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A Win for the Freedom of the Press?

Published in Nov-Dec 2021

The Nobel Peace Prize 2021 was awarded to journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov. How does this affect Pakistan?

The 2021 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Maria Ressa (Rapler) and Dmitry Muratov (Novaya Gazeta) for their struggle for the freedom of the press. It is significant that this is the first time the Peace Prize was awarded to journalists, as it typically goes to political leaders or activists. According to the Nobel Committee, the Peace Prize was awarded to them for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

The global rise of authoritarianism in the past decade, and the advent of social media and its manipulative algorithms, has coincided with marked threats to press freedom. Journalism has been in crisis globally, whether in the US, where former President Donald Trump labelled any criticism of his authoritarian tendencies as emanating from “the fake news media” or in countries ranging from Brazil to the Philippines as well as Pakistan and Turkey.  Impunity against any accountability of attacks on journalists and the press has been of significant concern internationally. Daphne Caruana Galizia, whose investigation on corruption in Malta and which included the Prime Minister, was killed in a bomb attack in Malta; several journalists have been killed in Afghanistan by militants, Egypt has jailed as many and the Saudi regime has been implicated in the brutal killing of The Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Ressa’s story at Rapler encapsulates many of these issues. Her reluctance to bow down before abuse of power by President Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines earned her the ire of the regime, which has filed several cases against her, while loopholes in the cybercrime law were used to charge and arrest her. As a result, she has emerged as one of the fiercest and most honest voices of journalism in the Philippines. 

Muratov, a founder and editor of Novaya Gazeta, one of the very few critical press outlets in Russia, experienced similar struggles. In Russia, where Putin’s hold on power is now approaching two decades, media independence has been on a sharp decline from a low start. In an environment where even musicians are jailed, journalists have a tough job trying to merely survive, let alone report truthfully. Commenting on being a recipient of the Peace Prize, Muratov said that all the journalists who were killed while working for his publication deserve this prize.  

The swift proliferation of information made possible by the internet and social media in particular has elicited panic among the global ruling elite. Citizens now have the ability to demand accountability, express their views, challenge the powerful directly and organise movements fairly quickly. This paranoia is in part responsible for the increased suppression of dissent by state apparatuses, be it in the form of tougher online regulation, increased intermediary liability for social media platforms and organised campaigns against the media, along with legal proceedings against journalists – all in violation of Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the two main instruments of international human rights law. 

It is the responses to these violations that have put the press, journalists and citizen journalists at the centre of efforts for peace. Journalists are not only battling against the adverse effects of traditional warfare, they are at the centre of movements for social justice and racial equality. They are calling out powerful institutions for the violation of their fundamental rights, as well as authoritarian figures responsible for denying or underplaying both the climate change crisis (that is causing the violent displacement of millions of people) and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Peace does not simply mean the absence of war. It is about the survival of civilian populations, often left at the mercy of powerful autocrats. In such an environment, dedicated journalists are warriors for truth and peace. What has been worthy of appreciation is the solidarity shown by journalists across borders. International coalitions of journalists, press clubs, press freedom advocates and human rights organisations are working in increasing unison against autocratic forces globally. We saw this in the form of the International Coalition of Journalists, which investigated powerful figures involved in offshore companies, as revealed by the Panama Papers and later by the Pandora Papers. We have also seen transnational groups issue statements, stage protests and amplify the voices of their colleagues in other countries as a method to increase international pressure in support of journalists in the face of the legal and extra-legal pressures used against them. 

Such solidarity has been at work in protecting journalists in Pakistan as well. The story is not much different here. In fact, Pakistan keeps slipping to the bottom of the lists that rank the safety of journalists and respect for press freedom in the world. Extra-judicial killings, enforced disappearances, covert pressure on media houses and the systematic erasure of critical voices from electronic media are symptomatic of the relations between the state and the press. The weapon of choice in Pakistan seems to be the financial squeezing of the media, leading to self-censorship at the editorial level – and this means that the state, through its monopoly over violence and covert powers, is holding journalists hostage to press freedom. Talk show hosts and staff often ask guests to exercise caution and several journalists live in exile while their families back home are harassed by ‘unknown’ persons. Journalists who grapple with issues related to war economy and its accountability and demand accountability of financial corruption and report unpleasant facts or criticise the government are subjected to mass hate and trolling campaigns online. 

Will international solidarity continue to work? Will the Nobel for Ressa and Muratov prod governments around the world to respect the democratic rights of citizens? Will the harassment of journalists come to an end? Will the quest for truth and peace continue to be silenced? Will the right to information for citizens continue to be undermined? These are some critical questions that we must ask at this juncture.

Social media is here to stay. People’s voices can never be silenced and journalists are not ready to surrender their role and rights. It is time the state apparatus in Pakistan and other countries allow the press to function and do its job. As for the press, it must stick to its code of ethics, which needs to keep up with a landscape in transformation and continue to ask the tough questions, speak truth to power when needed, and never compromise on integrity. May there be many more Maria Ressas and Dmitry Muratovs. 

Usama Khilji is Director, Bolo Bhi.