Maria Ressa & Dmitry Muratov's Nobel is a Win for Press Freedom, Even in India
Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov have won the Nobel prize at a time when press freedom is threatened across the world.
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News that two fiercely independent voices – Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia -- have won the Nobel Peace Prize 2021, has been received with much jubilation among the journalistic fraternity across the globe. It also vindicates the stand of many who are fighting in their own small ways the power and might of the state in their respective countries.
Across the world today there is a sense of loss of freedom to speak one’s mind on issues. This is especially true of countries run by right wing dictators and even democracies that have right-leaning governments such as India.
Never in the past have so many journalists been arrested on unsubstantiated grounds and subjected to the horrendous online trolling that can be the cause of severe mental health stress.
Maria Ressa has a slew of legal cases filed against her and her news website Rappler – and for what? Just for reporting facts which the power holders in the Philippines would rather not hear or see.
Muratov who co-founded Novaya Gazeta had to suffer tremendous pressure from Russian President Vladimir Putin and the pain of seeing six of his colleagues killed for criticising the Russian strongman and former Intelligence officer.
The Nobel Peace Prize being won by journalists is a recognition of the importance of the press to the preservation of democracy, and the precarious nature of both.
Freedom of the press as guaranteed in the Constitutions of most democracies is hanging by a thread.
We don't need to scrutinise some obscure examples to see this. The United States under Donald Trump saw a President who showed a sort of promiscuous disdain for all media that was critical of his actions and his relentless blunderbuss.
Closer home in India, we have seen the government of Uttar Pradesh arresting a journalist from Kerala – Siddique Kappan – who was travelling to the state to follow the story on the rape and murder of a young Dalit lady in Hathras, and the events thereafter have been diabolical to say the least.
Kappan was booked for sedition and accused of being a member of a Muslim extremist body. He is still serving jail time, more than a year on, without trial. This is meant to send a chill down the spine of any other journalist who desires to cover the misdemeanours of the state – especially the BJP-ruled states.
A Viciously Polarising Media Eco- System Brewing in India
In India, the media is split down the middle with a section unabashedly turning apologists for the government of the day.
You wonder whether these sets of celebrity anchors are journalists or public relations persons. Such philanderers with a profession whose deep-rooted principles are to speak the truth at all times; to report facts and not become purveyors of partisan views have created a viciously polarising media eco-system.
Needless to say, media persons who are targeted by the state have also had to go through serious mental health problems but who cares? While we do have robust institutions that offer assistance to journalists to fight their cases in court, at the end of the day it’s a lonely journey with the journalist and their family having to brave it out.
Barring the journalists of Kerala, most of us have forgotten Siddique Kappan because life as a journalist is excruciatingly extractive. There’s always a story to follow and time and effort to invest which leaves one with very little time to think of issues that actually handicap one’s profession.
India has used a colonial law – sedition – to try and tame all journalists, along with serious criminal charges under anti-terror laws like the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act.
Apart from the religious polarisation which has resulted in slanted stories being planted by media houses friendly to the government and therefore venomously partisan, there are individual cases such as those of Rana Aayub who has had to face the most traumatic online attacks simply for speaking their minds and pointing out at state violence against religious minorities.
That a political party should pay a cohort of tech-savvy people to troll critics is a new and invasive attempt to silence media persons who are pointing out the fatal flaws of the government in power.
Even Faced With Oppressive States, a Truly Free Press Can Triumph
Perhaps the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to two outstanding journalists – who have literally walked through the valley of the shadow of death once too often but survived to tell their stories and arrive at a point where the world recognises their efforts – is a boost to all journalists in countries where practicing journalism is itself fraught with unforeseen dangers.
Maria Ressa has had to face bogus criminal charges and is under a travel ban, forcing her to run from pillar to post to be able to fly out of her country. All this only because she has exposed corruption in high places in her country, run by the strongman President Rodrigo Duterte.
Dmitri Muratov founded the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta in 1993, and has been its editor-in-chief since 1995. He has faced a barrage of harassment, threats, violence and as stated earlier, even the murder of his scribes but the newspaper has continued to publish. This is no mean feat.
To his credit he has consistently defended the right of journalists to write anything they want about whatever they want, as long as they comply with the professional and ethical standards of journalism.
How we wish every editor had the journalistic spine of Ressa and Muratov, to continue to fly the flag of press freedom.
The Nobel Award Committee has very aptly stated that the two journalists represent all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.
It is not easy to be a journalist today; it is tougher still to be an editor and a woman at that. One has to negotiate the difficult borderlines of freedom of speech and expression and still survive another day.
But Ressa and Muratov help renew our pledge to be the vanguards of a free and independent media in a world where freedom has attained a different meaning and metaphor.
(The writer is the Editor of The Shillong Times and former member of NSAB. She can be reached @meipat. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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