After a gap of 85 years, two journalists received the Nobel Peace Prize in a ceremony this month. The timing of the recognition couldn’t be better in a troubled world that needs more reliable information.
The Prize winners are Maria Ressa, who co-founded Rappler, a news website critical of the Philippine government, and Dmitry Muratov, one of the founders of the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Both of their lives are in danger as they report on their governments. Some of their colleagues have been murdered. Ressa is the subject of seven lawsuits in her country that risk putting her in jail for 100 years.
The last time a working journalist was given the Nobel Peace Prize was in 1936 when it was awarded to Carl von Ossietzky, who never made it to Oslo to accept it because he was in a Nazi concentration camp.
Beyond the complications and risks of reporting in their respective countries, both of this year’s winners in their acceptance speeches Dec. 10 pointed out the danger of giving up the fight to inform: “Yes, we growl and bite. Yes, we have sharp teeth and strong grip,” Muratov said of journalists. “But we are the prerequisite for progress. We are the antidote against tyranny.”
Ressa minced no words when she outlined the predicament the world is in because of its reliance on technology to inform, sharply rebuking American tech giants for their role. She accused them of fueling a flood of “toxic sludge” on social media that “has allowed a virus of lies to infect each of us, pitting us against each other, bringing out our fears, anger and hate, and setting the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world.”
It’s no surprise the U.S. Capitol insurrection on Jan. 6 is one of her examples of what happens when bad information circulates through those channels.
She, like all of us, knows that social media isn’t going to go away. Instead she urged improving it through various means, including legislation: “So while the public debate is focused downstream on content moderation, the real sleight of hand happens further upstream, where algorithms of distribution have been programmed by humans with their coded bias. Their editorial agenda is profit driven, carried out by machines at scale. The impact is global, with cheap armies on social media tearing down democracy in at least 81 countries around the world. That impunity must stop.”
These are the bold words of a woman currently on parole, pending an appeal after being convicted of cyber libel last year. (She needed to ask four courts for permission to travel and collect her Nobel in person, and the law she’s accused of breaking didn’t even exist when she supposedly broke it.)
The Peace Prize may have gone to two journalists in countries where freedom of information is choked off by governments and punishment is severe for pushing against corruption. Yet all of us in every country can recognize the dangers that come into play when information is limited or manipulated.
Truth matters, and so does the pursuit of it.
— The Mankato (Minnesota) Free Press