by Belinda A. Aquino, PhD. and Jim Bea Sampaga
Filipinos in Hawaii are thrilled and ecstatic over the prestigious honor awarded to their fellow countrywoman, journalist Maria Ressa who received the prestigious 2021 Nobel Peace Prize. This is the first time a Filipino is awarded a Nobel Prize.
Ressa, alongside her co-winner and fellow journalist Dmitry Muratov of Russia, received the award for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression,” according to the Norwegian Nobel Committee who oversees the award.
Born in Manila, Philippines and moved to New Jersey at 10-years-old, the 58-year-old is a Princeton University cum laude graduate and University of the Philippines at Diliman Fulbright fellow.
She was CNN’s lead investigative reporter in Asia and served as the organization’s bureau chief in Manila (1987 – 1995) and Jakarta, Indonesia (1995 – 2005). In 2004, Ressa became the news division head of ABS-CBN, one of the Philippines’ biggest broadcasting networks.
In 2011, she co-founded Rappler, the top digital news site in the Philippines.
As a journalist for 35 years, she investigated terrorist networks and authored “Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of Al-Qaeda’s Newest Center” in 2003 and “From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism” in 2013.
A multi-awarded journalist in the Philippines and abroad, she was included in Time’s Person of the Year in 2018 and 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2019.
East-West Center (EWC) in the University of Hawaii at Manoa (UHM) honored Ressa as an EWC Journalist of Courage and Impact during the Center’s 2018 International Conference in Singapore. She gave a speech on the topic of “Undermining the Free Press in Asia.”
In 2020, she was also awarded the EWC Chaplin Fellow, a distinguished lectureship that recognizes journalists of extraordinary accomplishments in their professional careers. She delivered an address on “Press Freedom Under Fire.”
But a few years before that, the Philippine government had been hounding her for her relentless campaign against President Rodrigo Duterte’s administration’s “war on drugs” campaign.
The 2021 Nobel Peace Prize
“[Ressa and Muratov] are representatives of all journalists who stood up for freedom of expression in a world in which democracy faces increasingly adverse conditions,” said the Norwegian Nobel Committee in their press release.
“Ressa uses freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country, the Philippines.”
Just about everyone who knows what’s happening in the Philippines in recent years usually does not hesitate to speak about their observations on the Duterte administration’s draconian policy and treatment of suspected drug users and pushers.
According to United Nations (UN) Human Rights Council report, fatalities related to the “drug war” are more than 8,000 as of 2020.
It is also unknown how many Filipinos are unjustly charged with crimes for which the authorities have no sufficient evidence. Suspects are also not given due process.
“The campaign against illegal drugs is being carried out without due regard for the rule of law, due process, and the human rights of people who may be using or selling drugs,” said Michelle Bachelet, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
Human Rights Watch and other organizations have also expressed criticism of the unjust treatment and prosecution of suspected drug addicts and violators.
Rappler, an online news website co-founded by Ressa and three fellow veteran journalists, has been consistently reporting on the Duterte administration’s policies especially on the controversial “war on drugs.”
Since 2018, the Duterte administration has been filing cases against her and the news website in accounts of fraud, tax evasion, cyber libel and more. The administration even had the Securities and Exchange Commission revoke Rappler’s license to operate.
“To cut down press freedom in this way and to weaponize the law is a whole new level. It is something I haven’t seen since the days of Marcos, and to see it again is heartbreaking,” said Ressa in a 2020 interview with The New York Times.
There are seven active court cases against her and the news organization, as of August 2021.
Rappler, one of the Philippines’ first news multimedia websites
The main instrument for Ressa’s writing on freedom of press and expression is Rappler, an online news website.
Initially called MovePH, the news organization started as a Facebook page in 2011. The team saw the untapped potential of the blue-logo social media site in reaching the Filipino audience. It wasn’t until 2012 that it became the fully developed Rappler website that we know of today.
However, in recent years, Ressa has been critical of Facebook’s algorithms spreading fake news. In a recent interview with Reuters, she said the social media giant is “…biased against facts, it is biased against journalism.”
Facebook has always been scrutinized for its lack of action and prevention of fake news. But in the Philippines, where most of its online population has a Facebook account, the website has been used as a weapon by its government.
In Ressa’s 2016 Rappler article, she said that weaponizing the internet is a “strategy of ‘death by a thousand cuts’ – a chipping away at facts, using half-truths that fabricate an alternative reality by merging the power of bots and fake accounts on social media to manipulate real people.”
Duterte supporters have used Facebook to strengthen their political agendas and spread misleading posts and fake news. Moreover, the group has also used Facebook to attack anyone who disagrees with the current administration.
When Ressa published her 2016 article, she received multiple hate messages including rape and death threats.
Rappler was also flooded with violent threats that, according to a Bloomberg feature, the organization had to hire an armed guard in their main office in Ortigas, Pasig City and send their social media team to counseling.
To combat the rising spread of fake news on the platform, Rappler became a member of the International Fact-Checking Network by the Poynter Institute in 2017. The following year, Facebook partnered with Rappler to be in the platform’s worldwide fact-checking program.
“[Facebook algorithm] prioritize the spread of lies laced with anger and hate over facts,” Ressa told Reuters. “If you have no facts, you can’t have truths, you can’t have trust.”
