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Journalists’ Nobel Peace Prize casts a shadow on failures of our democracy

Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov were honoured today. But 2021 has also seen record numbers of journalists jailed

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
10 December 2021, 3.57pm
Journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov are awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, 10 December 2021
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Sergei Bobylev/TASS/Alamy Live News

It has been 75 years since a journalist last won the Nobel Peace Prize. Back in 1936, Carl von Ossietzky couldn’t accept the honour in person because he was imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. The fact that today’s winners, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, both made it to the Oslo award ceremony might be a sign of progress. But in a year when a record number of journalists have been jailed, dozens killed, and countless more threatened, intimidated or forced to flee their homes, the spotlight their prize shines on the world is grim. It shames so-called liberal democracies, too, including Britain, that claim to stand for press freedom.

“Dmitry and I are lucky because we can speak to you now, but there are so many more journalists persecuted in the shadows,” Ressa said in her Oslo speech today. ‘Lucky’ might be pushing it – next week, she returns home to the Philippines to face a litany of trumped-up charges that could see her jailed for the rest of her life. But she is perhaps fortunate to be alive. Twenty-two journalists have been killed since President Rodrigo Duterte took power in 2016: the latest, Ressa’s former colleague Jesus ‘Jess’ Malabanan, was shot dead just 36 hours before her Oslo speech.

In Russia, Dmitry Muratov is the editor of Novaya Gazeta, one of the last independent outlets operating inside the country. Six of his colleagues, including the celebrated Anna Politkovskaya, have been killed. Shortly after the Nobel Prize was announced, President Putin warned the award would not be a “shield” for Muratov or his colleagues. (And he meant it: weeks later Novaya Gazeta and Muratov, personally, were hit with fines for their reporting on Kremlin critic Alexei Navalny.)

From Belarus to China, the playbook of violence, threats and persecution deployed to silence journalists is well known. But if you think this is just an ‘authoritarian country’ problem, think again. In July, we learned how Pegasus spyware had been used to hack into the phones of journalists working right across the globe – including for the Associated Press, CNN, The New York Times, Reuters and countless others. It went right to the top: Roula Khalaf, the London-based editor of the Financial Times, had her phone compromised. Chillingly, in Mexico, journalist Cecilio Pineda’s phone was selected for targeting just weeks before his killing in 2017. The two women closest to murdered Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi were also targeted.

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While much of this spying was done at the behest of authoritarian regimes, it was only made possible by technology built by firms operating in so-called democracies. The United States is a world leader in the spyware market, as are France, Germany and Israel, the latter of which is home to the NSO Group that built and sold Pegasus.

Spying is one way to undermine journalists: aggressive legal action is another – and here, Britain is the world leader. The acclaimed journalist, Catherine Belton, has just lost the first stage of her London court battle over her book ‘Putin’s People’. Nineteen press freedom groups have raised alarm about her case, describing it as a SLAPP – a ‘strategic lawsuit against public participation’ – designed to “drain their targets of as much time, money, and energy as possible in order to bully them into silence”.

We can continue down the path we’re on and descend further into fascism or we can each choose to fight for a better world

Maria Ressa

We know all about that here at openDemocracy, where the threat of one court action against us dragged on for two years, wasting precious time and money and causing one of our journalists, who was sued personally, to worry he would lose his home. According to the Index on Censorship, aggressive legal action is a growing problem for journalists across Europe. The Serbian investigative outlet, the Crime and Corruption Reporting Network (KRIK), led by Stevan Dojčinović in Belgrade, has had three SLAPPs lodged against it in the past month: if it loses, it faces bankruptcy.

What can be done? In the US, the Biden administration has taken some steps in the right direction. This week, it announced the launch of a global Defamation Defense Fund to support journalists facing legal harassment and it has also committed $30m to the new International Fund for Public Interest Media, co-chaired by Maria Ressa. In the wake of Pegasus, the US has also announced a global coalition to curb the market for surveillance technology.

But we’ve heard fine words and big pledges from global leaders before. In 2019, Britain and Canada co-sponsored The Media Freedom Coalition, a largely toothless initiative that has failed to call out abuse of journalists, even by some of its 49 member states. France is a signatory, yet just this week President Macron was in Jeddah meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who still stands accused of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi.

Meanwhile, the US is lobbying against new European laws to regulate tech platforms and limit the spread of disinformation and hate speech online. These are laws that Ressa, herself a target of vicious, misogynistic online attacks, has long called for. She’s described receiving “90 hate messages an hour, 90 rape threats per minute”, and has been a trenchant critic of those who claim that regulating platforms would compromise free speech. “It’s a freedom of reach issue, not a freedom of speech issue,” she has said. In her Nobel lecture today, she talked of how the systems built by powerful US tech giants set “the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world”.

If so-called liberal democracies are serious about protecting press freedom, they need to curb the power their own governments and private industries have built to surveil, target and abuse journalists online. They need to levy their diplomatic muscle against those who persecute and jail journalists – that means, for example, not inviting Rodrigo Duterte to the high-profile ‘Summit on Democracy’ in Washington, as Biden did this week. And they need to end the abuse of their court systems by kleptocrats and oligarchs, who seek to bully journalists and silence public interest reporting.

“Democracy has become a woman-to-woman, man-to-man defence of our values,” Maria Ressa told the assembled group of dignitaries in Oslo today. “We’re at a sliding-door moment, where we can continue down the path we’re on and descend further into fascism, or we can each choose to fight for a better world.”

“To do that, you have to ask yourself: what are YOU willing to sacrifice for the truth?”

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