Philippine journalist at the front line of global fight for democracy – Sydney Morning Herald
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The Nobel peace prize has over the years usually been awarded to politicians and diplomats but this year it went to two journalists who are fighting for free speech.
The Norwegian selection panel bestowed the honour last week on Dmitry Muratov, who has edited an independent newspaper in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and on Maria Ressa, who is fighting disinformation in President Rodrigo Duterte’s Philippines.
As Tim Elliott explained in his profile of Ms Ressa in Good Weekend last month, her online news service Rappler has shone a light on the extra-judicial killing of an estimated 20,000 people during the strongman’s brutal war on drugs.
The authorities have tried to terrify her by setting up troll factories of online bullies. She is also waiting to see if she will be sent to jail for up to six years on a trumped-up charge under a cyber libel law.
In an interview with the Herald’s South-east Asia correspondent Chris Barrett in today’s paper Ms Ressa warns that if Mr Duterte’s daughter or someone with similar views wins the presidential election next year democracy could be in danger in the Philippines.
Ms Ressa’s story highlights some worrying trends for us here in Australia.
In many places around the world the space is shrinking for independent journalism that tries to uphold democracy and truth.
It was thought a decade ago that the internet would break down the entrenched dominance of state propaganda and promote grassroots democracy.
But more recently authoritarian states have taken back control of cyberspace by techniques that range from jamming and blocking, pioneered by China’s Great Firewall, to online disinformation and trolling.
Strongman leaders in many countries from the Philippines to Russia to Turkey have used these techniques to manipulate public opinion and destroy opposition even while maintaining the facade of electoral democracy.
One of Ms Ressa’s hardest campaigns is convincing companies such as Facebook and Google to take down the co-ordinated disinformation used to promote Mr Duterte’s regime and attack his enemies, including herself.
She told the Herald that there can be no integrity in elections without “integrity of facts”.
When these sophisticated techniques fail, regimes still often use imprisonment and violence to silence their critics. The Committee to Protect Journalists says 32 journalists were murdered for their work last year.
The possibility that democracy will be suppressed in the Philippines adds to a grim situation in our region. Over the past two years, the Chinese Communist Party has all but destroyed democracy and free speech in Hong Kong.
Within China itself, strict censorship is increasingly driving even the most mildly dissenting views off the internet.
In Afghanistan, the new Taliban regime is arresting journalists and other members of civil society. While democracy remains strong in Indonesia, the government this year gutted the Corruption Eradication Commission, one of the country’s most trusted institutions.
One reason to be especially worried is that whereas in the past the region could draw inspiration from US democracy, former president Donald Trump undermined trust in the value of a free press and in the integrity of the US electoral system.
It might seem strange to award the Nobel peace prize to two journalists but the Nobel committee said they are right on the front line of the battle for democracy. “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,” the Nobel committee explained.
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