The awarding of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov highlighted the role of independent media outlets in challenging authoritarian governments around the world. In the case of the Philippines, it put a spotlight on how truth-seekers like Ressa have stood their ground in the face of the relentless state-backed attacks targeting the media during the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte.
The Nobel prize was announced on October 8, the same day that Senator Bato dela Rosa filed his certificate of candidacy as president representing the ruling party. Bato was a former police chief who enforced Duterte’s notorious anti-drug campaign (known locally as Tokhang) in 2016 and 2017. It is ironic that the ruling party presented the Tokhang implementer as its standard-bearer in the 2022 elections on the day Ressa was recognized by the Nobel Committee for her work exposing the abuses of the police and other security forces.
This explains why the presidential palace was slow to praise Ressa’s Nobel victory. The president and his subordinates know fully well that the award reflects the decline of press freedom in the country. When a half-hearted greeting to Ressa was finally given by the president’s spokesperson, it was quickly followed up by a denial that freedom of expression has been suppressed under the Duterte administration.
For winning the Nobel, Ressa is qualified to receive the Senate Medal of Excellence, but Duterte’s allies wanted this to be placed on a vote. Senator Bato is among those who are questioning the merits of honoring Ressa by echoing the assertion of the president’s spokesperson about press freedom being alive and robust in the time of Duterte.
This claim can be easily disputed by citing last year’s forced closure of ABS-CBN, the country’s biggest media network, after its franchise renewal application was denied by Congress. Duterte made no secret about his intent to shut down the broadcaster and his allies in Congress made sure that this was successfully carried out. Thousands of jobs were lost, the public’s right to information was eroded, and the silencing of a media giant has created a chilling effect among the ranks of media practitioners.
Aside from closing down ABS-CBN, the Duterte government can be accused of failing to end the culture of impunity as media killings remain unabated in the past five years. Attacks against the media have worsened, according to the monitoring of the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP).
“When 20 of us have been killed, four of us have been jailed, when there have been 37 cases of libel brought against our own, and 230 cases of varied attacks in our ranks, we feel the big chill,” the NUJP said in response to the statement of the president’s spokesperson, who denied that journalists are worried about the rise of censorship in the country.
It should be added that free speech was curtailed even during the pandemic. Authorities invoked the state of emergency to criminalize the posting of so-called “fake news.” Several critics and activists were detained for the alleged violation of health protocols. Journalists are among those victimized by redbaiting operations, which usually ends in an act of violence or incarceration as in the case of 22-year-old Frenchie Mae Cumpio, who was arrested based on a trumped-up accusation that she is part of the armed communist movement.
Recently, the military was pinpointed by a government agency as being the source of cyber attacks targeting alternative news websites. Another worrisome development is the purging of “subversive” books from at least three universities upon the instigation of the police and military.
It is against this alarming backdrop that we should review the work of Ressa and how she wielded her pen to explain how the Duterte government weaponized laws and social media to stifle free speech. This has angered Duterte so much that he has personally attacked Ressa on numerous occasions. His government had filed eight charges against Ressa and the news company she founded, Rappler. These are obviously politically motivated and intended to intimidate Ressa and other hard-hitting journalists. Ressa’s response to “hold the line” and defend the truth became the battle cry of many journalists facing persecution. She never wavered in her duty as a journalist despite the intensified harassment she received from the president and his cyber troll army.
For her courageous work of speaking truth to power, Ressa deserves to receive the Nobel Peace Prize and she is right to share the honor with fellow journalists who are standing their ground and fearlessly confronting Duterte’s authoritarian regime.
For the allies of the president in the Senate who are hesitant to offer another medal to Ressa, the least they can do is recommend the dropping of the eight remaining charges against the first Filipino Nobel laureate.