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Freedom of Expression and the Nobel Peace Prize

At a time when freedom of expression is facing threats worldwide, the Nobel Committee’s decision to award the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists is sending a clear message: Freedom of expression is a prerequisite for lasting peace.

Dmitry Muratov (Left) and Maria Ressa (Right) on a yellow circle. Blue Background with Alfred Nobel
Credit: By ELOISA LOPEZ / REUTERS - stock.adobe.com By REUTERS / MAXIM SHEMETOV - stock.adobe.com
Written by Ananya
9 December 2021

Tomorrow, on 10th December 2021 the Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony will take place in Oslo. While the other Nobel award ceremonies, scheduled to take place initially in Stockholm have been cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Peace Prize ceremony is the only one which will be held in-person.

A significant year, a significant prize

Did you know that for the first time since 1935, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded this year to two journalists?

86 years after journalist and socialist Carl von Ossietzky received the Nobel Peace Prize for revealing Germany’s secret post-war rearmament programme, the 2021 award has been given to two courageous journalists – Maria Ressa from the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov from Russia – who have been fighting for freedom of expression and government transparency in their countries over the past several decades. 

At a time when freedom of expression is under threat worldwide with the global rise in authoritarian regimes and spread of misinformation, the Nobel Committee’s decision has come as a valuable message, emphasising the importance of freedom of expression as a precondition for democracy and lasting peace. 

Since our inception, WILPF has been deeply committed to advocating for and protecting freedom of expression – a critical foundation for the achievement of sustainable peace. Just as the Norwegian Nobel Committee stated while declaring the award, WILPF believes freedom of expression and freedom of information are essential to dismantle war propaganda and hold people in power accountable. These are key tenets of democracy and can protect countries against conflict and war.

Who are Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov?

Maria Ressa, who also happens to be the only woman receiving the Nobel Peace Prize this year, is the Co-Founder and CEO of Manila-based independent news website Rappler. Since its inception in 2012, Rappler has aimed to combat the spread of misinformation and bring to light the human rights abuses carried out by the government of Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte, especially in relation to his deadly and violent “war on drugs”. 

The Nobel Peace Prize is another feather in Maria Ressa’s hat. With a career in investigative journalism spanning over 35 years, Ressa’s work has focused on the rise of terrorism in Southeast Asia. Ressa has also worked extensively on bringing to light the weaponisation of social media to spread false narratives, disrecredit real experiences, and manipulate public opinion. 

While Ressa’s courage and fearlessness in using freedom of expression to expose the abuse of power, human rights violations, and growing authoritarianism in the Philippines has led to her being awarded numerous international accolades, it has also made her a target of online hate campaigns, constant trolling, harassment, and abuse. In an attempt to shut down Rappler, the Philippines government has charged Ressa with multiple cases of cyber-crimes as well as tax evasion. At the moment, Ressa is battling multiple charges levied against her, which if proven, could land her in prison for decades. 

Dmitry Muratov is the Co-Founder and Editor of independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta, the only truly critical newspaper in Russia at the moment. Founded in 1993, Novaya Gazeta was set up with the help of former Soviet Union President and 1990 Nobel Peace Prize winner Mikhail Gorbachev, who had donated part of his award to buy computers and pay staff salaries. Since then, Novaya Gazeta has fought for freedom of expression and freedom of press in Russia. 

The newspaper has been known for its pioneering work investigating corruption, human rights violations, and abuse of power in Russia. But Novaya Gazeta has had to pay a very heavy price for its courageous work. To date, six journalists who worked for the newspaper have reportedly been murdered, with one of the most notable incidents being the murder of investigative journalist Anna Politkovskaya, who had gained international recognition for her independent coverage of Chechnya and the North Caucasus.

Despite threats and attacks, Muratov has relentlessly continued his work and investigations, refusing to abandon the independent policy and critical nature of Novaya Gazeta even in the face of all kinds of adversities 

Although the Nobel Peace Prize has arrived as recognition for this courageous work, Muratov’s colleagues have expressed fear that it may not be enough to safeguard journalists in Russia.

How have the threats to freedom of expression increased in the last few years?

Freedom of expression and freedom of press have been deteriorating consistently over the past decade with the rise in authoritarian regimes worldwide. 

There has been an increase in the use of social media and technology to spread misinformation, threaten and silence dissenters, and exercise mass surveillance. Even democratically elected leaders in many countries have resorted to silencing dissenting and critical media voices to uphold a favourable image of themselves in the eyes of the public. 

