This Friday at 11 am sharp in Oslo, the Chair of the Nobel Committee will open the doors of the Norwegian Nobel Institute to announce the laureate of this year’s peace prize in front of eager journalists from international media houses.
Last year, Berit Reiss-Andersen announced that the peace prize for 2021 would be awarded to journalists Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Russian Dmitry Muratov for their “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” It was a decision heralded as a win for press freedom globally. The award came at a time when journalists were increasingly under attack, including in countries normally considered democratic and peaceful. At a point in history where lies and disinformation pollute our public spheres, States act extraterritorially to silence journalists in acts of chilling brutality, and where female journalists in particular are exposed to hatred and prolific online violence, this award was both symbolically important and prescient.
The increasing relevance of the 2021 award
A year later, the relevance of the 2021 award has gained further momentum. In the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on February 24, it is striking how parts of the Nobel Committee’s rationale could be seen as foreshadowing what was to come: “Free, independent and fact- based journalism protects against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda.”
When Dimitry Muratov, editor of Russian independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, was named co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, he accepted the award on behalf of his six brave colleagues killed since the newspaper was established in 1993. The most famous of them is undoubtedly Anna Politkovskaya. The investigative reporter covered the war in Chechnya, focusing on the corruption there and the suffering of the local population. Politkovskaya was shot dead on her way home from work on Oct. 7, 2006. In interviews, Muratov describes how Politkovskaya’s desk still is in the corner of Novaya Gazeta’s newsroom, exactly as she left it 16 years ago.
In the first days after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Muratov’s voice was distinct against an increasingly dark backdrop. A new media law was introduced in Russia which threatened to jail journalists for up to 15 years in prison for spreading “fake news” about the Russian military. In a move repugnant to truth, words like “invasion” and “war” were banned and Russian journalists were required to describe the conflict in Ukraine as a “special military operation.” A week after the invasion, Novaya Gazeta published in both Ukrainian and Russian, with the message: “We will never recognize Ukraine as an enemy, or Ukrainian as the language of the enemy.”
Soon after, the newspaper was forced to delete all material about the war from its website.
Ultimately, Muratov decided to auction off his Nobel Peace Prize medal and he gave the proceeds to Ukrainian refugees. Three decades earlier, the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Michael Gorbachev – the last president of the Soviet Union – had used some of his prize money to support the establishment of Novaya Gazeta. Gorbachev died at the end of August. The same week that he was buried, a Moscow court revoked Novaya Gazeta’s license to publish within Russia, and effectively ended any possibility of independent journalism being published in the country.
The responsibility of the global tech companies
Viral disinformation is also a weapon of modern warfare and it’s this scourge that Maria Ressa battles on a daily basis. As co-founder and CEO of Rappler, which is at the forefront of the fight for press freedom in the Philippines, Ressa has proven herself as a fearless defender of facts, truth and freedom of expression. She has led exposes on State-linked social media manipulation and overseen investigations into the extrajudicial killings associated with former President Rodrigo Duterte’s so-called ‘drugs war.’ At the same time, she has faced unrelenting legal persecution, which has resulted in multiple arrests, conviction on a trumped-up charge of criminal cyber libel, and six other ongoing cases which together could theoretically see her jailed for 100 years. Meanwhile, Rappler faces court-ordered closure.
Maria Ressa is subjected to torrents of gendered online violence, and she is one of only 18 women to receive the Nobel Prize since its inception 120 years ago. Only six of those women were recognized individually. She regards the social media companies as complicit in the global disinformation crisis which undermines democracy and fuels attacks on the press. She also holds Facebook partly responsible for her own predicament. In her Nobel acceptance speech on December 10 last year, she asserted that the big technology companies practice “surveillance capitalism.” The companies that control our information distort facts and are designed to divide and radicalize us, she said.
Some weeks ago, the courageous journalist and CEO of Rappler was in Oslo again to speak at the Nobel Peace Center. There, she warned that the world has until 2024 to reverse the erosion of democracy before reaching a geopolitical tipping point. She expressed grave concerns about the outcomes of elections in Italy (since won by a far right candidate), Brazil (where the result hangs in the balance), Turkey, Indonesia and India, as well as the presidential elections in the U.S. in 2024. In each of these cases, the existential challenge of viral disinformation, conspiracy networks and geopolitical exploitation of social media platforms threaten to plunge the world into “the upside down” – an undemocratic dystopia reminiscent of Stranger Things’ horrific parallel universe.
But Ressa maintains hope that we can change the future if we can repair our information ecosystem that feeds on division and creates polarized, angry and fearful societies, receptive to illiberal leaders. We must push for accountability among the big tech companies for whom emotions such as fear and anger drive the most “traffic,” and therefore reap the most money. We must seek actual knowledge and speak out, so that it is not just the extreme opinions, those who shout the loudest, who get to define the agenda. Ressa emphasizes the need to return to fact-based, editorially mediated news in these dangerous times.
Finding solutions to the challenges caused by the information system’s weaknesses is crucial. It will define what opportunities we will have for peace. A year after the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the peace prize to Ressa and Muratov, the two laureates continue to shine brightly.