years and effectively crippling them. 

Rappler, Maria Ressa’s online outlet in the Philippines, on the other hand, was established in 2012 at the height of the wave of tech positivism that stressed the democratising potential of social media in particular, of which the Arab Spring Uprisings were the practical example we all referred to. As is clear today, this notion seems almost laughable and utopian. And Maria Ressa knows this better than anyone. Having used Facebook to build Rappler to its current magnitude and leading position in the Philippine media landscape, the social media platform has undeniably been key to Rappler’s success. At the same time, Ressa has personally felt the destructive power of Facebook through the thousands of misogynist, racist and sexist attacks and threats of rape and death she’s received, especially after now-president Rodrigo Duterte rose to fame exploiting the potential of populist propaganda provided by the American platform.  

Witnessing first-hand how Duterte was able to pose threats against opponents, spread lies, misinformation and hate speech and weaponise armies of dots unchallenged has made Ressa one of the sharpest analysts and staunchest of how social media companies operate and the minimal responsibility they take. For years now, Ressa has been sounding the alarm and sharing her analysis on what she calls “a battle for the truth” and “a war against disinformation”. She has been years ahead of Western policymakers in cutting straight through the tech CEO’s empty talking points on “connectivity” and “community building”. Profit was always more important and safeguarding human rights and the concept of the truth has never been profitable in comparison. 

Siding with the truth 

Together, the stories and accomplishments of Muratov and Ressa represent how different trajectories of democratic decline and technological advancements have collided in recent years and are reenforcing one another in creating a democratic crisis of historic proportions within a worryingly short period of time. It’s always difficult drawing exact historic parallels, but neither laureate hesitates when it comes to stressing the depth of the crisis. “Fascism” and “war”, they say, are within sight if we don’t act now. And they are right. We’ve reached a tipping point, and the proponents of freedom and democracy must take action. 

For journalists in particular this raises a fundamental question: In a climate where everything is questioned and lies and propaganda are utilised to sow doubt and mistrust among people, does practicing journalism become a form of activism? How can it not be, and is that a problem? Many journalists – with good reason – have qualms about the activist distinction, but when you are trading in truth there is little choice. I believe that Dmitry Muratov and Maria Ressa, as representatives of critical journalists worldwide, are excellent role models when it comes to walking that tightrope. They have been forced to take sides and have sided with the truth in the face of creeping techno-authoritarianism, and they are doing so with the greatest integrity despite the challenges. Today we honour them and journalists around the world as the heroes of democracy that they rightfully are. 

It’s my hope that this year’s Nobel peace prize to two of the world’s most dedicated, uncompromising and courageous journalists – on behalf of journalists fighting for the truth around the globe – will be another match to the fire in support for democratic values. For policymakers keen on countering the current democratic decline, this year’s Nobel peace prize is a reminder that journalists and independent media are on the frontlines on a daily basis and are essential allies in the battle against the tyranny, false information and mistrust that are undermining the freedom of people everywhere. A battle we must win.