Since 1901 the Nobel Prize has gone to chemists, physicists, doctors and writers. The peace prize has gone to politicians, diplomats, organizations battling hunger, sexual violence, nuclear and chemical weapons or to individuals advocating for human and civil rights, from Martin Luther King to Mother Teresa to Nelson Mendela.
Today, the peace prize went to two journalists, one of them what you might call a blogger: Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitri Muratov of Russia. The Nobel committee recognized them for “their courageous fight for freedom of expression,” and underscored the meaning of the award in the larger struggle to protect press freedoms. “They are representatives,” the committee wrote, “of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.”
While some of the winners for the literature Nobel had worked in journalism (Hemingway, Camus, Garcia-Marquez), it is the first time that the prize is awarded to journalists, for journalism, or that the prize has underscored the direct linkage between journalism, free expression and democracy. That honor was previously reserved for literary voices, and in many ways it recalls the awards that went to the likes of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Sakharov, voices of dissent amid repression.
We spent four years hearing the President of the United States call journalists enemies of the people. We continue to hear him or his followers, including his clones right here in our own community, use the same prejudices and tactics of authoritarian regimes. If you think there is no comparison between other countries’ violence toward journalists and the now-routine hostility directed at them in the United States, think back to the mass murder of five employees at the Capital newspaper in Maryland just three years ago.
There may be less direct, physical violence toward journalists in the United States (relatively speaking: Eleven journalists in all have been killed in the United States since 1992, not an insignificant number). But it has been no less of a full-throttled assault on free expression, the more vile for being conducted behind the cover of the First Amendment.
When the home of the First Amendment sends that sinister message, it has consequences. Between 50 and 140 reporters have been killed every year worldwide in the past 10 years. We all recall the mass murder of 12 people at Charlie Hebdo, the French satirical magazine, in 2015, whose only sin had been to unveil the more absurd aspects of religion.
Dmitri Muratov, one of this year’s winners, founded an independent newspaper as Russia was coming out of its dark ages in 1993. Six of his reporters have been murdered since, some of them for their criticism of Vladimir Putin. Maria Ressa created an online news service called Rappler almost 10 years ago. It is now one of the country’s most influential news organization, attracting millions of readers. Her reporters haven’t been killed, but she nevertheless draws the constant wrath of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, a Trump type unrestrained by law who has conducted thousands of extra judicial executions and, exactly like Trump, is a master of disinformation.
That’s ultimately the tool in the hands of every crusader of discord and lies, as we see in our community daily, sometimes hourly, thanks to social media’s lynch mob mentality. We may not have Trump and Duterte, but we do have Mullins, Danko and McDonald, and we have their zealot disciples, who routinely conduct their book burnings by other means, at times using the well of our government meetings for their cauldrons.
It is revealing that in a year that drew 329 candidates for the peace prize, including organizations fighting climate change or covid 19, the committee opted for journalists. It’s a happy surprise for us reporters. It’s also, finally, a necessary one. “Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda,” the committee said. “Without freedom of expression and freedom of the press, it will be difficult to successfully promote fraternity… and a better world order to succeed in our time.”
The language is a bit florid, as it often is in Nobel announcements–as it so often is in these pages–but it is no less timely and true.