When Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte was asked, shortly before being sworn in, what he would do about the high murder rate of journalists, and declared, “Just because you’re a journalist you’re not exempted from assassination, if you’re a son of a b*tch,” I shuddered for one of the most courageous journalists I’ve ever known. But she kept on.
Ressa, a Filipino American who spent nearly two decades at CNN, founded the online news organization Rappler in the Philippines in 2012. Since then, Duterte’s government has done almost everything in its power to silence her and put Rappler out of business.
But the most important thing everyone should know about her work is that it’s about much more than the Philippines.
As she has taken on the brutality of Duterte’s rule, and faced down a relentless legal campaign, which has included her repeated arrest (the government had filed 10 arrest warrants against her, she said with seven legal cases still pending), Ressa has become a fighter for the right of fact-based journalists everywhere to do their job, which means she is struggling for everyone’s right to know the truth.
She is now an icon in the drive to defend democracy against autocrats who manipulate public opinion, misuse the legal system against perceived enemies, unleash hordes of social media followers against their critics, who distort the truth and flood society with fake news, accusing those telling the truth of lying. It’s Big Lies and small lies — the kind familiar to many Americans by now — designed at creating a morass of confusion to serve the demagogue’s purpose.
In other words, Ressa is fighting everyone’s fight.
I’ve been following her career and writing about her plight for years, through her arrests, the threats against her and her rising profile on the global stage. I never saw her seek the limelight, but she has deservedly achieved fame. That’s not only because she’s good at her job, but because her struggle resonates within the great conflict of our time, the world’s drift toward autocracy, and the efforts of millions of people across the planet to save democracy.
A free press is a bigger part of that struggle than it has ever been.
According to Reporters Without Borders, journalism is “totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 percent” of the 180 countries it ranks. This is a global battle, and Ressa, Muratov, and many other journalistic heroes, are literally risking their lives to win it.
For those of us who saw Ressa’s dogged earlier years as an international reporter for CNN, this is hardly surprising. She was CNN’s Manila bureau chief, later Jakarta bureau chief. She covered Asia with an intensity, integrity and courage that foreshadowed her stature today. It is not an overstatement to say there was no dictator, no terrorist, no coup plotter she was afraid to upset. She got the story, even if it made powerful, dangerous men angry.
Perhaps her diminutive size (she is 5′ 2″) caused them to underestimate her — a phenomenon I’ve experienced. Perhaps that’s why Duterte thought he could easily brush her off.
When he first came to power, he thought Rappler could be helpful. A pioneer in social media manipulation, Duterte spoke to Rappler to reach the Facebook crowds. But then Rappler started reporting on Duterte’s vicious “war on drugs,” a campaign that human rights groups confirm has killed thousands of people without any semblance of due process. (For a horrifying look at how Duterte weaponized the social media mobs to hound her, click on this investigation.)
The efforts of Muratov, editor in chief of Novaya Gazeta, are no less heroic. Muratov founded the paper with a group of journalists back in 1993, and they have managed to continue their vital investigative work even as Vladimir Putin’s regime crushes other truth-tellers. Muratov told the TASS news agency that the award belongs to “those who died defending the people’s right to freedom of speech.”
Some may question whether the battle for free speech and for a free press belongs in the same category as the quest for peace, the formal objective of the Nobel Peace Prize. The answer is an unequivocal yes.
Misinformation kills. Disinformation has started wars. Without journalism, without a clear distinction between fact and fabrication, we cannot hold people to account, we cannot obtain the knowledge to protect against those who would sacrifice their countries and their people to gain, increase or keep power. When truth is inaccessible, freedom begins to fade and peace becomes elusive.
I’m glad and grateful that my friend Maria Ressa has made it this far.
Bravo, Maria and Dmitry! Bravo, and thank you.