Yesterday, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) named Maria Ressa, a journalist and media executive from the Philippines, as the recipient of the 2021 UNESCO/Guillermo Cano World Press Freedom Prize.
It is hard to raise much objection to the jury’s selection. A veteran with more than thirty years’ experience, Ressa has served as CNN Philippines’ lead investigative reporter for Asia and as head of the current affairs programming division of ABS-CBN, one of the country’s most prominent broadcasters. In more recent years, Ressa helped launch the plucky, pioneering online media portal Rappler, which under her leadership has garnered a reputation for exposes and hard-hitting investigations.
Ressa’s work with Rappler has put her on a collision course with the pugnacious populism of President Rodrigo Duterte, who came to office in 2016. Since Duterte entered Malacañang Palace, Ressa and Rappler have been tireless in highlighting the government’s various abuses of power, from the bloody “war on drugs” that has stained Duterte’s tenure to the administration’s use of the law to muzzle dissent.
Indeed, the government has employed the latter strategy in a bid to silence Ressa, who has been charged with a raft of politically motivated crimes related to her journalism, which included, most recently, her conviction on “cyberlibel” charges. (She has appealed the verdict.) Alongside this campaign of “lawfare,” UNESCO writes, Ressa has also “been 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 granting of the award to Ressa came on the same day that the Myanmar journalist Swe Win received the Shorenstein Journalism Award, which is granted by the Walter H. Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center (APARC) at Stanford University.
Like Ressa, Swe Win is the co-founder and editor-in-chief of an online publication, Myanmar Now, which produces features, analysis, and investigative reports. And like Ressa, his work has courted friction with the powerful, which in Myanmar’s context refers to the military and the various businesses and entities associated with it.
In late 2019, Swe Win was shot in the leg while traveling in Rakhine State, an apparent targeted shooting attack in which both civilian and military officials seem to have been involved. The incident came a few months after Myanmar Now published a series of investigations into the vast business interests of top generals including armed forces Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing, who led the military’s seizure of power on February 1 of this year.
“Our stories have angered and shamed many individuals in power, which is the only reason why I believe I was shot,” Swe Win later told the watchdog group Reporters Without Borders (RSF).
In 2017, he was also arrested following a defamation complaint by a follower of the firebrand Buddhist monk Wirathu, who briefly rose to prominence as a key exponent of an extreme strain of anti-Muslim Bamar nationalism.
Myanmar Now was founded in 2015, during the brief springtime for Myanmar’s media that followed the partial liberalization of the country’s political system and the abandonment of the country’s antique system of red-pen press censorship in 2012.
Since the Myanmar military’s coup, which has plunged the country into a generational crisis and once again forced most of the country’s journalists underground, the Myanmar Now team has continued its coverage, at grave risk of arrests, censorship, and violent attacks. According to one estimate, 46 journalists have been arrested by the Myanmar authorities since the coup.
In its announcement of his award, Gi-Wook Shin, the director of APARC, said that Swe Win’s world “demonstrates the moral force of independent, investigative journalism to speak truth to power.”
The granting of these awards to Maria Ressa and Swe Win highlights both the indefatigable efforts of Southeast Asian media outlets and the journalists that work for them, and the region’s increasingly inhospitable environment for free expression.
The dire situation was reflected in the most recent World Press Freedom Report, released last week by RSF, which found most Southeast Asian nations lurking in the bottom reaches. Out of 180 nations ranked by RSF for press freedom, the highest ranking Southeast Asian nations was Timor-Leste, which placed 71st.
According to RSF, most of the region’s governments, even those that are nominally democracies, have used the COVID-19 pandemic as a pretext for the imposition of repressive legislation and the narrowing of the range of permitted speech.
Things were particularly dire in Myanmar, which came in at 140th position, but is likely to fall sharply over the next year, following the coup and its repressive aftermath. In the words of RSF, the country’s crisis has “set Myanmar’s journalists back ten years.”