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A Nobel for Journalists Is a Direct Challenge to Authoritarians

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Journalists prefer to tell the story than to be its subject. But with credible reporting under political and financial pressure, the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s recognition of Maria Ressa, CEO of the Rappler news outlet in the Philippines, and Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize gives a needed boost to unflinching, fact-based journalism.

Only twice before has a journalist won the Nobel Peace Prize for their writing. The first came in 1933, when the British editor and activist Norman Angell won for his book The Great Illusion, a bracing plea about the dangers and futility of war. Then, as war again loomed in 1935, Germany’s Carl von Ossietzky won for revealing that the Reich was rearming in violation of the Treaty of Versailles—a scoop that got him shipped to a concentration camp.  He would die in state custody before the war he foretold even began.

This year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awakened to the reality of a world in which geopolitical battles are increasingly waged through the medium of narrative and the contest to control information. The choice to honor Ressa and Muratov reminds the world that journalists’ contributions to peace go beyond predicting—or trying to prevent—war. Today, there is democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe and South America, the snuffing out of democracy in Hong Kong and Myanmar, and tightening strictures on dissent in Russia, China, Iran, and elsewhere.

Journalists prefer to tell the story than to be its subject. But with credible reporting under political and financial pressure, the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s recognition of Maria Ressa, CEO of the Rappler news outlet in the Philippines, and Dmitry Muratov, editor in chief of the Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, with this year’s Nobel Peace Prize gives a needed boost to unflinching, fact-based journalism.

Only twice before has a journalist won the Nobel Peace Prize for their writing. The first came in 1933, when the British editor and activist Norman Angell won for his book The Great Illusion, a bracing plea about the dangers and futility of war. Then, as war again loomed in 1935, Germany’s Carl von Ossietzky won for revealing that the Reich was rearming in violation of the Treaty of Versailles—a scoop that got him shipped to a concentration camp.  He would die in state custody before the war he foretold even began.

This year, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awakened to the reality of a world in which geopolitical battles are increasingly waged through the medium of narrative and the contest to control information. The choice to honor Ressa and Muratov reminds the world that journalists’ contributions to peace go beyond predicting—or trying to prevent—war. Today, there is democratic backsliding in Eastern Europe and South America, the snuffing out of democracy in Hong Kong and Myanmar, and tightening strictures on dissent in Russia, China, Iran, and elsewhere.

More than ever, journalists and independent media outlets provide an essential corrective to state-dominated media outlets that aim to perpetuate autocrats’ power, as well as to the deluge of unreliable, obfuscating information that is shared online. By honoring members of the press, the Nobel committee recognized that investigative journalism represents one of the most powerful yet overlooked tools in the fight against global authoritarianism, corruption, and aggression. Yet this weapon is weakening and in need of urgent shoring up.

The crisis facing journalism and the crisis befalling democracy are related. Authoritarian rulers have understood that traditional, independent media outlets have for some time been in difficult financial straits. The migration online of advertising revenue that used to support newspapers and magazines has led to an estimated $30 billion revenue loss in 2020 alone for free-standing newspapers worldwide, according to Oxford University’s Reuters Institute.

At the same time, in a media-soaked society, authoritarians view hard-hitting reportage as a direct threat to their rule and use extreme means to counter it. Targeted killings of journalists worldwide spiked in 2020, with the number killed doubling over the year before—something the newly named Nobel laureate Muratov knows all too well, having seen six members of his newspaper’s staff killed since 2000.

Last year also saw an all-time high in the recorded number of journalists in jail, 274—the fifth consecutive year that this grim census has numbered above 250. Beyond actual violence and prosecutions, authorities plague journalists with threats, extrajudicial intimidation, audits, registration requirements, visa hurdles, travel prohibitions, and an ever-evolving array of other hurdles.  Governments are also reaching beyond their own borders to target and menace journalists who have fled to exile.

Saudi Arabia’s murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi attracted worldwide attention, but there have been many other instances of states targeting journalists with violence or imprisonment: Iran’s execution of Ruhollah Zam, for example, or Belarus’s flight hijacking in order to capture Belarusian blogger Roman Protasevich. These brazen attacks highlight a worsening global pattern. The choice of Ressa and Muratov in particular, from amid countless courageous journalists worldwide, spotlights the problem of rulers who use overt legal harassment, violence, and intimidation to muzzle the press.

Ressa has faced bogus charges of securities and exchange fraud, libel, cybercrime, and tax evasion in an endless string of politically motivated legal attacks that have resulted in arrests, trials, and prison terms that have bedeviled her for more than four years. And though Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta was initially funded in part by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who allocated a portion of his own Nobel Peace Prize purse to underwrite the newspaper, it has been the target of not just lawsuits but also violent attacks resulting in the killings of six journalists.  Ressa and Muratov’s award spotlights all those reporters around the world who work under dangerous conditions to expose wrongdoing and hold brutal leaders to account.

Amid these troubling trends, it’s fair to ask what a Nobel Peace Prize can actually achieve. Many people consider the award purely symbolic, a mere laurel that achieves nothing concrete. The last time a writer was awarded with the peace prize was in 2010, when it went to Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese essayist and founder of the Independent Chinese PEN Center. That recognition failed to derail a tragic fate: Liu remained in prison in China, and his wife, Liu Xia, was put under house arrest despite being accused of no crime. When he was diagnosed with liver cancer in 2017, Beijing authorities wouldn’t allow him to travel to the West for treatment, arguing that his case was advanced and everything possible was being done. He died and was buried at sea, depriving his family and supporters of even a grave to visit.