The Philippines, Ressa and Rappler’s situation under Duterte was similar to the Marcos regime’s martial law when suspects had no recourse to defend their legal rights and press freedom was actively silenced while propaganda and fake news took over.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee emphasizes the importance of protecting and defending the fundamental press and media rights to freedom of speech.
“Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda,” the committee stated.
“The 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.”
For Ressa, the Nobel Peace Prize is an award, not only to her and Muratov but to all journalists around the world.
“[I’m] thankful that journalists have the attention. The Committee made a point to show that journalists under attack are critical and perhaps, our future is going to be dependent on how well we do our jobs,” Ressa told Al Jazeera.
However, some critics have also expressed their disagreement with the Nobel Peace Prize awardee. National Artist for Literature F. Sionil Jose shared his thoughts on his Facebook account.
Jose’s post reads: “Maria Ressa does not deserve the Nobel. I will be damned for stating this.”
The 96-year-old writer is a literary writer known for his books, short stories and essay. He also writes columns for local newspapers including the Philippine Star where he published a 2013 column sharing his experience waiting to be awarded the Nobel Literature Prize.
In a following paragraph on his Facebook post, he explained the Philippine press is alive and well not because of Maria Ressa. There is no censorship happening in the Philippines with no writer or journalists being thrown in jail.
“I have criticized Duterte but not on press freedom,” Jose wrote. “Sure, journalists have been killed in the Duterte regime just as it was in past administrations. But those killings cannot be laid at Duterte’s door.”
Between 2016 and 2020, 19 journalists have been killed under the Duterte administration, according to the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility.
In May 2016, just a month away from assuming office, Duterte says that “corrupt” journalists deserve to die.
“Just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination if you’re a son of a bitch,” he said. “Most of those killed, to be frank, have done something. You won’t be killed if you don’t do anything wrong.”
The Philippines ranks 138th out of 180 countries in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index by Reports Without Borders, an international organization that promotes freedom of expression and information.
Hawaii’s reaction to Ressa’s award
“Maria is a courageous, committed and an inspiration to journalists all over the world,” said Susan Kreifels, Media Program Manager at EWC. “We are beyond proud to have her as part of our EWC media family.”
Professor Patricio “Jojo” Abinales of UHM Department of Asian Studies said Ressa and Rappler have stood their ground “in a time when populist tyrants impose their will and drive the narrative.”
“They have been a pain on the side of the ‘Butcher’ President, the Marcos family that helped fund his presidency and the warlord and drug lords who enjoy his patronage and benevolence. Maria and Rappler have stood for the poor, the powerless and the voiceless, even if some of them remain enamored with the ‘Butcher’ President,” he said.
Abinales also mentioned the underwhelming number of Southeast Asians and women awardees of the Nobel Peace Prize award.
“In its 120 years as an organization the Nobel Prize committee has only conferred the laureate to three Southeast Asians, and to 58 women out of 876 awardees. In conferring Maria the award, maybe the Committee is now beginning to realize this injustice and move to further correct it.”
Former journalist and now Hawaii District 16 senator Bennette Misalucha says the Nobel Peace Prize is also a milestone for girls, women, and Filipinos everywhere.
“I commend Maria for achieving this milestone of greatness and look forward to her inspiring future generations of journalists, women, and Filipinos to break down even higher barriers,” Misalucha told Hawaii Filipino Chronicle. “Maria has consistently fought with courage and a valiant spirit for the values that are near and dear to the hearts of freedom lovers everywhere.”
For Dr. Vina Lanzona, Associate History Professor at UHM, Ressa is a crucial part of fearless journalism and freedom of the press.
“At a time when the press is under siege in the Philippines, where the President himself persecutes, insults, and threatens journalists, Maria and many of the Rappler journalists and writers continue to deliver hard-hitting and truthful news stories,” she said.
“Whether it’s about the abuses of the police and extra-judicial killings caused by Duterte’s murderous war on drugs, or about corruption in all levels of society, Maria and Rappler deliver the news that people need to know.”
Lanzona further explained that the Nobel Peace Prize significance shows because it recognizes “not just one woman’s struggle and courage, but indeed, the determination and bravery of the journalists of Rappler and other journalists in the Philippines to continue to – in the words of Maria Ressa herself – Hold the line.”
Ressa is indeed a truly outstanding Filipina, and her fellow Filipinos are extremely proud of her achievement. This is a “First-Only” award from a top-of-the-line international institution given only to the best and the brightest.
The Philippines as a whole and all Filipinos living in various parts of the world feel enriched and our status as a member of the international community has been sufficiently advanced.
It is really a time for great celebration because this kind of prestigious award may not be given to any of Ressa’s compatriots for a long time. She has lifted our reputation and standing on the world stage will forever remain in the annals of our continuity history.
DR. BELINDA A. AQUINO is Professor Emeritus at the School of Pacific and Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa where she served as Professor of Political Science and Asian Studies and also the Founding Director of the University Center for Philippine Studies. An accomplished journalist, she is currently Contributing Editor to the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle and a frequent contributor to various international, national, and local publications.
JIM BEA SAMPAGA is a feature writer and editorial assistant for the Hawaii Filipino Chronicle. She is a graduate of the Journalism and Philippine Language and Culture programs at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
by Belinda A. Aquino, PhD. and Jim Bea Sampaga