Maria Ressa, Nobel Peace Prize 2021: ‘This award belongs to journalists who stand firm’

On the occasion of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize award ceremony, this December 10 in Oslo, RFI interviewed the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, winner along with the Russian journalist Dmitri Muratov.

By Heike Schmidt.

RFI: You are the first citizen in the history of the Philippines to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. His government does not seem to be proud, quite the contrary … He had to fight a bitter battle in the courts to be able to go to Oslo, why?

Maria ressa: I have been fighting for my rights for five years. I think the hardest time for me was actually shortly after the lockdown of the pandemic began. It was then that I realized that this pandemic was going to allow our government to further restrict our rights. In the last two years, I have been prevented from traveling four times. Each time I have to ask permission from four different courts, which handle the seven lawsuits against me.

To be honest, I don’t know what awaits me anymore. But I continue to claim my rights, I will not sit idly by. Because I know I have the right to travel. So today I am happy. At the same time, I feel like “air pollution”. You have rights and, however, just because you are a journalist, they are denied to you, and you have to fight for the most basic rights, such as the right to travel. But I’m not going to complain anymore, because I’m finally flying to Oslo!

RFI: You are currently on probation, awaiting your appeal, as you were sentenced last year to six years in prison for defamation. How did you become enemy number one of the Philippine government and President Rodrigo Duterte?

Maria ressa: It is because we tell the truth. Because we are good journalists and we refuse to be intimidated. I have seven lawsuits against me. In total, I face over a hundred years in prison. Last year I was convicted of defamation for an article that I did not even write and that was published eight years ago, before the law that we are supposedly breaking existed. I face six years in prison, but I will fight to the end! I try to keep faith in our judges. This is our battle right now. If people like me no longer fight for their rights, that would mean that we are voluntarily renouncing democracy, and that is not possible.

RFI: Your fight for press freedom has made you a target on social media. He said you get 90 hate messages per hour and 90 rape threats per minute. This same week a Filipino journalist was assassinated. So journalism is a dangerous profession in the Philippines?

Maria ressa: At least 21 journalists have been killed under the Duterte government in the last five years. Even more lawyers who dare to defend us have been assassinated by our authorities: 63 of them have been assassinated. The authorities’ brutal war on drugs has cost tens of thousands of lives. Yes, it is dangerous to be a journalist, but it has always been that way. If you look at the World Press Freedom Index, you can see that the profession has become increasingly dangerous in the last ten years. This is mainly due to the emergence of new communication technologies. Authoritarian governments, like mine, use these technologies to attack and persecute journalists. The objective is to prevent us from working.

RFI: The last time a journalist received the Nobel Peace Prize was in 1936. With what message are you going to Oslo?

Maria ressa: In 1936 it was Carl von Ossietzky who received it. But he could not go to Oslo to receive him because he was dying in a Nazi concentration camp. This is the message that the Nobel Prize Committee has undoubtedly wanted to convey by awarding the award to two journalists. It is to say that this is the right moment, it is an existential moment for democracy. We are at a crossroads. If we go in the wrong direction, we could lose our democracy.

RFI: To whom would you like to dedicate this award, which you share with Russian journalist Dmitri Muratov?

Maria Ressa: For a long time, I have been an example to all threatened journalists in the world. So this award belongs to journalists who stand their ground, despite everything. It also belongs to all Filipinos who fight for their rights and pay a high price for it. I hope that the Nobel Prize spotlights will help my country protect and strengthen its democracy.

RFI: You often say that a dangerous virus threatens our freedoms all over the world: the virus of lies and misinformation. Whose fault is it? From social networks?

Maria Ressa: Yes, these technologies are the breeding ground for everything that is wrong in the world. Our information ecosystem is run by managers who no longer know how to distinguish between fact and fiction. They favor lies, because lies that arouse anger and hatred circulate more quickly and easily on social media.

This has to change. I have been saying for a long time that this must be regulated. It has to come from the United States. The European Union is at the forefront of this fight, with a “legislation on digital services” that looks at how information is expanded thanks to the power of algorithms. The UK is also preparing a law on online information. I believe that technology has evolved before governments and citizens have realized that it can be used to insidiously manipulate us. And that has to end.

RFI: Former Facebook employee Frances Haugen sounded the alarm, saying the network was putting its benefits before users. In your opinion, is the lie above the truth?

Maria Ressa: Yes, absolutely, it’s called surveillance capitalism. Our data, our private thoughts, are collected and stored by American companies, and then classified using artificial intelligence, in order to manipulate us. This comes at a cost. And I think that, just like in the industrial age, rules will be developed, late, but hopefully effective.

RFI: What does this mean in concrete terms? Are you referring, for example, to the false information circulating about cholera vaccines?

Maria Ressa: Yes, I would go further and call it disinformation. Both the United States and the European Union have accused certain countries of knowingly circulating disinformation. Indeed, it has been the case with vaccines, but the objective of these campaigns is mainly to weaken the States. Disinformation has become a tool in the power game and that is dangerous. I think the European Union has clearly accused China and Russia of circulating false information about vaccines.

RFI: Are you also afraid of disinformation campaigns ahead of the May presidential elections in the Philippines?

Maria Ressa: Yes of course. This is our biggest problem at the end of the year. How can honest elections be guaranteed if the facts are not honest? It’s not possible. Numerous studies from 2017, 2018 have shown that lies, linked to anger and hatred, spread much faster and more easily than facts.

RFI: What role should journalists play?

Maria Ressa: We have to write much more rigorously about these technologies. Artificial intelligence is now capable of writing information at the speed of a human brain. We have to be aware of this and alert society to how we can be manipulated.

We would like to thank the writer of this short article for this outstanding material

Maria Ressa, Nobel Peace Prize 2021: ‘This award belongs to journalists who stand firm’