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Celebration and impunity as journalists win the Nobel Peace Prize

By Jon Allsop

On Friday, two journalists—Maria Ressa, the founder and CEO of Rappler, a news site in the Philippines, and Dmitry Muratov, the editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, a newspaper in Russia—jointly won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.” Several journalists have received the prize in the past, sometimes while wearing different hats: Ernesto Moneta, in 1907, for his work “in the press and in peace meetings” on behalf of the peace movement in Italy; Norman Angell, in 1933, for “having exposed by his pen the illusion of war”; Carl von Ossietzky, in 1935, for his “burning love for freedom of thought and expression” (and for exposing German rearmament plans); Tawakkol Karman, in 2011, for her work toward women’s rights in Yemen. This time was different, though, since Ressa and Muratov weren’t only honored for their own work, but as representatives of journalists everywhere in a world where press freedom is increasingly under threat. Ressa was participating in a seminar on media independence when she got the news. “This is a recognition of how hard it is to be a journalist today,” she said, choking up, “but also, hopefully, of how we’re going to win the battle for truth. The battle for facts. We hold the line.” Muratov said that he ignored several calls from Norway, assuming he was being spammed, and that he’d have given the award to Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader, who’d have fit nicely with the journalists wearing different hats theme.
 
Reaction soon poured in from across the world of journalism and beyond. Reporters Without Borders hailed the award as “an extraordinary tribute to journalism” at a time when “democracies are being undermined by the spread of fake news and hate speech”; the Committee to Protect Journalists called it “a powerful recognition” of Ressa’s and Muratov’s work “and that of journalists all around the world. Their struggle is our struggle.” President Joe Biden said, in a statement, that “Ressa, Muratov, and journalists like them all around the world are on the front lines of a global battle for the very idea of the truth, and I, along with people everywhere, am grateful for their groundbreaking work to ‘hold the line.’” Biden’s predecessor Barack Obama struck a similar tone; the guy who was president in between—who was himself nominated for the prize, not that that means much—ended up being a target of the award, not its recipient. In a column for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Will Bunch tied the accolade for Ressa and Muratov directly to Trump’s threats to democracy. “For all the Beltway journalists so eager to restore a breathless access journalism and the most cynical, ‘savvy’ form of politics-as-a-game news coverage,” he wrote, “the embrace by both the Nobel committee and the wider world of the more daring vision of journalism as a chief weapon in the war against rising neo-fascism—the stance so boldly adopted by Ressa and Muratov—ought to serve as a wake-up call.”

Among those to congratulate Ressa and Muratov were the respective targets of their reporting: a spokesperson for Rodrigo Duterte, the president of the Philippines, who has targeted Ressa relentlessly, described her win as “a victory for a Filipina, and we are very happy for that”; a spokesperson for Russian President Vladimir Putin called Muratov a “talented and brave” man who has “consistently worked in accordance with his ideals.” Putin’s government was so full of respect for Muratov’s ideals that, in the hours after the Nobel announcement, it tagged seven journalists and entities tied to three independent news organizationsCaucasian Knot, M.News, and Bellingcat, the open-source outlet that has worked with Navalny to scrutinize Putin—as “foreign agents,” a legal designation that Putin has increasingly used to demonize and constrict Russia’s free press. Muratov asked the officials who congratulated him if he should now expect the same treatment. (The committee that awards the Nobel Peace Prize has close ties to Norway’s Parliament.) He said that he didn’t get a response.  
 
The assault on press freedom in Russia may have intensified of late but it isn’t new—as the Peace Prize committee noted in making its award, since Muratov helped found Novaya Gazeta in the nineties (with financial support coming from Mikhail Gorbachev’s own Peace Prize purse), six of its journalists have been killed. One of those was Anna Politkovskaya, who, in a poignant coincidence of timing, was murdered fifteen years ago last week; the day before the Nobel announcement, representatives of Reporters Without Borders released a thousand black balloons in her memory outside Novaya Gazeta’s Moscow offices as well as Russian embassies in various European capitals. (Since the anniversary was also Putin’s birthday, the balloons bore the message “#UnhappyBirthdayMrPutin.”) Muratov dedicated his prize to his fallen colleagues. “Since the Nobel Peace Prize isn’t awarded posthumously,” Muratov said, the committee gave it to him so that Politkovskaya “could take it, but through other, second hands.” The anniversary of Politkovskaya’s murder also marked the expiry of the statute of limitations in her case, with the masterminds of her killing still at large. It could yet be waived, and Putin’s spokesperson said that the authorities remain committed to “the imminence of punishment for such crimes,” but Muratov and others are convinced that the case has been allowed to go cold. 
 
