by Emil Guillermo
Wherever you are reading this, on the web or in your hands as a physical newspaper, value it.
Journalism is an instrument of peace.
That’s the message of the remarkable announcement that Maria Ressa has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Ressa is an Asian American Filipina journalist, the CNN reporter turned media entrepreneur as CEO of the website Rappler, based in the Philippines.
Now she’s a, and I repeat… a Nobel Peace Prize winner.
Did I say Pulitzer? No.
Plaridel Award from the Philippine American Press Club? No.
AAJA award? No. No. No.
Those are awards regular journalists win.
A Nobel Peace Prize is for extraordinary people like presidents and scientists looking to make the world a better place for all. Journalists cover those people who win those awards. Journalists aren’t normally the actors in the high-stakes drama of curing the world’s ills.
That is, unless the world is a place where truth and freedom, the essential components of democracy, are threatened and diminished.
A world where journalists are assassinated, where facts are debated with “alternative facts,” where authoritarians seek to silence truth-tellers by branding them as “fake news.”
Unfortunately, we live in such a world.
And that makes a journalist more than just a mere scribe or witness. Journalists are now elevated, actors in the public arena on behalf of the people, providing the truthful information an audience must have to exist in a free and open democracy.
That’s why Ressa is worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize.
For years, Ressa and her Rappler staff have been dogged in exposing the government of President Rodrigo Duterte and its policy of extrajudicial killings of Filipinos. Duterte’s get-tough “war on drugs” has made the country a cesspool of human rights violations.
The media attention triggered the Philippine government’s harassment of Rappler. Then in 2020, the government finally convicted Ressa and a colleague of cyber libel, which could mean six years in prison. Undaunted, Ressa has appealed.
She got the call from the Nobel Committee regarding the announcement. Her reaction?
“I am speechless,” Ressa said. “Oh my God. Oh my gosh. I’m speechless.”
Ressa beat out 329 other nominees and shares the award with journalist Dimitri Muratov, who has done in Russia what Ressa is doing in the Philippines – engaging in the “courageous fight” for truth and freedom in the face of Putin’s strongman government that would prefer the public stays in the dark.
In honoring two journalists, the Nobel also serves itself and suddenly becomes 21st century relevant. Giving journalists the prize is a far cry from, say, awarding a president who comes with power, expectations and, sadly, contradictions.
Obama’s Peace Prize?
For example, Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 after less than eight months on the job.
Was the Norway-based Nobel Committee just starstruck? Would they regret giving the prize to someone who would become known as the “Deporter in Chief”? Who kept Guantanamo open? Did “Obamacare” extend to Norwegians?
International diplomacy was the given reason for the award initially. Maybe all the excited crowds Obama drew during trips to Europe had an impact. But can anyone recall a diplomatic win during the Obama years worthy of a Nobel? Capturing bin Laden? Did that bring peace? Obama is known for expanding the war effort in Afghanistan. Is the use of drones Nobel-worthy?
Giving it to politicians is tricky too because politicians, not journalists, really control the truth. Just look at President 45. Politicians tend to hide and obscure the facts. That last guy lied or misled the public 30,573 times in four years in office, according to The Washington Post.
That’s why you need journalism. Awarding the Nobel to journalists like Ressa and Muratov makes sure the act of revealing real facts is still considered a virtue. It reestablishes a sense of value and worth in the job that assures free societies.
The award tells the world the prize – which normally comes with a $1 million cash award – is being used to jumpstart and “angel fund” what is essentially a de facto global pro-democracy movement.
That’s what happens when you herald the work of common journalists who choose to do extraordinary things –like face-down power by uncovering the facts of corruption, deceit, and malfeasance.
This is a prize for Ressa and Muratov. But it’s also a prize for journalists all over who labor to expose and analyze truth and inform the world.
“We are fighting for facts,” Ressa said in an interview on YouTube with her staff right after the award was announced.
“When we live in a world where facts are debatable when the world’s largest distributor of news prioritizes the spread of lies laced with anger and hate and spreads it faster and further than facts, then journalism becomes activism and that’s the transformation that we’ve gone through in Rappler.”
Activist journalism? It means a point of view –but from an absolute truth perspective. To get that means journalists must dig deeper than accepting a White House or corporate press release to provide the context that helps people live in a free society.
Ressa also takes a swipe at Facebook, which she points out in her Rappler talk has come under attack from a whistleblower this week. She has no love for algorithms that have changed media and society globally.
“These algorithms divide us and radicalize us,” she said. “Thinking fast is the emotional part of you that’s being manipulated by the algorithms, so think slow, not fast. Let your thinking mind come through.”
It’s solid advice for news consumers inundated by a barrage of siloed media. When we’re caught unaware, it’s up to journalism to step up to prevail in what Ressa calls the battle of facts.
Ressa said the Nobel Peace Prize Committee must have realized “that a world without facts means a world without truth and trust. And if you don’t have any of those things. you certainly can’t conquer Coronavirus, climate change.”
Nor can you get to world peace. Ressa likes the phrase “hold the line.” It’s more like drawing a line in the sand.
“Here’s the line, on this side you’re good, on this side you’re evil, and we at Rappler decided we were going to hold that line on the good,” she said.
It led to the Philippine government filing 10 arrest warrants against her.
“It was pretty bleak at different times,” she said. “But I really continued to believe that we need to continue shining the light and doing accountability journalism.”
See the rest of the YouTube/Rappler Interview here: https://youtu.be/zm3UvvyD2Xc.
A landmark for Filipino American History Month
The prize comes in the first week of October recognized as Filipino American History Month.
Ressa, 58, becomes the first Asian American Filipino, and only the 18th woman to be Nobel Peace Prize laureate in 126 years.
She’s typical of a majority of Filipinos, who were born in the Philippines, then immigrated to the US. Ressa’s family moved to Toms River, New Jersey, where she grew up.
She attended Princeton, was a Fulbright scholar, then was hired at CNN, which sent her to report on the Philippines. She’s a dual U.S. and Philippine citizen who has covered every Filipino administration since 1986.
That was the time of Ferdinand Marcos, the dictator. The prize comes when Ressa and other journalists in the Philippines can use a boost. The Philippine elections are coming up.
The authoritarian Duterte has announced his retirement and cannot run again. But the son of Marcos, Bong-Bong, has announced his desire to run. With the legacy of a dictatorship? And then there’s the boxer Manny Pacquiao putting in a bid as well.
Do you think democracy has had a tough time in the U.S. with its elections since the Trump era?
As Ressa notes, the data mischief-makers exposed in the Mueller investigation, Cambridge Analytica, practiced its trade in countries like the Philippines. Making sure democracy survives her country’s upcoming elections will require the hard work of accountability journalists like those at Ressa’s Rappler.
A Nobel Peace Prize should motivate them all to keep doing the important work of seeking the truth.
It should also remind you, dear reader, of the value of news organizations big and small – that muster the courage to analyze and expose the big lies of our times.
EMIL GUILLERMO is a veteran journalist and commentator. The first Filipino American to host NPR’s “All Things Considered,” he was also a columnist at the Star-Bulletin and an editorial board member of the Advertiser. See his vlog at www.amok.com, on YouTube (youtube.com/emiil4real) or on Twitter @emilamok.
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