A Timely, Poignant Recognition of Press Freedom as One of the Great Bulwarks of Liberty

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By Sister Jan Hayes

The awarding of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists was a clear recognition of the importance of press freedom as a protector of liberty and human rights. Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa, who has received numerous awards for her fight for press freedom in the Philippines, and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, editor-in-chief of the newspaper Novaya Gazeta, and a frequent critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin, accepted the awards in Oslo on December 10. This is the first time since 1935 that the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to journalists. 

The naming of these two reporters as worthy recipients of this honor was poignant and timely.  Both have continued their work for press freedom at great risk to their own lives and freedom.  Since 2000, six Novaya Gazeta journalists have been killed in connection with their work, including top investitive reporter Anna Politkovskaya. Upon hearing of his award, Moratov told reporters, “For us, this prize means the recognition of the memory of our late colleagues.”

Ressa founded the news website Rappler, which has had its license suspended by Philippine authorities. She is an outspoken critic of President Rodrigo Duterte. Her investigation of the government’s war on drugs has challenged authorities and placed Ressa dramatically at odds with those in power. She has been arrested several times. We have sisters in the Philippines who live with anxiety surrounding this issue. They, like Sisters of Mercy the world over, are guided by the Gospel and enlivened by the spirit of Catherine McAuley to carry out the mission of Mercy with prayerful consideration of the needs of our time.

The rise of authoritarian leadership around the world in recent decades has put journalists under great risk of imprisonment or death in the performance of their jobs. Authoritarian leaders such as Xi Jinping, Vladimir Putin, Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Mohammed bin Salman—who was responsible for the gruesome murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi—have not hesitated to flout international norms and common decency to eliminate meddlesome reporters.  According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, 293 journalists were imprisoned around the world in 2021, an increase of 13 from 2020. At least 24 journalists have been killed so far this year, the committee reported; 18 others died in circumstances “too murky to determine whether they were specific targets.”   

In any legal or ethical decision-making process, a clear presentation of the facts is essential. It is impossible to render a fair decision without knowing what has happened. That is what good reporters do. They investigate questionable situations—particularly where those in authority are involved and human rights have been violated—and help citizens to “connect the dots” using those facts so they can vote intelligently or take other necessary action to correct the situation.  Their work is essential to protecting democracy and human rights, work that is in alignment with the Mercy mission of seeking a more just and inclusive world.

When James Madison argued for what would become the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, he declared, and the legislators agreed, that “the freedom of the press, as one of the great bulwarks of liberty, shall be inviolable.”    

The Nobel Prize Committee should be saluted on its choice.