This year’s Nobel Peace Prizes come with a warning label attached

This year’s Nobel Peace Prizes come with a warning label attached
Journalists Maria Ressa (left) and Dmitry Muratov (right), joint recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Cornelius Poppe)

Nobel Peace Prizes to two crusading editors — one in the Philippines and one in Russia — help highlight the challenges continuing to confront the media in a global climate of growing authoritarianism… and the technological advances that make that task even harder.

On Friday, 10 December, in Oslo, Norway, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize was formally awarded to two genuine global journalist-heroes, Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov. Ressa is the veteran Filipino-American journalist who came into her own as a fearless CNN correspondent in Southeast Asia and then went on to build her own online news service, Grappler.  

Her publication resolutely continues taking on the corrupt dictatorship-lite that has been Rodrigo Duterte’s trademark in the Philippines for years. For her efforts, she has been harassed, fined and arrested repeatedly by the government over the years — even for crimes not yet on the statute books at the time when the alleged offence had taken place.

Ressa grew up in the US after leaving the Philippines as a young child. She eventually returned to the Philippines via a Fulbright scholarship, following her degree from Princeton University. She stayed on — and built her career there as a journalist. As a kind of credo, Ressa once told a televised interview, “When you don’t have facts… you don’t have a shared reality, you can’t have democracy.”

Muratov’s publication, Novaya Gazeta, meanwhile, has become the leading, and perhaps the only still-standing, truly independent media operation in Russia that has the backbone to report in detail on the Putin administration’s anti-democratic behaviour. Such reporting is not universally popular in the Kremlin, and the paper has had seven of its investigative reporters killed while working on stories that could embarrass the government. Interestingly, an infusion of funds from Mikhail Gorbachev’s own Nobel Peace Prize years earlier had helped get Novaya Gazeta started.  

Muratov has wryly explained that his thrice-weekly publication continues on as a print publication due to more than just an editor’s sentimental attachment to the smell of ink and newsprint. Instead, it is his very unsentimental rationale, he says, that in Russian prisons the internet is unavailable to the inmates. 

The Nobel Peace Prize is one of the five prizes established by the terms of Swedish chemist-engineer Alfred Nobel’s original bequest. The others are for physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, and literature. An economics prize has been created more recently and funded by the Swedish central bank. 

Over the years, despite some controversies, the prizes have come to be seen as a kind of gold standard for weighing the impact of individuals and ideas in the world. Affixing the label “Nobel Prize-winning” to a person’s name has become almost axiomatic in pointing out that person’s global importance, and, in the case of the Peace Prize, giving them a kind of secular sainthood. 

Nonetheless, commentators like Fareed Zakaria argue that there is a contradiction inherent in the Peace Prize. Sometimes the prizes are bestowed upon flawed peacemakers like Menachem Begin or Yasser Arafat (those who “would make peace are, after all, politicians” in Zakaria’s understanding). Moreover, some awards also run the risk of acknowledging people who may turn around and sin again in the future, after the ceremony, the medal and the cheque, as seems to be the case with Ethiopia’s current leader, Abiy Ahmed.

In accordance with the terms of Nobel’s bequest, the Peace Prize was to be awarded to the person (or organisation) who in the preceding year “shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses”. 

While the other prizes are determined by committees based in Sweden, the Peace Prize award is determined by a five-member committee appointed by the Norwegian Parliament. The reason for the split between awarding committees is largely because at the time of the original Nobel bequest, Sweden and Norway were one nation, united under the Swedish monarchy. 

Those authorised to nominate for the prize include a wide range of individuals around the world. Nominators can be members of national assemblies and governments and members of the Inter-Parliamentary Union; members of the Permanent Court of Arbitration and the International Court of Justice at the Hague; members of Institut de Droit International; academics at the professor or associate professor level in history, social sciences, philosophy, law and theology; university rectors, university directors (or their equivalents); directors of peace research and international affairs institutes; previous prize recipients, including board members of organisations that have received the prize; present and past members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee; and former permanent advisers to the Norwegian Nobel Institute. Keep that list at hand, in case readers have someone in mind to be nominated for the prize in 2022. 

nobel peace prize

2021 Nobel Peace Prize winners Maria Ressa (left) and Dmitry Muratov (right) receive their awards during the ceremony at the City Hall in Oslo, Norway, on 10 December 2021. They were awarded the prize for their efforts to entrench freedom of expression. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Stian Lysberg Solum / Pool)

As far as the origins of his idea behind setting up a special prize to celebrate efforts towards international peace, Nobel had become very rich via his development and manufacture of dynamite, a stable formulation of the highly explosive and unstable compound nitroglycerin. There is some feeling that late in his life Nobel was atoning for his discovery that had come to have major military applications, significantly superseding gunpowder as an explosive. 

Over the years, while many of the individuals or groups honoured have been seen as obvious choices, there has also been tongue-clucking about some of the prize-winners — as well as those who have been excluded from such recognition. (Some of this may echo debate about the winners of the Literature Prize as well. For example, see this list of literary giants who were not recipients of the prize.)  

