Manila-based journalist Maria Ressa, along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize on Friday.
“Giving the Peace Prize to two very courageous outstanding journalists that have proved excellent in their profession really illustrates what it means to be a journalist and how you exercise freedom of expression even under the most difficult and destructive circumstances,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
The Manila-based journalist has faced off for years with Philippine authorities, balancing deadlines, speaking engagements and an appearance on the cover of Time magazine with court appearances. Ressa knew that her work as an editor and advocate angered powerful people in the Philippines, including President Rodrigo Duterte. She kept at it anyway, pushing ahead with her writing and speaking amid ever-escalating threats.
Found guilty of cyber-libel in June 2020, Ressa had to defend herself and her news organization against multiple charges. In the span of less than two years, she was issued 10 arrest warrants and is fighting nine separate cases.
From the litany of court cases, Ressa has emerged as a strong opponent of violence against female journalists more broadly, and along with Rappler has done pioneering reporting on cyber-harassment, online trolls, and disinformation and misinformation campaigns.
In a tearful interview right after the Nobel award was announced, Ressa described it as “a recognition of the difficulties, but also hopefully of how we’re going to win the battle for truth, the battle for facts: We hold the line.”
Ressa is one of the Philippines’ most prominent journalists and a vocal advocate for press freedom.
She served as CNN’s bureau chief in Manila and went on to found a digital media start-up, Rappler, in 2012. In the years since, Rappler has become one of the most influential English-language outlets in the Philippines.
After Duterte’s election in 2016, Ressa and Rappler were among the first to sound the alarm on how fake news, particularly fake news on Facebook, had shaped the Philippine election — a line of coverage that proved particularly prescient.
Rappler has been at the forefront of hard-hitting reporting on Duterte’s policies, particularly a war on drugs that has left thousands dead and prompted condemnation from the United Nations. In September, the International Criminal Court formally opened an investigation into possible crimes against humanity during the anti-drug campaign.
One of the paper’s most dogged chroniclers of Duterte’s Philippines, Pia Ranada, was eventually banned from reporting from the Philippine equivalent of the White House, Malacañang Palace.
How did she run afoul of Philippine authorities?
Duterte has a complicated relationship with the news media. Like populist authoritarian leaders elsewhere, he alternately basks in the spotlight and dismisses reporters as peddlers of “fake news.”
Duterte has made it clear that he does not like Rappler. In his 2017 state-of-the-nation address, he called out the outlet by name, implying, without citing evidence, that it was foreign-owned.
Not long after, the country’s Securities and Exchange Commission opened an investigation into the company’s ownership structure. The commission later revoked Rappler’s license, a decision that was denounced by journalists and rights groups.
In December 2018, Ressa turned herself in on charges of tax evasion. The charges, which she has denied, were filed while she was overseas receiving a press freedom award. When she returned to Manila, she posted bail, avoiding jail time.
There have since been more charges. In her most high-profile case, in 2020, Ressa and a former researcher were found guilty of cyber-libel, which was decried by press freedom advocates as having a chilling effect in the nation.
The case centered on a 2012 article written by then-Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. that cited an intelligence report linking Philippine business executive Wilfredo Keng to trafficking and drug smuggling. Keng denied the allegations and filed a complaint in 2017.
“To the Filipinos watching this, this is not just about Rappler,” Ressa said after the hearing, her voice breaking. “This is not about us. This is about you. Because freedom of the press is the foundation of every single right you have as a Filipino citizen.”
Rappler argued that Ressa did not edit the article herself, as her role as executive editor does not entail day-to-day editorial operations. Analysts and advocates have said the decision to lodge the case against Ressa, rather than the editors involved, demonstrated that officials were targeting her. Many saw the charges as politically motivated.
The case had many peculiarities, including that the article was published four months before a 2012 cyber-libel measure was signed into law by then-President Benigno Aquino III. Though laws cannot be applied retroactively, the Justice Department argued that the article was “republished,” and thus had reentered jurisdiction, after a Rappler staffer fixed a typographical error — correcting the spelling of “evasion” — in 2014.
After being found guilty, Ressa and Santos faced between six months and six years in prison but were allowed to post bail, pending an appeal. They were also ordered to pay almost $8,000 in damages.
What did the case mean for press freedom?
Philippine authorities have denied there are political motivations behind any of the moves, but both within and beyond the Philippines, the targeting of a prominent Duterte critic has been seen as a test of Philippine democracy.
Since winning the presidency in 2016, Duterte has consolidated his sway over security forces, Congress and the Supreme Court. The country’s free press is seen as a critical check on his power — should it remain free, that is.
Ressa has played a key role in raising awareness about threats to journalists at home and abroad. For her work, she was part of a group of reporters named Time magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year. She was also part of a group invited to New York’s Times Square on New Year’s Eve alongside the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Reporters and rights groups worried that the sight of one of the Philippines’ most influential journalists being escorted to jail would have a chilling effect in the Philippines and across the region.
At the peak of online harassment against her — the likely work of paid troll farms — Ressa recorded nearly 100 hate messages an hour sent to her on social media after Rappler ran an investigative series on the weaponizing of social media.
Rappler has continued to do pioneering reporting on cyber-harassment, online trolls, disinformation, and state misconduct, corruption and violence.
Paul Schemm in London, Shibani Mahtani in Hong Kong and Regine Cabato in Manila contributed to this report, which is an updated version of a story published originally in 2019.