The journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov received the Nobel peace prize on Friday at a ceremony that Ressa was almost blocked from attending because of travel restrictions related to legal cases filed against her in the Philippines.
Ressa, 58, the chief executive and co-founder of the online news platform Rappler, praised for exposing abuses of power and growing authoritarianism under the Philippine president, Rodrigo Duterte, is facing charges that could lead to about 100 years in jail. Having been awarded the prize alongside Muratov in October, she was granted permission to attend the ceremony earlier this month by the Philippine court of appeals, which ruled she was not a flight risk.
Muratov, 59, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, who shared the 2021 Nobel peace prize, was described as one of the most prominent defenders of freedom of speech in Russia today. “Novaya Gazeta is the most independent newspaper in Russia today, with a fundamentally critical attitude towards power,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel committee, said at the ceremony at Oslo City Hall.
Reiss-Andersen said that Ressa and Muratov were “participants in a war where the written word is their weapon, where truth is their goal and every exposure of misuse of power is a victory”.
Both laureates had been “the object of ridicule, harassment, threats and violence as a result of their work”, she added.
Ressa, referring to the restrictions imposed on her travel, said that she had at least been permitted to attend the ceremony. This had not been the case, she added, for the last working journalist to be awarded the prize in 1935 – Carl von Ossietzky, who was detained in a Nazi concentration camp.
“By giving this to journalists today, the Nobel committee is signalling a similar historical moment, another existential point for democracy,” she said, pointing to the disruptive impact of social media in fuelling the spread of misinformation, and creating fertile ground for divisive, authoritarian leaders.
“Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with our world’s existential problems: climate, coronavirus, the battle for truth,” Ressa said during her lecture to the ceremony.
“Our greatest need today is to transform that hate and violence, the toxic sludge that’s coursing through our information ecosystem, prioritised by American internet companies that make more money by spreading that hate and triggering the worst in us.”
Rappler was praised for documenting how social media is used to spread fake news, harass opponents and manipulate public discourse.
Ressa called in her lecture for legislation to hold social media companies to account, and for greater overseas development assistance funds to be given to media in the global south. She also said independent media should be helped to survive, by “giving greater protection to journalists and standing up against states which target journalists”.
The Nobel laureates both paid tribute to journalists who have been murdered, jailed or forced into exile for their work. “I want journalists to die old,” Muratov said.
Six journalists working for Novaya Gazeta have been killed – Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Anastasia Baburova, Stanislav Markelov and Natalya Estemirova. In the Philippines, a total of 89 journalists have been killed since 1992, she said. That includes the journalist Jesus “Jess” Malabanan, 58, who was killed in a drive-by shooting on Wednesday.
Journalism in Russia was going through “a dark valley”, Muratov said. “Over a hundred journalists, media outlets, human rights defenders and NGOs have recently been branded as ‘foreign agents’. In Russia, this means ‘enemies of the people’.
“Many of our colleagues have lost their jobs. Some have to leave the country. Some are deprived of the opportunity to live a normal life for an unknown period of time. Maybe for ever. That has happened in our history before,” he said.
Muratov condemned the militaristic propaganda promoted by state-owned media, and made a grim warning of the possibility of war between Russia and Ukraine. “In the heads of some crazy geopoliticians, a war between Russia and Ukraine is not something impossible any longer. But I know that wars end with identifying soldiers and exchanging prisoners,” he said. Moscow has provoked alarm by amassing troops and weapons near Ukraine’s border.
Describing journalists as an antidote against tyranny, Muratov added: “Yes, we growl and bite. Yes, we have sharp teeth and a strong grip. But we are the prerequisite for progress.”