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In a first, the Nobel Peace Prize went to a Filipina. Her government isn’t happy.

The award emphasizes the importance of freedom of expression and freedom of the press globally in an era of democratic backsliding

- October 20, 2021

Earlier this month, Philippine journalist Maria Ressa was co-awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her reporting. As the first Nobel laureate from the Philippines, Ressa might have expected widespread accolades in her birth country, just as Hidilyn Diaz was celebrated as the first Philippine Olympic gold medalist earlier this summer. But while some liberal news outlets, politicians, and activists have been hailing her win as a significant honor, that’s not the universal response in the country.

That’s because Ressa and her independent news organization Rappler have been quite critical of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte. As the Norwegian Nobel Committee said in its award announcement: “Rappler has focused critical attention on the Duterte regime’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign. The number of deaths is so high that the campaign resembles a war waged against the country’s own population.”

After three days of silence, Duterte’s office finally responded by claiming Ressa’s win as a “victory for a Filipina.” However, presidential spokesperson Harry Roque also commented, “She’s a convicted felon for cyber libel in the Philippines and faces other cases in the Philippines.” The conservative Manila Standard ran one opinion column critiquing Ressa’s Nobel Prize as “undeserved” and another saying the prize was awarded with an “ulterior motive,” because the reporter was “a paid hack” in the service of U.S. imperialism. Ressa’s detractors have pointed to her U.S. citizenship and upbringing, arguing that she is “alien” to the Philippines.

How did Maria Ressa and Rappler anger the Duterte government?

Ressa and other journalists started Rappler as a Facebook page in 2011, becoming an online news website in 2012. Shortly after Duterte won the 2016 presidential election, Rappler took aim at his government. Rappler uncovered fake media stories linked to pro-Duterte camps, which are often employed to justify the government’s strong-arm tactics and draconian policies in addressing the country’s problems. Its investigative journalists have also tracked Duterte’s violent drug war and the rise in police extrajudicial killings.

In response, the Duterte government launched several investigations targeting Rappler and issued at least 10 arrest warrants for Ressa. A Philippine court found Ressa guilty of cyber-libel under the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012, which was passed a few months after Rappler published the article in question, thus retroactively applying the law to target Ressa. A court dismissed that case earlier this year, but Ressa continues to face other charges. For instance, the Duterte government has charged her with tax evasion, arguing that Rappler did not properly disclose investments from foreign companies.

Outside the courtroom, Duterte and other administration officials have harassed reporters and publicly undermined Rappler’s credibility. Duterte has repeatedly referred to Rappler as “fake news” and claimed the news organization was funded by the CIA. At one point, Ressa received nearly 100 online hate messages an hour, after Rappler reported on the weaponization of social media. Egged on by Duterte, paid trolls have generated thousands of hate messages via social media, including death threats against Ressa.

Will the Nobel Prize have any effect in the Philippines?

The Nobel Committee’s decision to honor Ressa and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov was designed to draw international attention to political repression and the importance of “[f]ree, independent and fact-based journalism.” Within the Philippines, Manila Times columnist Yen Makabenta argued that this year’s peace prize selection was “a calculated effrontery by the Nobel committee against our country and our government and most especially against President Rodrigo Duterte.”

Political scientist Ron Krebs has demonstrated in his systematic study of Nobel Peace Prize winners that the awards rarely change a nation’s politics directly. However, Ressa’s Nobel probably will have several important effects on Philippine politics.

First, the award helps protect Ressa in her legal battles with the Duterte government. Ressa faces up to six years in prison if convicted. But with elections coming up in May 2022, the last thing Duterte’s camp needs is bad publicity for imprisoning the country’s first Nobel laureate. The award will also be a boon for Rappler, drawing much needed financial support and talent, which can help safeguard free speech and protect independent journalism.

Second, the award elevates journalists, particularly investigative reporters working from a moral high ground — and therefore undermines the Duterte government’s strategy of attacking journalists and silencing critics. The award implicitly rebukes Philippine politicians who have defended Duterte’s illiberal values.

Third, the award could affect the upcoming presidential elections. Its spotlight on freedom of expression gives the anti-Duterte opposition another tool for mobilizing grass-roots support and building an anti-establishment narrative. According to recent Social Weather Stations surveys, a plurality of Filipino adults — across regions and educational levels — recognize their country’s shortcomings with free speech and acknowledge that “it is dangerous to print or broadcast anything critical of the administration, even if it is the truth.”

Similarly, Ressa’s Nobel Prize draws attention to how disinformation distributed via social media could seriously threaten free and fair elections in the Philippines, especially with 97 percent of the country’s Web users accessing Facebook. Ressa has critiqued the social media platform for actively spreading disinformation — echoing others’ critiques that the platform enables the destabilization of democracy around the world.

Beyond domestic politics

As is often true, the Nobel Peace Prize award appears intended to affect world politics in various ways. In this case, by honoring Ressa and Muratov, the Nobel Committee draws attention to political repression and supports democracy in both the Philippines and Russia. And it throws its weight behind freedom of expression and freedom of the press globally in an era of democratic backsliding.

Andrew Yeo (@AndrewIYeo) is professor of politics at the Catholic University of America and the SK-Korea Foundation chair at the Brookings Institution. His latest book is “State, Society and Markets in North Korea” (Cambridge University Press, 2021).

Enrico Gloria is assistant professor of international relations at the University of the Philippines at Diliman.