Two crusading journalists in the Philippines and Russia have won the Nobel Peace Prize this year. The Norwegian Nobel Committee praised Maria Ressa, co-founder of the digital news site Rappler, and Dmitry Muratov, the longtime editor of Novaya Gazeta, a Russian independent newspaper, for fighting for freedom of expression and holding power to account.
The committee singled out Ressa and Rappler for exposing what it called Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's "murderous anti-drug campaign," which has cost many thousands of lives. It also praised her for highlighting how political actors use social media to spread false information to manipulate public discussion.
The committee also cited Muratov for his decades of work defending freedom of speech in Russia "under increasingly challenging conditions." A founding member of the journalists collective that launched Novaya Gazeta in 1993, Muratov has overseen the newspaper's investigations and critical reporting on Kremlin politics, corruption, war and human rights.
Recent stories have included the prosecution of gay men in the republic of Chechnya, an investigation into the Kremlin's suspected role in the downing of Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 over eastern Ukraine in 2014 and allegations of government efforts to rig last month's Russian parliamentary elections.
The newspaper has also paid a heavy price for its coverage: Six of its reporters have been killed in connection with their work, including star journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who was gunned down in her Moscow apartment building in 2006.
"Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda," the Norwegian Nobel Committee said.
The peace prize comes at an extremely challenging time for journalism. Authoritarian leaders have increasingly targeted reporters in recent years. In 2020, 21 reporters were killed globally in retaliation for their work, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. That was about double from the year before.
Meanwhile, social media has become a conduit for a slew of disinformation aimed at undermining the credibility of fact-based news organizations.
"I hope today's Nobel Peace Prize 2021 award will remind the authorities in the Philippines, Russia and around the world of the need to respect journalists and journalism," said Ressa, who faces multiple criminal charges in the Philippines and has been prevented from leaving the country. Human rights groups have condemned the legal cases against her. "Independent journalism holding power to account has never been so important."
Speaking to a scrum of journalists and well-wishers outside Novaya Gazeta's office in Moscow, the 59-year-old Muratov dedicated the award to his fallen colleagues.
"For us, this prize is, first and foremost, acknowledgment of the memory of our lost colleagues," Muratov said. He also praised a new generation of young journalists who've come in their stead and said the newspaper intends to share the award money between social projects and support of small independent journalism startups that face growing government pressure.
Russian independent media outlets have struggled against a web of restrictive government "foreign agent" laws, widely seen as an attempt to silence independent voices. While Novaya Gazeta has avoided the "foreign agent" designation so far, its journalists recognize that the newspaper's future is far from ensured in the current political climate. "Now there are only a few independent media in our country that are left," Novaya Gazeta reporter Pavel Kanygin told NPR. "We are struggling to survive, and maybe this prize will give us some protection from our enemies."
Yet even Muratov acknowledged that he was unsure if the Nobel Peace Prize money would violate the law.
"I asked a government bureaucrat who congratulated me if getting the Nobel meant we would be labeled foreign agents. He couldn't tell me," Muratov said, adding that the newspaper has no intention of turning down the prize.
Ressa, 58, was born in the Philippines but moved to New Jersey and attended Princeton University, where she worked in theater. Fellow students recalled her as "a ball of energy" and expected big things in her future.
"She was always the smart kid. She worked superhard," recalled Leslie Tucker, a longtime college friend. "I always knew that she was more than capable, but on the other hand, she's reserved and [doesn't like being] the center of attention."
That remains true today. Winning a slew of press freedom awards in recent years, Ressa has sometimes seemed uncomfortable with all the accolades and has often tried to deflect attention by complementing others.
After graduation from college in 1986, she returned to the Philippines as a Fulbright scholar and turned to journalism, running CNN's bureaus in Manila, Philippines, and Jakarta, Indonesia, for nearly two decades. Ressa co-founded Rappler as a scrappy digital news site in 2012, rapidly building its audience through social media, especially Facebook.
After Rappler took aim at the government's brutal campaign against drugs, Ressa and the site came under sustained, coordinated social media attacks — including death threats — by Duterte's supporters. That story is covered in the documentary A Thousand Cuts.
"Technology enabled Rappler's fast growth," Ressa said in a Princeton commencement address in 2020, "but we were also among the first victims when social media was weaponized in 2016."
Once a fan of Facebook, Ressa was among the early and loudest voices to express alarm at its corrosive effect on social discourse.
"Facebook broke democracy in many countries around the world, including in mine," she has said.
Frank Langfitt reported from London; Charles Maynes reported from Moscow.