32 years ago next month, I reported in Germany on the fall of the Berlin Wall, an event that was then heralded as a victory for Western democratic liberalism and even “the end of history.”
But democracy is not doing so well across the globe now. Nothing underscores how far we have come from the moment of irrational exhaustion other than the powerful warning the Nobel Prize Committee felt compelled to issue on 8 October 2021 in awarding its coveted Peace Prize to two journalists.
“They are representative of all journalists,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, in announcing the award to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, “in a world where democracy and freedom of the press are facing increasingly unfavorable conditions. . ”
The honor of Muratov, co-founder of Russia’s Novaya Gazeta, and Ressa, CEO of Philippine news site Rappler, is hugely important. Partly because of the protection that global attention can give two journalists under imminent and relentless threat from the strong men who run their respective countries. “The world is watching,” Reiss-Andersen noted in an interview after announcing the announcement.
Equally important is the greater message the committee wanted to deliver. “Without the media, you cannot have a strong democracy,” Reiss-Andersen said.
Global political threats
The cases of the two winners highlight an emergency for civil society: Muratov, editor of what the Nobel Prize Committee described as “the most independent paper in Russia today”, has seen six of his colleagues killed for their work criticizing Russian leader Vladimir Putin.
Ressa, a former CNN reporter, is under a de facto travel ban because the government of Rodrigo Duterte in a blatant attempt to bankrupt Rappler has filed so many legal cases against the site that Ressa has to go from judge to judge to ask on permission once she will leave the country.
Inevitably, Ressa recently told me one of them says “no”. Maybe that’s changing now that she’s having a date in Stockholm. But Ressa probably knows better than to breathe.
Last year, when I — a longtime journalist who became a professor of journalism — helped organize a group of other Princeton alumni to sign a letter of support for Ressa, more than 400 responded. who served presidents for both parties. One of them was former Secretary of State George P. Shultz, who died several months later, making a demonstration of solidarity with Maria Ressa one of his last public actions. This support shows a sign of what is at stake.
Three decades after the fall of totalitarian regimes in Eastern Europe, the forces of darkness and intolerance are on the way. Journalists are canaries down the damaging mine shaft. Attacks on them become more cheeky: whether it’s the gruesome division of Saudi dissident and author Jamal Khashoggi, the grounding of a commercial plane to snatch a Belarusian journalist or the infamous “Murder the Media” graffiti that crawled into a dies in the US capital during the January 6 uprising.
This irrational hatred of fact providers knows no ideology. Former US President Donald Trump’s contempt for the press is at least equal to that of left-wing Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega, whose response to his critics in the media has been to, well, unlock them.
What makes today’s threats to free speech particularly insidious is that they do not come only from the usual suspects – censors of the thuggish government.
They are reinforced and armed by social media networks that demand freedom of expression while being hijacked by slanderers and propagandists.
No one has done more to expose complicity on these platforms in the attack on democracy than Ressa, a technical enthusiast who built his publication’s website to communicate with Facebook and now accuses the company of jeopardizing its own freedom with its laissez-faire approach. to slander spread on its site.
“Freedom of speech is full of paradoxes,” the Nobel Committee’s Reiss-Andersen remarked in an interview following the awarding of the Peace Prize. She made it clear that the award to Ressa and Muratov was also intended to tackle these paradoxes.
On the question of why the Peace Prize went to two individual journalists — rather than to one of the press freedom organizations, e.g. The Committee for the Protection of Journalists, which has represented Ressa, Muratov and so many of their threatened colleagues, said the Reiss-Anderson Nobel Committee deliberately choosing working journalists.
Ressa and Muratov represent “a golden standard,” she said, of “high-quality journalism.” In other words, they are fact-finders and truth-seekers, not providers of clickbait.
The golden standard is increasingly threatened, mainly due to the digital revolution that shattered the business model of public service journalism.
“Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power,” Reiss-Andersen said in the award statement. But it is becoming increasingly undermined and repressed by what is called “content”, served algorithmically from sources that are not transparent in ways designed to become addictive and that drive partisanship, tribalism and division.
This poses a challenge to public politicians and the democracies they represent. How is digital media regulated and still protects freedom of expression? How do you support journalistic work and still protect its independence?
It will not be easy to answer these questions. But democracy may be at a turning point. With its recognition of two investigative journalists and the crucial – and dangerous – work they do to support democracy, the Nobel Committee has invited us to start the debate.
Editor’s note: Naomi Schalit, senior political editor of The Conversation, signed the open letter “In Defense of Press Freedom” organized by author Kathy Kiely in July 2020.
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