Winning the Nobel Peace Prize often provides a boost for a grassroots activist or international group working for peace and human rights, opening doors and elevating the causes for which they fight. But it doesn’t always work out that way.
For the two journalists who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, the past year has not been easy.
Dmitry Muratov of Russia and Maria Ressa of the Philippines have been fighting for the survival of their news organizations, defying government efforts to silence them. The two were honored last year for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
Muratov, the longtime editor of newspaper Novaya Gazeta, saw the situation for independent media in Russia turn from bad to worse following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine on Feb. 24. The paper removed much of the war reporting from its website a week later in response to a new Russian law, which threatened jail terms of up to 15 years for publishing information disparaging the Russian military or deemed to be “fake.”
That could include mention of Russian forces harming civilians or suffering losses on the battlefield. All other major independent Russian media either closed down or had their websites blocked. Many Russian journalists left the country. But Novaya Gazeta held out, printing three issues a week and reaching what Muratov said were 27 million readers in March.
Finally, on March 28, after two warnings from Russia’s media regulator, the paper announced it was suspending publication for the duration of the war. A team of its journalists, however, started a new project from abroad, calling it Novaya Gazeta Europe.
Muratov has kept the newspaper going through many trying times since it was founded in 1993. The paper has won acclaim but also made many enemies in Russia through its critical reporting and investigations into rights abuses and corruption. Six of its journalists have been killed.
In April, while Muratov was on a train waiting to leave Moscow for Samara, a man poured red paint over him, causing his eyes to burn. He said the man shouted: “Muratov, here’s one for our boys!”
His newspaper, too, wasn’t to be left in peace. In September, a court agreed to the media regulator’s request to revoke its license.
In appealing the ruling, Muratov argued that the regulator should have been satisfied that the newspaper was no longer publishing, but instead wanted a “control shot to the head” to make sure it was dead.
One bright spot came in June, when his Nobel Peace Prize sold at auction for $103.5 million, shattering the old record for a Nobel. The money went to help Ukrainian child refugees. Muratov also donated his $500,000 Nobel cash award to charity.
In the Philippines, the legal travails of Ressa and her news website Rappler under former President Rodrigo Duterte have not eased with his exit from office on June 30 at the end of a turbulent six-year term that activists regarded as a human rights calamity in an Asian bastion of democracy.
Her online news outfit was among the most critical of Duterte’s brutal crackdown against illegal drugs, which left thousands of mostly petty drug suspects dead and sparked an International Criminal Court investigation into possible crimes against humanity.
Throughout much of Duterte’s rule, Ressa and Rappler, which she co-founded in 2012, fought a slew of lawsuits that threatened to shut down the increasingly popular news website and lock her up in jail. Just two days before Duterte stepped down, the government’s corporate regulator upheld a decision revoking Rappler’s operating license on a conclusion that the news upstart allowed a foreign investor to wield control in violation of a constitutional prohibition on foreign control of local media, a finding that Rappler had disputed.
Rappler moved to fight the closure order and told its staff: “It is business as usual for us. We will adapt, adjust, survive and thrive.”
It got backing from prominent democracy voices. “Rappler and Maria Ressa tell the truth,” Hillary Clinton tweeted. “Shutting the site down would be a grave disservice to the country and its people.”
About a week later in July, in the first days in power of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., Manila’s Court of Appeals upheld an online libel conviction of Ressa and a former Rappler journalist in a separate lawsuit and imposed a longer prison sentence of up to six years, eight months and 20 days for both. Their lawyers appealed to keep them out of prison and the news website running.
The ruling prompted the Norwegian Nobel Committee to react, with committee chair Berit Reiss-Andersen saying it “underlines the importance of a free, independent and fact-based journalism, which serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda.”
The astonishing rise to power of Marcos Jr., the son of a dictator accused of widespread rights atrocities and plunder who was ousted in a 1986 pro-democracy uprising, was a new reality check on the extent of disinformation and fake news on social media that Rappler and other independent news organizations have grappled with in the Philippines.
Critics attributed his landslide electoral victory to well-funded online propaganda, which they said whitewashed the Marcos family’s history and underscored the powerful sway of social media in a country regarded as one of the world’s largest internet users.
When asked about Ressa and Rappler in an appearance at the Asia Society headquarters in New York last month, Marcos Jr. said his administration would not interfere in court cases. He made no mention of allegations of media repression by his predecessor.
A private individual filed the two online libel cases against her, he said, and added that the closure order came off a legal breach.
“What have happened with Maria Ressa and Rappler is that it was determined that it is a foreign enterprise,” Marcos Jr. said. “And that’s not allowed in our rules, in our law.”
The 2022 Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Oslo.