By Robin Gomes
The Catholic bishops of the Philippines have congratulated the first Nobel laureate of the country, Maria Ressa. On October 8, the Norwegian Nobel Committee declared the 58-year old journalist along with Russian journalist, Dmitry Muratov, as joint winners of this year's prestigious Nobel Peace Prize .
Safeguarding freedom of expression
“We, your Pastors and Bishops, wish to add our voices to that of the entire nation in congratulating Ms. Maria Ressa, for being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts “to safeguard freedom of expression,” Archbishop Romulo Valles of Davao, president of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of the Philippines (CBCP), wrote in a statement on Monday.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it “decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021 to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”. “Ms Ressa and Mr Muratov are receiving the Peace Prize for their courageous fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia. At the same time, they are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions,” the Nobel Committee said in its citation.
A free press for democracy
In his statement, Archbishop Valles wrote, “Our recent Popes have on occasion highlighted the important role that the Press plays in gauging the health of a healthy democratic society. It is not a surprise, then, that the Church ‘find the right esteem for your work and the recognition of the freedom of the press’.”
The CBCP president noted that all over the world today "this journalistic work has become more and more difficult because of the level of disinformation and fake news that continue to spread through the means of social communications”. “The vocation and mission of the members of the Press (as envisioned by our Popes) is , therefore, to contribute not only for the search for truth but more importantly, to help build a culture of dialogue.” The bishops of the Philippines are glad that Ressa and many other dedicated press and media persons have “discerned the signs of the times and have valiantly responded and continue to respond to this particular invitation”.
Duterte and freedom of expression
Ressa, a staunch critic of President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs, is facing several criminal charges for investigating his controversial policy. The Nobel Committee said the co-founder of the Philippine online news website Rappler “uses freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country. Ressa has shown herself to be a fearless defender of freedom of expression. Rappler has focused critical attention on the Duterte regime’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign.”
The Committee noted, “The number of deaths is so high that the campaign resembles a war waged against the country’s own population. Ms Ressa and Rappler have also documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents and manipulate public discourse.”
A belated congratulation from the Office of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte came three days after Friday’s announcement of the Nobel peace laureates. The award is a “victory for a Filipina and we are very happy for that,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque told a news conference on Monday. However, he noted that Ressa has been charged with cyber libel and faces other criminal charges which courts would independently decide on. He denied journalists in the Philippines were being muzzled or threatened.
Ressa, journalist for over 30 years, has launched a stinging attack on Facebook, accusing the social media company of its bias against facts and failure to prevent the spread of disinformation, thus endangering democracy. “When the largest distributor of news prioritizes the spread of lies, laced with anger and hate, and spreads it faster and further than facts, then journalism becomes activism,” she said in an interview to Rappler, not long after the Nobel Peace Prize announcement. She pointed out that in less than two years, the Philippine government has filed 10 arrest warrants against her.