MOSCOW – The Nobel Peace Prize sometimes recognizes groundbreaking efforts to resolve seemingly intractable conflicts, such as once-sworn enemies who sat down and brokered an end to war. In other years, the recipient is someone who promoted human rights at great personal cost.
The prestigious award also can serve as a not-so-subtle message to authoritarian governments and leaders that the world is watching.
What does the selection of two journalists, Maria Ressa, 58, of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov, 59, of Russia, say about freedom of expression and the history of dissent in the countries of the 2021 peace prize winners?
“It is a battle for facts. When you’re in a battle for facts, journalism is activism," Ressa said Friday.
Dmitry Muratov is part of a historic cycle that links him to two other Russian winners of the Nobel Peace Prize.
When Andrei Sakharov, a prominent Soviet nuclear physicist turned political dissident, received the prize in 1975, the Cold War was at its height and the Soviet Union seemed invincible.
The country's Communist leaders tolerated no dissent. Five years after becoming a Nobel laureate, Sakharov’s bold criticism of the Soviet regime got him sent into internal exile.
Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev allowed Sakharov to return from exile in 1986, and went on to win the 1990 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the Cold War.
But while he was earning international accolades, Gorbachev was under attack from both members of the Communist old guard who opposed his reforms and democracy champions such as Sakharov who accused him of being indecisive.
The Soviet Union collapsed after a string of Soviet republics declared their independence and Gorbachev stepped down as president on Dec. 25, 1991.
The former leader would use some of his Nobel Prize money to help a group of Russian journalists, including Muratov, buy computers and office equipment for their new independent newspaper in 1993. Gorbachev eventually became Novaya Gazeta's co-owner; Muratov was its editor from 1995 to 2017, and returned to the post in 2019.
Under his leadership, the publication has become the country’s top independent newspaper, broadly acclaimed internationally for its fearless reporting on the bloody separatist war in the Russian republic of Chechnya and on official corruption. The paper has taken a consistently critical look at the rollback of post-Soviet freedoms during Russian President Vladimir Putin’s more than two decades in power.
Several Novaya reporters and contributors were killed. The paper's leading reporter, Anna Politkovskaya, who relentlessly covered human rights abuses in Chechnya, was shot dead in the elevator of her Moscow apartment building on Oct. 7, 2006.
A Moscow court convicted the gunman and three other Chechens in the killing, as well as a former Moscow police officer who was their accomplice. But on Thursday, the 15th anniversary of Politkovskaya’s slaying, Muratov noted that the Russian authorities never tracked down the person who ordered it.
“Regrettably, there is no probe going on now,” Muratov said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We don’t even know when an investigator last touched that criminal case.”
He vowed that the newspaper would continue working to track down the mastermind of Politkovskaya’s killing on its own.
Muratov also pledged to use his Nobel Prize to help independent Russian journalists. Many people in Russia voiced hope that the prize, by emphasizing global support for media freedom, would help restrain the government's multi-pronged crackdown on independent media.
The Philippines was one of the few places in Asia where freedom of the press seemed assured when Maria Ressa and other journalists founded the online magazine Rappler in 2012.
The government of long-time dictator Ferdinard Marcos had muzzled the media, imprisoned opponents and tortured activists. But after the 1986 “people power” revolution toppled Marcos, a myriad of newspapers, lively radio stations and closely watched TV channels sprang up to chronicle the new chapter in the Philippines.
Their mission: delivering timely information to a Filipino population hungry for news.
In the following years, the Philippines remained a dangerous place for journalists, a free-wheeling country where retaliatory violence often accompanied the freedom to speak up due to an abundance of firearms, legal impunity and political instability. It had one of the highest numbers of reporters killed each year.
Then came the election of President Rodrigo Duterte in 2016. After campaigning on a promise to deal with widespread crime, he launched a bloody crackdown on illegal drugs, enlisting police and unidentified gunmen who became the judge and jury for thousands of mostly poor suspects in Manila’s sprawling urban slums.
Rappler CEO Ressa and other staff members took to reporting the nighttime raids that left hundreds and then thousands dead in overwhelmed morgues. Police said they were acting in self-defense when officers gunned down alleged drug dealers. Few suspects were questioned in what human rights activists soon described as extrajudicial executions.
As the death toll mounted, so did Rappler’s stories, some of which suggested that weapons could have been planted on the people killed.
In a Nov. 9, 2020, story, Rappler reporter Rambo Talabong quoted the last words of Vicent Adia, a 27-year-old man who was labeled a drug pusher and initially survived “a vigilante execution” only to be slain by a gunman at a hospital near Manila. According to Rappler, Adia had told his close friend: “The police are about to kill me.”
Duterte’s fury at journalists increased as well. The tough-talking president declared that “corrupt” journalists were not “exempted from assassination.”
“In 2016, it was really, really laughable. And I thought, ‘Oh, doesn’t matter.’ I laughed,” Ressa said in a 2020 interview, recalling her disbelief that the president would make good on his lethal threats in a country where democracy and human rights had been restored.
Any hint of humor evaporated when she became a target. She was arrested and held for a night, prosecuted in a series of criminal cases, including tax evasion, and convicted of libel. She remains free on bail while the libel case is on appeal, but faces up to six years in prison.
At about the same time, Ressa began wearing a bulletproof vest because of threats. In the 2020 documentary “A Thousand Cuts,” by Filipino-American filmmaker Ramona S. Diaz, she is seen pleading with Facebook representatives to delete violent posts against her and to remove livestreams of Duterte supporters protesting outside Rappler's offices.
“The Philippine government filed 10 arrest warrants against me. In the last year, the government has prevented my travel four times, including when my mother was diagnosed with cancer and I needed to go to see my aging parents,” Ressa said in a Zoom interview after she won the Nobel Peace Prize.
Duterte and other Philippine officials have said the criminal complaints against Ressa and Rappler were not a press freedom issue but a part of normal judicial procedures arising from their alleged violations of the law.
In June, a Manila court dismissed a cyber-libel case against Ressa arising from a complaint filed by a wealthy businessman. A 2012 Rappler article included allegations that the businessman was linked to illegal drugs and human trafficking, and that a car registered in his name had been used by the country’s chief justice.
The law under which Ressa was charged by the government, the Cybercrime Prevention Act, did not go into effect until months after the article appeared, according to Rappler.
In August, another case against her was dismissed. Ressa has pleaded not guilty to charges of breaching a ban on foreign ownership and control of media outlets in the Philippines, as well as tax evasion charges.
“You don’t know how powerful government is until you come under attack the way we have. When all the different parts of government work against you, it’s kind of shocking,” Ressa said.
Associated Press writer Hrvoje Hranjski reported from Bangkok and has previously reported from Manila. Anna Frants in Moscow contributed to this report.
Read more stories about Nobel Prizes past and present by The Associated Press at https://www.apnews.com/NobelPrizes
This story has been corrected to show that Ressa was convicted of libel, not tax evasion.