Free media’s survival depends on support from readers, viewers: Barbara Trionfi

44-Barbara-Trionfi Barbara Trionfi

The decision of the Nobel committee to award the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, was wonderful news for those of us who strive to raise awareness about the numerous attacks on journalists worldwide and explain to the public about why they should care.

Muratov and Ressa share the need and ability to identify innovative ways to ensure the survival and success of their news outlets in spite of the immense pressure under which they operate.

For us at the International Press Institute (IPI), a global network of editors and journalists dedicated to independent journalism, the award represents yet another validation of IPI’s vision. When IPI was established in 1950 following the horror and suffering of World War II, its 34 founding editors wrote: “World peace depends on understanding between peoples and peoples. If peoples are to understand one another, it is essential that they have good information.” Ever since, IPI has worked to promote conditions for independent, quality, public-interest journalism to exist, because this is the very foundation of democracy and global peace.

Seven decades later, the recognition given by the Nobel committee to two very worthy journalists “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace” comes at a critical time. With authoritarianism on the rise across the world, the Covid-19 pandemic struck a fatal blow to many independent news organisations that were already struggling to survive in a world where governments see the media industry’s financial weakness as an opportunity to take control of the message.

Ressa and Muratov share so much more than this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. They share a life dedicated to ensuring that people have access to independent news in countries where it is heavily restricted. They share the need and ability to identify innovative ways to ensure the survival and success of their news outlets in spite of the immense pressure under which they operate. And they share an admirable courage and resilience, while facing relentless attacks against themselves and their staff.

Ressa, the founder and CEO of the award-winning news site Rappler and an IPI executive board member, is one of the most prominent journalists in the Philippines. She has faced repeated legal harassment in retaliation for her and Rappler’s critical reporting and currently faces at least seven active criminal and administrative cases, including libel and punitive tax cases.

But the attacks against Ressa have not been limited to legal harassment. As is often the case in countries ruled by governments hostile towards independent media, efforts to silence critical journalists also include a combination of concerted hate and smear campaigns on social media as well as economic pressure by the government on businesses that provide financial support to independent news outlets through advertisements.

As a result, Ressa and her team at Rappler are fighting a war on all fronts, living in fear that the next court ruling may be the one that lands them in prison, that the next lawsuit may bankrupt the newsroom, or that the next online attack might become a physical one in a country with an abominable record for journalist safety. At least 19 journalists have been killed in the Philippines since President Rodrigo Duterte took power in 2016, making the country one of the world’s deadliest for the press. Duterte has not only harshly attacked critical media, but also reacted to the killings of journalists by saying that they are legitimate targets for assassination. Impunity for these crimes is the rule in the Philippines, sending the message that the life of a journalist has little value and there is no interest in ensuring that justice prevails.

When Ressa launched Rappler in 2012, she knew that it would need all the support it could get in order to survive as a critical, independent, investigative news outlet and expose the corruption deeply rooted in the Philippine system. With a journalism that serves the interests of the public, Rappler’s strongest allies would have to be its readers. The site immediately distinguished itself by embracing crowdsourcing, citizen journalism and social media as journalistic tools in a way that was radical for the Philippines’s still traditional media environment, but that reflected the widespread use of new technologies in one of Asia’s most populous countries.

When Rappler was awarded the IPI Free Media Pioneer Award in 2018, Ressa said, “Journalism is under attack on many fronts: from authoritarian leaders using cheap armies on social media to control the public space to technology companies which have largely abdicated responsibility as the new gatekeepers. […] Rappler wants to harness new technology, analyse how it’s changing us as a people and attempt to use it for social good. In the process, we redefine journalism, build communities, and crowdsource actions for specific purposes.”

The story of the Novaya Gazeta has many similarities to Rappler’s. Throughout the 1990s, as news organisations that relied on wealthy individuals, business groups and political patrons in Russia faced interference in their editorial decisions, Muratov looked for sources of income that would allow the Novaya Gazeta to carry out its resource-intensive investigations and retain complete control over editorial decisions. The newspaper turned to its readers and supporters, and today, the primary source of its revenue is a combination of membership and donations, while staff members hold 51 per cent ownership of the thrice-weekly newspaper.

The Novaya Gazeta, which has been targeted repeatedly in retaliation for its investigations since its founding in 1993, has paid a high price for its independence: five of the paper’s reporters [and a lawyer] have been killed in the past two decades, including IPI World Press Freedom Hero Anna Politkovskaya, murdered in October 2006. The killing was believed to be in response to her coverage of the war in Chechnya, which revealed the human tragedy and suffering of the conflict. However, the masterminds have never been identified, much less jailed.

In spite of the serious risks that Muratov constantly faces, he has not given up on independent journalism. But it is evident that losing the journalists has taken a serious toll on him. In 2009, after the Novaya Gazeta’s lawyer Stanislav Markelov and reporter Anastasia Baburova were killed in Moscow in broad daylight by far-right nationalists, Muratov created a newsroom protocol in an effort to protect his journalists. And today he leads a network of media that seeks to help Russian journalists working in dangerous parts of the country.

Muratov dedicated the Nobel Peace Prize to the six colleagues killed. Similarly, when he accepted the 2009 IPI Free Media Pioneer Award on behalf of the Novaya Gazeta, he said: “This award also belongs to those of us who sadly will not be able to see it with their own eyes. By this I mean our colleagues who died while carrying out their professional duties.”

When this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was announced, many pointed out that the harassment of independent journalists by the governments of Duterte and Russian president Vladimir Putin is so blatant that not even the most important international recognition will ensure that Ressa and Muratov can be safe. While this may, sadly, be true, the award nevertheless is a crucial acknowledgement of the important role of independent journalism in our societies. It will, hopefully, remind the public that journalism cannot be taken for granted and that our need for fair, accurate and balanced news depends on the courage and resilience of a few individuals, who far too often pay for this with their lives.

IPI will continue to fight for the rights of journalists like Muratov and Ressa to do their job. But we also hope that this year’s Nobel Peace Prize will remind people that the survival of independent journalism, in spite of efforts by various tyrants and criminals to silence it, depends on us, the readers and listeners. It is in our hands to support it.

Barbara Trionfi is Executive director, International Press Institute