The past decade has also witnessed a rise in assaults on journalists, human rights defenders, and activists by governments, armed groups, and corporations

A 2019 report titled WorldWide Roundup from Reporters Without Borders found that 941 journalists were killed across the globe in the last 10 years while 389 journalists were detained in connection to their work in 2019 alone. The situation has only worsened with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic: 50 journalists were killed in 2020 globally and 387 detained for their work, with a higher percentage of the fatalities being recorded in countries which are considered to be “peaceful”.

2020 also witnessed a 35 per cent increase in the number of women journalists arbitrarily detained. Women defenders of freedom of expression and human rights have traditionally faced greater risks, including risk of gender-based and gender-specific violence, patriarchal restrictions exercised by the family and community, under-funding, lack of recognition, and marginalisation. The pandemic has only exacerbated these conditions.

COVID-19 has further undermined freedom of expression

With the onset of the pandemic, democratic governments resorted to higher surveillance, increased human rights violations on the pretext of COVID-19 management, and greater dissemination of misinformation – such as politically-motivated manipulation of medical guidelines to suppress protests and outrage. Many governments took advantage of the pandemic, using it to crack down on dissenters, centralise power, and suppress critical voices. 

For example, in India, the right wing BJP-led central government’s pandemic response led to strict lockdowns which resulted in the unplanned displacement of millions of internal migrant workers. The pandemic also brought the spread of propaganda and disinformation that led to the scapegoating of Muslims, who were unfairly blamed for the spread of the virus. The lockdown was also used to arrest critics of the government and individuals who had taken part in the anti-CAA protests in 2019.

In Algeria, pandemic-related lockdown measures were used by the government to suppress an ongoing protest movement demanding democratic change. Journalists and activists who were leading figures of the movement were arrested and imprisoned on baseless charges. The Algerian government also shut down critical websites to cut off access to information and suspend online activism.

In Israel, the Justice Minister used the excuse of the pandemic to suspend court time for most cases, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial. A law was passed banning mass protests, which the opposition in Israel claimed was done to suppress demonstrations calling for Netanyahu’s resignation

In Russia, the government put a stop to individual protests against Vladimir Putin’s decision to do away with the term limiting his presidency

The widespread protests and movements against police brutality, corruption, and militarisation which were gaining ground worldwide in 2019 came to a sudden halt in 2020 because of the pandemic. As a result, efforts to protect freedom of expression were severely hampered.

According to the Freedom House 2021 report today, less than 20 per cent of the world’s population lives in a free country – the lowest since 1995.

Safeguarding freedom of expression is necessary for a future of peace

The worldwide erosion of freedom of expression is both a sign of as well as a contributor to the breakdown of democratic values and principles. The repression of voices of dissent and critique in a country is a strong indicator that other political rights and liberties are also under threat

Freedom of expression is absolutely vital to ensuring lasting peace. A democracy thrives on free discussion and debate. Stifling of critical voices, thwarting press freedom, and suppressing free debate leads to unchecked spread of disinformation and the rise of authoritarianism, which eventually culminates in violence and conflict. 

The Nobel Committee’s decision to give the award to two brave journalists working to uphold freedom of expression while fighting against authoritarian regimes has reminded us of the dark times we live in. It has also served as a powerful message to countries suppressing free media and speech that the world is watching – and they cannot escape accountability. 

The prize has come as an acknowledgement of the very important role played by journalists like Ressa and Muratov across the globe in strengthening democracy and building peace. After all, peace is more than just the absence of war and conflict. Sustainable peace rests on other factors like transparent and accountable governments, protection of human rights, justice, equity, equality, and social welfare of the masses. The Nobel Peace Prize has sparked this very important conversation. 

The sheer resilience of activists, journalists, and human rights defenders across the globe who are fighting for a more just society is a sign of hope that better times are ahead of us. 

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About the author

Ananya is a Communications Intern at WILPF International Secretariat. She is a feminist activist and researcher based in India. Ananya completed her Masters in Gender Studies with a focus on Gender Peace and Security.

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In response to the takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban and its targeted attacks on civil society members, WILPF Afghanistan issued several statements calling on the international community to stand in solidarity with Afghan people and ensure that their rights be upheld, including access to aid. The Section also published 100 Untold Stories of War and Peace, a compilation of true stories that highlight the effects of war and militarisation on the region. 

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