The prizes in the sciences generally are less controversial, although many are only awarded years after the original discoveries, largely because it may take decades before such discoveries are understood as offering major or even fundamental changes in the ideas underpinning science or fostering important new developments. Even so, a man like Albert Einstein won the Physics Prize, not for the theory of relativity, but for the photoelectric effect. Relativity remained controversial among some physicists for many years after Einstein first published about it. 

More directly regarding the Peace Prize, Foreign Policy magazine has noted non-winners of the Peace Prize have included such seemingly obvious names as Mahatma Gandhi, Eleanor Roosevelt, U Thant, Václav Havel, Ken Saro-Wiwa, Fazle Hasan Abed (the Bangladeshi international NGO organiser), and Corazon Aquino. Per Foreign Policy, all were individuals who “never won the prize, but should have”.  

On the other hand, criticism has also been levelled against some recipients. Given the thoroughly political nature of this prize, and the world that the nominated and nominators live in, arguments have been made that, alternatively, some awards were politically motivated, others were premature, and some were even guided by a flawed definition of what constitutes work for peace.  

In particular, the awards to Gorbachev, Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat, Lê Đức Thọ (who turned it down) and Henry Kissinger, Jimmy Carter, Liu Xiaobo, Barack Obama, Theodore Roosevelt, the European Union, and Ahmed have all had their critics or detractors. In South Africa, there also were some who objected to the joint award of the prize to Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk. Sometimes, too, the committee seems to have taken the safe route in picking the International Committee of the Red Cross and various arms and agencies of the United Nations. They are worthy choices, but hardly exciting ones. 

This year’s prize is unusual in one specific respect — it was the first time since 1935 that the awardees came from the media. The last time was the award to Carl von Ossietzky “for his struggle against Germany’s rearmament” as a result of his investigative journalism into his nation’s secret violations of the Treaty of Versailles limitations on the size and composition of Germany’s military. 

In their lectures, this year’s winners eloquently explored the challenges and crises faced by editors and journalists, since they are in a time and in places where unflinching investigations and reporting can easily be repaid with legal havoc for their institutions, and arrests, physical harm or death for the journalists. Their Nobel Prize lectures, here and here, are well worth reading or listening to. In those lectures, they explored the difficult terrain they and so many other journalists have operated in, and the incontrovertible and uncomfortable fact that editors and journalists really do not expect to reach a point where everything is smooth sailing. 

But for this observer, at least as interesting as the speeches by the two awardees were the introductory remarks by Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee. In her remarks, Reiss-Andersen argued, “The core value of a democracy is citizen participation in public life. In addition, it includes some freedoms, such as freedom of speech and freedom of information. This is a benefit for the individual, but it is in fact a basic prerequisite for democracy itself. Only where there is full freedom of speech and freedom of information can each and every citizen exercise their right to freely express opinions, elect leaders on an informed basis and be active participants in public debate.” 

She went on to say, “For political leaders it might be irritating and very uncomfortable to be scrutinised in public. But the effect of such scrutiny is increased trust between leaders and the public at large. It is no coincidence that the same countries which score highest on the ranking of press freedom in the world also top rankings measuring to what extent people trust their governments. 

“…A free fact-based press is in the front line of efforts to defend the values of democracy, freedom of speech and information. The role of the press is to reveal aggression and abuse of power, thereby contributing to peace. This work is carried out unremittingly by journalists every day all over the world…. 

“…Journalism is not always used to promote truth and peace. Sometimes the press is part of the problem, such as when helping to spread propaganda and fake news. In Rwanda, the genocide started with radio broadcasts containing hate speech against Tutsis. Hate speech, fake news and polarised public discourse are a problem in all nations today. With this year’s award, the Norwegian Nobel Committee wishes to underscore the importance of free speech and a free press in combating the destructive developments in our societies.” (Italics added.) 

While Reiss-Andersen clearly articulated important points about the contemporary media environment and its relationship to political and social freedom, Ressa added yet one more central point — the growing impact of the relationship between fake news and new technology.

Or, as she said, “I helped create a startup, Rappler, turning 10 years old in January — our attempt to put together two sides of a coin that shows everything wrong with our world today: an absence of law and democratic vision for the 21st century. That coin represents our information ecosystem, which determines everything else about our world. Journalists, the old gatekeepers, are one side of the coin. The other is technology, with its god-like power that has allowed a virus of lies to infect each of us, pitting us against each other, bringing out our fears, anger and hate, and setting the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world. [Italics added.] 

“Our greatest need today is to transform that hate and violence, the toxic sludge that’s coursing through our information ecosystem, prioritised by American internet companies that make more money by spreading that hate and triggering the worst in us… well, that just means we have to work much harder.” 

The challenge — as epitomised by Reiss-Andersen, Ressa and Muratov and so many other media people, both those well known and those largely unknown — continues to be for them to stay in the trenches, carrying out that hard slog day after day, doing what has to be done, regardless of the possibilities of danger — or worse. DM


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