Nobel: Freedom of expression a 'precondition for democracy and lasting peace' – Minneapolis Star Tribune
The inextricable link between a free press and free people was made piercingly clear by the Norwegian Nobel Committee in its citation for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, awarded on Friday to journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia.
The laureates were cited “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace,” the committee said, adding that they are “convinced that freedom of expression and freedom of information are crucial prerequisites for democracy and protect against war and conflict. The 2021 peace prize laureates are representative of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.”
Those conditions have been worsening worldwide, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), which has tragically tallied 1,416 journalists killed since 1992, with a record number of journalists jailed in 2020.
Six of those murdered journalists, including crusading reporter Anna Politkovskaya, worked at Novaya Gazeta, the independent newspaper Muratov co-founded in 1993. The Nobel Committee noted that Novaya Gazeta is “the most independent newspaper in Russia today, with a fundamentally critical attitude towards power. The newspaper’s fact-based journalism and professional integrity have made it an important source of information on censurable aspects of Russian society rarely mentioned by other media.”
The response has ranged from harassment to homicide. And yet, according to the committee, “Despite the killings and threats, editor-in-chief Muratov has refused to abandon the newspaper’s independent policy. He has consistently defended the right of journalists to write anything they want about whatever they want, as long as they comply with the professional and ethical standards of journalism.”
As Muratov has had to operate under the repressive regime of President Vladimir Putin, Ressa has been pressured by President Rodrigo Duterte’s thuggish government, which convicted her for libel last year.
Ressa, the committee wrote, “uses freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country, the Philippines. In 2012, she co-founded Rappler, a digital media company for investigative journalism, which she still heads. As a journalist and Rappler’s CEO and executive editor, Ressa has shown herself to be a fearless defender of freedom of expression. Rappler has focused critical attention on the Duterte regime’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign. The number of deaths is so high that the campaign resembles a war waged against the country’s own population. Ms. Ressa and Rappler have also documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents and manipulate public discourse.”
Among Muratov’s and Ressa’s resolute defenders is CPJ, whose executive director, Joel Simon, said in an interview that the prize reflects that “journalism, press freedom, trust — the kind of basic system that we have that informs people in this country and around the world … is threatened as never before.
“It’s threatened in many places around the world by violence and repression. But it’s also threatened by systems of disinformation, which undermine our understanding and confuse the public and compromise democracy.”
Journalists, Simon said, “work every day, they put their lives on the line, they risk their freedoms to bring us the news. I think what the Nobel Committee was trying to communicate is that we can’t take this fundamental freedom for granted, we have to stand up and defend our own rights. And we can do that by defending the rights of journalists around the world, like Maria and Dmitry.”
But the individualization of an institutional issue by the Nobel Committee has the potential to be counterproductive, said Ronald Krebs, a professor of political science at the University of Minnesota who has written extensively on the history of the Nobel Peace Prize and its trajectory of honoring aspiration instead of achievement.
This trend caused controversy in 2009 when former President Barack Obama, just months into his presidency, was awarded the prize. And it backfired spectacularly in the cases of 2019 laureate Abiy Ahmed Ali, the Ethiopian president who made peace with Eritrea only to wage war in his own country, as well as 1991 Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi, who tarnished her human rights halo when later as leader she ignored the plight of persecuted Rohingya.
Krebs was quick to laud the laureates and the cause they represent. “I certainly applaud the Nobel Committee for honoring journalists and for standing up for media freedom,” Krebs said. “The question is, was this the right way to do it?”
In Russia and the Philippines, “it may simply make those leaders even more sensitive to and more willing and more interested in repressing the media when it stands in their way. So, there was an alternative,” Krebs said, such as a transnational organizations fighting for media freedoms — organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists.
For his and CPJ’s part, Simon felt rewarded that the Nobel Peace Prize so well reflected his organization’s critical mission.
“When I saw the announcement this morning,” Simon recalled, “I was so thrilled and happy that Dmitry and Maria, dear friends who we have been honored with our press freedom awards, and the language that the Nobel Committee used in describing the threats to journalists and press freedom around the world, and the role that they play in ensuring accountability, particularly in violent and repressive societies, I felt like I was hearing the CPJ talking points reflected back to me.”
They shouldn’t just be CPJ talking points, but democracy’s talking points. And not spoken in a whisper, but in a shout — especially here in what was once the beacon of media freedom, but one that’s dimmed its torch because of sharp partisan divisions leading to false narratives of “fake news” that threaten this core component of democracy.
Press freedom means free people and, ideally, peace.
“Free, independent and fact-based journalism protects against the abuse of power, lies and propaganda used to engage in conflict. It is crucial to maintaining democracy — which is a prerequisite for peace around the world,” Gina Torry, director of Minneapolis-based International Center for Dialogue and Peacebuilding, said in an e-mail exchange.
Or, as the committee concluded: “Without freedom of expression and freedom of the press, it will be difficult to successfully promote fraternity between nations, disarmament and a better world order to succeed in our time.”
John Rash is a Star Tribune editorial writer and columnist. The Rash Report can be heard at 8:10 a.m. Fridays on WCCO Radio, 830-AM. On Twitter: @rashreport.
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