The press matters: Tribute to the Nobel Peace Laurates

The Norwegian Nobel Committee did something almost unthinkable on October 8 when it awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists: Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov of the Philippines and Russia respectively. Not many people associate the press with peace. The press is more associated with its power to afflict the comfortable. It does not carry the olive branch. Perhaps its affliction of the comfortable carries with it the intended consequence of making pacifists out of them. 

But this is not about peace as in the absence of conflict. It is about peace as in making the society better and safer. It is about loosening the grip of poverty on the poor; it is about feeding the hungry or helping the hungry to feed himself; it is about a clean environment because a degraded environment is detrimental to flora and fauna as well as human health. 

The Nobel Peace Prize is the general category of the prizes Alfred Nobel instituted in his name. It rewards men and women who do either extra-ordinary things or ordinary things in an extra-ordinary way. The two journalists who won it this year were singled out for their professional work towards saving their countries from the scourge of corruption in high places as well as preventing their governments from padlocking the lips of their people and shackling the press.

Still, the Nobel Peace Prize for Muratov and Ressa is  a huge surprise, a very pleasant surprise and a profound acknowledgement of the fact that journalists who put their lives on the line to save our freedoms of expression and of the press are as positive as other groups in promoting peace and harmony within and among nations. The press matters.

In honouring Muratov and Ressa, the committee has also honoured all journalists in all climes and under all forms of government committed to press freedom and the freedom of expression as prerequisites for building better societies in which our different tongues are turned into symphonies in the melody of humanity and brotherhood. We must all be grateful that this highly prized and respected international award was given by the committee as a mark of its total defence of and support for press freedom and the freedom of expression throughout the world. 

It could not have come at a better time, given the rising intolerance quotient for press freedom in many developing countries with incipient or full-blown repression and dictatorship. The award reminds us that we have come a long way but we still have a long way to go to make the respect for freedom of speech and freedom of the press cardinal principles of state policy in an enlightened age. That journalists are still dying in large numbers for the simple crime of doing their job in obedience to the truth and the people’s right to know is an indictment on political leaders everywhere who generally prefer their people to wallow in ignorance and without the will to question them. The Nobel Peace Prize this year says no to political leaders who choose to feed their people with lies but punish those who confront them with the truth and the facts of their perfidy. That battle did not begin today. It will not end today. But the press will keep the leaders on their toes.

The press matters. 

            In its citation, the committee said: “Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda. The Norwegian Committee is convinced that freedom of expression and freedom of information help to ensure an informed public. These rights are crucial prerequisites for democracy and protect against war and conflict. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov is intended to underscore the importance of protecting and defending these fundamental rights.

            “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. This year’s award of the Nobel Peace Prize is therefore anchored in the provisions of Alfred Nobel’s will.”

            The press matters.

            The decision of the Norwegian Nobel Committee to see the work of these two journalists in the context of peace honours the press as a unifier in all human societies. It recognises the capacity of the press to promote peace and harmony within and among nations using information as a critical tool for building important bridges across peoples and across nations.

            The most enlightened age in human history ought not to be the age at which anyone needed to be preached to about the place of the freedom of expression and the press in the promotion of peace and harmony in all human societies. But not many political leaders still resist the temptation to take away those freedoms from the people. 

The two Nobel Peace Laurates have consistently shown courage and resilience and their devotion to professionalism. It has been tough for them and their staff. They have been intimidated and harassed by the authorities in their respective countries who make a virtue of their allergy to other people’s views and voices. They have seen their crack reporters and editors killed in line of duty. Still, they soldier on in the firm belief that giving in to the dark forces of repression and intolerance is not an option. It would only ill-serve the cause of press freedom, the freedom of expression as well as human rights, good governance and respect for the rule of law. 

Generations of editors had been put through the same wringer but refused to be defeated. Their courage lit the path of press freedom along which later generations of journalists wearily trudge to this day. Neither they nor the rest of us can afford to let the weeds take over that path now. Both Muratov and Ressa have paid and continue to pay their price so their people could be free to express themselves and their press free to hold the governments accountable to the people for what they do or fail to do. That is a huge challenge to journalists everywhere. 

Muratov is the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, which is described  as “the only truly critical newspaper with national influence in Russia today.” He founded the newspaper in 1993. It is a small newspaper with a staff of only 60. But it is said to be “known for its in-depth investigations on sensitive issues such as high-level corruption, human rights violations and abuse of power (and) has paid a heavy price for this pioneering work; three of its reporters have been killed.” Dynamite comes in small packages, right?

Ressa founded Rappler, said to be “the top digital only news site that is leading the fight for press freedom in the Philippines.” And for her work, she “has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government, forced to post bail ten times to stay free.” She has received an incredible number of media awards for her work. Timemagazine named her one of its 2018 Person of the Year. She also received the Golden Pen of Freedom Award, among many other professional honours and awards. She is the author of two books. The Nobel Peace Prize must be the crowning glory of her professional career. 

As journalists savour the honour done to these two people, they must spare a thought for the fate of lesser known men and women in the eternal struggle by the press for better societies. Things are not getting better for the press world-wide. The dark forces against press freedom are not lurking in the shadows, they are out there in the open, ready to permanently silence journalists who refuse to padlock their lips and watch things go wrong, badly wrong, in their societies. According to IFP, some 2,680 journalists have been killed since 1990. The past four years have been particularly rough for the press in a number of developing countries. 

Here is a list of journalists who have been translated into faceless but grim statistics between 2017 and 2020.  In 2017, 74; 2018, 87; 2019, 53 and 2020, 65 in 16 countries. In the first six months of 2021, 35 were also killed in 21 countries. In nearly all cases, a bullet to the head was intended to stop investigative journalists from exposing the rotten under belly of political and business leaders and their minions. Mexico has managed to win the dubious honour for the fifth year running as the most dangerous place for journalists to work. Fourteen journalists have so far been killed there this year. Ah, the blood of journalists waters the tree of freedom of expression and the freedom of the press.Agbese can be reached via Email: [email protected]

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