A Nobel for journalists: what does it mean?

In 1935, journalists were writing on typewriters and their stories were written in lead type. Breaking news meant printing a newspaper in the afternoon, but many reporters were learning the format of this exciting new platform called radio.

In 1935, it was also the last time that a journalist won the Nobel Peace Prize.

While a journalist today may not recognize the tech landscape, most will surely find the political scene terribly familiar. Authoritarian regimes are on the rise, cracking down on independent journalism by prosecuting, imprisoning or assassinating those who expose corruption, abuse of power or criminal conduct, or guarantee impunity to anyone who attacks a journalist.

Maria Ressa in the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov in Russia work as journalists in this environment. This week, they will receive the Nobel Peace Prize for their work, which symbolizes the work of hundreds of journalists at great risk of physical harm, legal liability or economic hardship. As the award quote indicates, the selection of the two journalists “aims to underscore the importance of protecting and defending” freedom of expression and information.

Unfortunately, the political and social atmosphere in which the work of Maria and Dmitry is representative of a larger trend, which seems to have been accentuated in recent years: the loss of respect for the value of press freedom. , even in societies that once took it for granted.

A serious investigation into government corruption can lead to prosecution. Exposing illegal activities by private companies can trigger a response of unlimited resources to smear a journalist. Exposing a criminal network can result in the death of a journalist or editor and then killed again when authorities fail to prosecute the perpetrators.

The 1935 Nobel Peace Prize to German journalist Carl von Ossietzky reminds us that journalism has always faced this peril, especially when the truth affects the powerful. Ossietzky was jailed by the Nazi regime for revealing details of Germany’s rearmament in the 1920s, in violation of its international commitments. He also warned of the rise of anti-Semitism and militarism. The authorities imprisoned and tortured him.

By 1935, the concept of independent journalism was taking root, moving away from the model of political activism of the previous century, and towards a watchdog role that would be its hallmark in the following decades. It survives today, even though social media allows for news “bubbles” where each person can only follow the news they agree with and see everything else as bogus.

These bubbles diminish confidence in the facts and in a free press, while populist politicians exploit these attitudes. And yet, journalists advance, despite harassment, pressure or attacks.

“You don’t really know who you are until you have to fight to defend it,” Maria Ressa said in 2018 when she received the Golden Feather of Freedom from the World Association of Press Editors annually awards journalists fighting for their rights. to publish. By then, Maria had faced a legal offensive designed to prevent Rappler, the online newspaper she founded in 2012, from exposing the corruption and abuse of power of President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines. She was the victim of online harassment which led her to become one of the first journalists to denounce social media for allowing enemies a free press.

Two years earlier, Dmitry Muratov had received the same award. By that time, six journalists from Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper he founded in 1993, had been killed, including Anna Politkovskaya, one of the most vocal critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Dmitry and Maria took unlikely trips. Maria left her career in global media to start Rappler and report in her homeland. Dmitry started out as a journalist in Soviet-era Russia and quickly understood that without independence journalism is powerless.

Today, they are the contemporary expression of a line of journalists who, like Carl von Ossietzky before them, are committed to denouncing the social and political evils that hinder peace. They denounced racism, dictatorships, political repression, drug trafficking, terrorist groups, human rights violations, impunity, war crimes or military reinforcement.

Along with Maria and Dmitry, dozens of journalists and media entrepreneurs around the world are pursuing this line, from Myanmar to Nicaragua, Ethiopia to Turkey, Mexico to Iran, and Saudi Arabia to China. Their names may not be as familiar as those of our future Nobel Laureates, but are worth mentioning: Anye Chang Naing, Carlos Joaquín Chamorro, Dawit Kebede, Can Dündar, Marcela Turati, Mohammad Mossaed, Jamal Khashoggi, Jimmy Lai. The list leaves so many out, but it suffices to know that the fight for press freedom extends far.

Carl von Ossietzky received his Nobel Prize in 1936, a year after its award. In the same year, the Prize for Literature was awarded to American playwright Eugene O’Neill, who once wrote: “There is no present and no future, only the past repeats itself over and over again, now.

Every day, Maria Ressa, Dmitry Muratov and their colleagues around the world struggle to overcome this curse.

(The writer is a journalist based in Mexico and a member of the board of directors of the World Editors Forum).

(This article was commissioned by the World Editors Forum / WAN-IFRA to mark the award of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to two of its Golden Pen of Freedom winners)

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