by: Norielle Eco ||
June 2020. Dozens of reporters fill the venue, each of them eagerly awaiting answers. They stand outside the courtroom of Manila Regional Trial Court, where, sitting in the center is a prominent journalist, devastated by the court’s verdict. Beside her are her lawyer and a former colleague who shared the same fate.
This was only minutes after Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos Jr. were found guilty of cyber libel, becoming the first-ever journalists to be convicted of the crime in the country.
Government critics called for the journalists’ defense, deeming the conviction as a big blow to press freedom. Loyalists, on the other hand, viewed this as a win, claiming that justice has been served.
Little did everyone know that more than a year after that conviction, Maria Ressa would become the very first Filipino Nobel Prize Laureate.
How It All Started
Maria Angelita Ressa (58) is a Filipino-American writer and journalist. She was born in the Philippines but migrated to the United States at the age of 10. She graduated cum laude at Princeton University with a Bachelor of Arts (BA) degree in English and achieved certificates in theater and dance. In search of her roots, Ressa applied for the Fulbright scholarship, which allowed her to study Political Theatre as a master’s degree at the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman, the flagship campus of the UP System that is considered by Philippine law as the national university.
In 1987, Ressa landed her first job as a member of the Probe Team. A year later, she became Cable News Network (CNN)’s bureau chief in Manila, holding the position for almost a decade before running the Jakarta bureau from 1995 to 2005. Her focus as CNN’s lead investigative reporter was terrorism in Southeast Asia. Returning from Jakarta, Ressa worked as the head of the ABS-CBN News and Current Affairs until 2010.
Together with her fellow journalists and entrepreneurs, Ressa co-founded and became the Chief Executive Officer and President of Rappler. Rappler, starting originally as a Facebook page named Move.PH in 2011, soon evolved into a complete website in 2012. As of today, it is one of the biggest news websites in the Philippines, having garnered multiple local and international awards.
The Perilous Battle
Rappler is notoriously critical of current President Rodrigo Duterte and his policies. The news site often covers stories that tackle corruption, misogyny, and human rights violations. It also pays critical attention to the anti-drug campaign, together with the extrajudicial killings and the fast-rising death toll. Ressa, in particular, has posted several articles on said topics on the news site and has also been known to personally document the spread of government propaganda and fake news on Facebook.
These past few years, Ressa and Rappler have been subjected to multiple criminal charges, unending investigations, and harsh online verbal attacks. After being convicted in 2020, Ressa and Santos paid the post-conviction bail to enjoy temporary freedom while filing for an appeal. Ressa and Rappler have currently posted a total of ten bails and are still facing seven active cases, which range from breach of foreign ownership rules in the Philippines to alleged tax violations. Ressa, however, believes that these cases filed against her are used as “political tools.” Moreover, Rappler and other government critics view these acts and cases as harassment and political intimidation that threaten freedom of expression in the country.
Yet, despite the numerous threats against them, Ressa and the staff of Rappler vow to continue the battle for press freedom.
Bagging the Prestigious Prize
The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the five prestigious Nobel Prizes established by the will of Alfred Nobel. Every year, the award is awarded to the candidate/s who have done significant action for union between nations, the reduction of standing armies, and the promotion of peace.
On the 8th of October 2021, Ressa was recognized as the first Filipino to receive a Nobel Prize. Alongside Dmitry Muratov from Russia, Ressa was hailed as this year’s Nobel Peace Prize winner. The Norwegian Nobel Committee commended Ressa for using freedom of expression to “expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country, the Philippines.”
Among the 329 candidates, Ressa and Muratov were announced as the recipients of the award in recognition of “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
The formal awarding ceremony for the Nobel Peace Prize is set to be held in Oslo, Norway, on December 10, 2021, the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. It is the only Nobel Prize that is not presented in Sweden. Nobel laureates will receive 10 million Swedish kronor (SEK) or $1.15 million, a diploma, and a gold medal. Ressa will share the prize with Muratov. She hopes that she could be granted permission to travel to Norway to receive the award.
The Nobel Prize is not the only major international award that Ressa has received. Some of her major awards are as follows: the 2017 Democracy Award, the 2018 Knight International Journalism Award, the World Association of Newspapers’s Golden Pen of Freedom Award, and the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award. In 2018, she was also included in the Time’s Person of the Year issue.
Ressa’s Nobel Prize does not signify the end of the battle for press freedom, as her fellow journalists hope that the global attention brought by the award may be what turns things around for them.
There is still a long road ahead, but to know that they are not alone in this battle and that the world is watching them, has sparked hope in the hearts of Filipino journalists and citizens alike.
Sources for quotations:
Nobel Prize Outreach. (2021, October). The Nobel Peace Prize 2021. https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/peace/2021/ressa/facts/