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Journalists who ‘speak truth to power’ recognized with Nobel Peace Prize

Two campaigning journalists were awarded the prestigious Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, which UN Secretary-General António Guterres said was recognition that a free press is “essential for peace, justice, sustainable development and human rights – and the cornerstone for building fair and impartial institutions”. 

From the Philippines, Maria Ressa, Chief Executive and cofounder of online news outlet Rappler, and Russia’s Dmitry Muratov, cofounder and editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta newspaper, were named as the 2021 laureates by Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel committee.

No society can be free and fair without journalists who are able to investigate wrongdoing, bring information to citizens, hold leaders accountable and speak truth to power”, the UN chief said in his message congratulating this year’s winners.

Our greatest ally

Yet anti-media rhetoric and attacks against media workers continue to rise, observed the top UN official.  

“We are seeing growing violence and harassment against journalists, in person and online”, he said. “Women journalists are often subjected to particular abuse”.

At the same time, technology has transformed the ways in which information is received and shared – and regularly used to mislead public opinion or to fuel violence and hatred.  

Pointing out that “falsehoods trump facts” too often in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Guterres stressed that “this cannot become the new normal”.  

“Free and independent journalism is our greatest ally in combating misinformation and disinformation”, underscored the UN chief.

“As we congratulate the award winners, let us reaffirm the right to press freedom, recognize the fundamental role of journalists and reinforce efforts at every level to support a free, independent and diverse media”.  

Hard-fought wins

For over three decades, Ms. Ressa has promoted press freedom, which at times, made her a target for attacks and abuse.

After publishing stories critical of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte and his drugs war, the 58-year-old faced multiple criminal charges and investigations.

According to the UN cultural organization, UNESCO, Ms. Ressa has been arrested for “alleged crimes related to the exercise of her profession” and subject to a sustained campaign of gendered online abuse, threats and harassment, which at one point, resulted in her receiving an average of over 90 hateful messages an hour on Facebook.

The former lead investigative journalist for Asia at CNN and head of ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs, Ms. Ressa was also among a group of journalists named in 2018 as Time Magazine’s person of the year.

Honouring fallen colleagues

Dmitry Muratov’s newspaper is one of the few remaining in Russia to be highly critical of the ruling elite, particularly President Vladimir Putin.

It has reportedly been subjected to threats and harassment, including over its coverage of human rights abuses in Chechnya.

The award came a day after the 15th anniversary of the killing of Anna Politkovskaya, one of six murdered Novaya Gazeta reporters.

According to media reports, the 59-year-old laureate upheld: “We will continue to represent Russian journalism, which is now being suppressed”.

He was later quoted as dedicating the award to “those who died defending the right of people to freedom of speech” and went on to name Igor Domnikov, Yuri Shchekochikhin, Anna Stepanovna Politkovskaya, Nastya Baburova, Natasha Estemirov and Stas Markelov – each of them murdered going about their work – saying: “This is for them”.

UNESCO Director-General, Audrey Azoulay, also welcomed the decision.

“In awarding this Prize, the Nobel Committee have powerfully stated their conviction that freedom of expression and access to information are the very foundation of democracy and peace”, she said.

Ms. Azoulay remembered that "journalists are on the front lines of the struggle to shine light into the most needed places, often facing tremendous personal risk to do so", adding that with the award "they are rightly being held up as defenders of justice and truth.”

Picking a winner

The prestigious award is accompanied by a gold medal and more than $1.4 million in prize money, from a bequest left by Swedish inventor Alfred Nobel, who died in 1895.

This year’s nominees included environmental activist Greta Thunberg, Belarusian human rights activist and Belarusian politician Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya and jailed Russian opposition figure, Alexei Navalny.

The World Health Organization (WHO), UN-led equitable vaccine distribution initiative COVAX and Black Lives Matter were among the organizations nominated.