The killers of journalists getting away with it, of course, is a global phenomenon. CPJ monitors the trend via an annual “impunity index”; last year, both the Philippines, with eleven unsolved journalist murders, and Russia, with six, featured among its twelve worst offending countries. Saudi Arabia did not make the list, but is another glaring example of impunity: Western governments have concluded that Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s crown prince, ordered the shocking murder, in 2018, of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and yet MBS, as he is known, remains all-powerful. Last week brought another example of Saudi Arabia’s global influence, as a consortium backed by the country’s sovereign wealth fund acquired Newcastle United, a leading English soccer club. The deal had nearly fallen through due to a dispute over TV rights, with human rights a secondary concern, at best; soccer officials are now claiming, with a straight face, that the fund is independent of the Saudi state, even though MBS chairs it and it reportedly owns the planes used by Khashoggi’s assassins. As RSF was releasing black balloons for Politkovskaya, some Newcastle supporters were dancing outside the club’s stadium waving Saudi flags and wearing paper masks bearing the face of MBS.
 
As Rebecca Vincent, of RSF, told Time, the Nobel prizes may afford some extra measure of protection to Ressa and Muratov, since “the international community is very much watching what’s happening, and know there would be consequences if anything happened to these journalists.” In more general terms, broadening the visibility of press-freedom issues is helpful, and the awards certainly achieved that, at least for a couple of days. Still, it’s doubtful that the awards will do much to physically protect the thousands of threatened journalists worldwide in whose honor they were given, particularly as crimes against the press grow increasingly brazen
 
The world leaders who publicly welcomed the awards have more power to act on press freedom, but have often squandered it, an observation that extends far beyond the grotesquely hypocritical statements made by the presidential spokespeople in the Philippines and Russia; earlier this year, the Biden administration publicized US agencies’ conclusion that MBS approved Khashoggi’s murder, but ultimately punted on punishing the crown prince, for reasons of geopolitical self-interest. In 2018, Time named both Ressa and Khashoggi among its persons of the year, in a prior recognition of their extraordinary, vital work. For the same reasons as for Politkovskaya, Khashoggi will never see the follow-up honor of a Nobel Peace Prize.

Below, more on the awards and press freedom:

  • The Philippines: In 2019, Ressa wrote for CJR’s global issue about her experience of being targeted by Duterte, who “wages a relentless campaign of disinformation—patriotic trolling—to pound critics into silence. His administration spews lies so fast that the public doesn’t know what reality is anymore. Even government officials get confused.” Ressa also described Duterte’s exploitation of Facebook to spread hateful propaganda, and has been a vocal critic of the company more generally, serving on the Real Facebook Oversight Board, an organization formed in response to a similarly-named panel that Facebook instituted to rule on thorny content-moderation controversies. Writing for the Washington Post, Nina Jankowicz argues that Ressa’s Nobel Peace Prize is “a mark of appreciation for all she has taught the world about the ways social media—and Facebook in particular—can be used to harm public safety.”
     
  • Russia: Recently, the authorities in Russia expanded the scope of their “foreign agents” campaign against independent news outlets and journalists, passing a new law that could see the label applied to practically anyone whose reporting touches on Russia’s military or space program. “This law has had an immediate chilling effect on space coverage inside the country,” Eric Berger writes for Ars Technica. “A prominent Russian space blogger, Katya Pavlushchenko, immediately announced on Twitter that she was going to have to suspend her coverage of Russian space activities due to the new law.”
     
  • Tunisia: Over the summer, Kais Saied, the president of Tunisia, sparked a political crisis as he seized power from the country’s Parliament, and the fallout has affected the press; just last week, police arrested a journalist who criticized Saied and confiscated equipment from a TV channel. During a press briefing on Thursday, Ned Price, a US State Department spokesperson, expressed concern about “infringements on freedom of the press and expression and the use of military courts to investigate civilian cases” in Tunisia, and called on Saied to clearly map out “a return to a transparent, democratic process, involving civil society and diverse political voices.” 
     
  • The world?: Recently, press-freedom groups including CPJ and RSF pushed to set up a “People’s Tribunal” at The Hague, with the goal of indicting governments that have failed to punish the killers of journalists. Such tribunals lack punitive power but “are designed to hold states accountable for violations of international law by building public awareness and generating a legitimate evidence record, and play an important role in empowering victims and recording their stories,” RSF explains. “The People’s Tribunal on the Murder of Journalists will indict the governments of Sri Lanka, Mexico and Syria for failing to deliver justice for the murders of Lasantha Wickrematunge, Miguel Ángel López Velasco, and Nabil Al-Sharbaji.” An opening hearing is scheduled for November 2.
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Reach today's newsletter editor, Jon Allsop, at jallsop@cjr.org.
 
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