Campaigning journalists from the Philippines and Russia have won the 2021 Nobel peace prize as the Norwegian committee recognised the vital importance of an independent media to democracy and warned it was increasingly under assault.
Maria Ressa, the chief executive and cofounder of Rappler, and Dmitry Muratov, the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, were named as this year’s laureates by Berit Reiss-Andersen, the chair of the Norwegian Nobel committee.
“Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda,” Reiss-Andersen said, praising the two journalists’ “courageous fight for freedom of expression, a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”.
A free press was essential to promoting “fraternity between nations, disarmament and a better world order”, she said, adding that the committee considered Ressa and Muratov to be “representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions”.
Hours after the announcement, Russia’s justice ministry designated the owner the Bellingcat investigative news organisation, along with nine journalists including one for the BBC’s Russian service, as “foreign agents”, meaning they must file detailed financial reports and face other tight operating restrictions.
The press freedom NGO Reporters Without Borders (RSF), which says 24 journalists have been killed since the beginning of the year and 350 others imprisoned, called the award “a call for mobilisation to defend journalism” that had sparked a sense of both “joy and urgency”.
Ressa, 58, a former CNN bureau chief in the Philippines, and Rappler, the news site she founded in 2012, have faced multiple criminal charges and investigations after publishing stories critical of President Rodrigo Duterte and his bloody drugs war.
In emotional comments aired on Rappler’s Facebook page, she said: “This is a recognition of how hard it is to be a journalist today. How hard it is to keep doing what we do … It’s 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.”
In a subsequent interview, Ressa, who is on bail pending an appeal against a conviction in a cyber libel case for which she faces up to six years in prison, said the award was for Rappler, and showed the Nobel peace prize committee had recognised that “a world without facts means a world without truth and without trust”.
When facts have become debatable, she said, and when “the world’s largest distributor of news prioritises the spread of lies laced with anger and hate – then journalism becomes activism … It’s about the facts, right?” She told Norwegian TV the reward gave her and Rappler “tremendous energy to continue the fight”.
Amal Clooney, a member of Ressa’s legal team, said: “I am so proud of my client and friend. She has sacrificed her own freedom for the rights of journalists all over the world. I hope the Philippine authorities will now stop persecuting her and other journalists, and that this prize helps to protect the press around the world.”
Muratov, 59, who was one of the founders of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta in 1993 and has been its editor-in-chief since 1995, told the Telegram news service Podyom: “We will continue to represent Russian journalism, which is now being suppressed. That’s all.”
He was later quoted by the Russian news agency Tass as saying the award “is for Novaya Gazeta, and also for those who died defending the right of people to freedom of speech. Now that they are no longer with us, [the Nobel committee] probably decided I should tell it to everyone.”
He then proceeded to list journalists murdered in Russia for their work: “It’s for Igor Domnikov, it’s for Yuri Shchekochikhin, it’s for Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya, it’s for Nastya Baburova, it’s for Natasha Estemirova, for Stas Markelov. This is for them.”
Christophe Deloire, RSF’s secretary general, said there was “joy because this is an extraordinary tribute to journalism, an excellent tribute to two incredible figures, Maria and Dmitry”. But there was also a feeling of urgency, he said, because “journalism is in danger, journalism is weakened, journalism is threatened … all over the world”.
According to the RSF’s latest world rankings, the situation for press freedom is “difficult or very serious” in 73% of the 180 countries it evaluates, and “good or satisfactory” in only 27%. Attempts to stifle independent media – from physical violence through state censorship to targeted financial pressure – are multiplying around the world, the group says.
The Nobel committee said Rappler had focused “critical attention on the Duterte regime’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign” which had caused so many deaths that “it resembles a war waged against the country’s own population”.
Ressa and Rappler had also “documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents and manipulate public discourse”, the committee said. It said of Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta that the newspaper was “the most independent newspaper in Russia today, with a fundamentally critical attitude towards power”.
The paper’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”, the committee said. Despite harassment, threats, violence and murder, Muratov had refused to abandon the newspaper’s independent policy.
“He has consistently defended the right of journalists to write anything they want about whatever they want, as long as they comply with the professional and ethical standards of journalism,” Reiss-Andersen said.
Pavel Kanygin, a veteran reporter at Novaya Gazeta, said: “This is great encouragement for us all; the last few months have been very difficult for Russian journalism. I hope this will help to protect us against attacks from the authorities. This is an award that is important not just for us, but the whole Russian independent journalist community.”
The Kremlin spokesperson, Dmitry Peskov, congratulated Muratov on winning the prize, hailing him as a “talented and brave” person.
The prestigious award is accompanied by a gold medal and 10m Swedish kronor (£840,000). The prize money comes from a bequest left by the prize’s creator, the Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1896.
This year’s nominees included the environmental activist Greta Thunberg, the Belarusian human rights activist and politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and the jailed Russian opposition figure Alexei Navalny.
Organisations nominated included Black Lives Matter, the World Health Organization, the Covax vaccine sharing body, and the press freedom groups RSF and the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Previous laureates include the Pakistani campaigner for female education Malala Yousafzai, anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela, US president Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama, Catholic missionary Mother Teresa, civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Chinese writer and activist Liu Xiaobo, and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev.
Gorbachev, who helped fund the launch of Novaya Gazeta with the proceeds of his prize, said the decision was “good news” for the world’s press.
“This is good, very good news,” he said in a statement. “This award raises the importance of the press in the modern world to great heights.”
• This article was amended on 10 October 2021. Alfred Nobel died in 1896, not 1895 as an earlier version said. It was in 1895 that he made his will with a bequest for establishing the prize.