Similarly, when Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, she remained a prisoner in her own home at the hands of a junta for nearly 20 more years. She was finally freed, but even after being elected as a democratic ruler (and coming under thunderous criticism for betraying her role as a peacemaker by sanctioning attacks on Myanmar’s minority Rohingya Muslim population), she remained sharply constrained by the country’s military, which ousted her last year and sent her back into house arrest. Ressa and Muratov are therefore under no illusions that even this most prestigious honor offers any guarantee of protection or freedom.

But the Nobel Prize and other newsmaking awards given to besieged journalists can nevertheless make a substantial difference. Ideally, the awarding of the Peace Prize to recognize ongoing work rather than as a valedictory lap for a treaty or cease-fire functions as a challenge to the world to advance the ideals embodied by the people it honors. By bringing about public recognition of an urgent cause, the award can spark meaningful change both for the individuals involved and for the principles and values for which they stand.

At the individual level, prizewinners gain access to corridors of power and levels of media visibility that raise the price for governments that seek to mess with them. Leaders may be reluctant to capitulate to international pressure, but they are also inclined to escape the negative press that results from overt mistreatment of an international luminary. When Iranian Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Ebadi faced threats tracing back to Tehran for her legal and advocacy work, the intimidation made international headlines and ultimately died down.

Although Russian President Vladimir Putin seems impervious to global calls for respect for human rights, his administration put out a statement of congratulations to Muratov—suggesting at least some responsiveness to world opinion. In the face of a global campaign on behalf of Ukrainian filmmaker and writer Oleg Sentsov, a political prisoner who received the 2017 PEN/Barbey Freedom to Write Award, Putin surprised rights advocates by freeing the activist in a 2019 prisoner swap.

Nobel laureates can also use their star power to spark important programs and projects. Wangari Muta Maathai, the 2004 Kenyan laureate, recognized for her work on environmentalism, inspired the United Nations’ billion tree project, responsible for planting more than 13 billion trees since its inception in 2006.

Ressa has championed the need for new resources and strategies to combat the harassment and intimidation of women journalists. Her prize stands to generate vital attention and resources for that cause.

Beyond the individual level, Nobel Prizes have the potential to drive forward global debates and policy initiatives. Ressa serves as co-chair of the International Fund for Public Interest Media, which aims to mobilize government funding for independent outlets worldwide. Her Nobel recognition may assist activists hoping to utilize the Biden administration’s upcoming democracy summit as a vehicle to jump-start donations. With luck, the prize’s emphasis on embattled and endangered journalists will prompt governments and foundations concerned about freedom of the press to invest not only in journalism itself but also in stepped-up advocacy and protection to ensure that as media outlets gain resources and clout, they are fortified against the inevitable backlash of intensified threats against them.

Nobel Prizes also have the power to inspire. The decision in 1990 to award the Nobel to Gorbachev for initiating reforms that culminated in the dismantling of the Soviet Union was widely regarded as having influenced then-South African President F.W. de Klerk to see through the process of reform that he had begun, ultimately earning his portion of a 1993 Nobel shared with Nelson Mandela. Former U.S. President Jimmy Carter’s 2002 Nobel for his post-presidency conflict resolution and human rights efforts helped elevate a model that encouraged his successors Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to form foundations to tackle global problems. The announcement of the award to Ressa and Muratov has unleashed tweets and posts by journalists worldwide who see themselves in the winners and may be inspired to persevere.

Less predictable is how the awards will reverberate within the winners’ home countries. In the Philippines, Ressa’s nemesis, President Rodrigo Duterte, is retiring, in part due to plummeting poll numbers. Luz Rimban of the Asian Center for Journalism told Agence France-Presse that honoring Ressa was “like the world telling Duterte, ‘Hands off Philippine journalism.’” Meanwhile, Muratov’s statement that the prize should have gone to the jailed dissident and opposition leader Alexei Navalny must have rankled Putin. But by raising the question of whether the Nobel Prize money, coming from Norway, would render him a foreign agent subject to stigma and deportation, Muratov also shined a harsh spotlight on a registration requirement that has become one of Russia’s main tools of media repression.

With journalists crushed by financial pressures and intimidated by physical and online threats, these Nobel Prizes need to be seen as a starting gun. The United States—along with other governments, media companies, and civil society institutions—must intensify its pressure on governments in Russia, the Philippines, and elsewhere that egregiously violate the rights of reporters. Congress should pass the Jamal Khashoggi Press Freedom Accountability Act to punish governments that murder journalists. The U.S. military’s chaotic exit from Afghanistan left scores of vulnerable journalists behind, drawing attention to the imperative of new emergency visa regimes that can enable endangered reporters to flee to freedom.

Today, people around the world praise Ressa and Muratov for their courage and their work. Tomorrow, they must make good on that praise by taking action to fight the long arm of authoritarianism that threatens to silence journalists and writers around the world.

This is not a CAPTIS article. Originally, it was published here.