Tyrants rip the heart out of democracy by attacking the truth, Maria Ressa, a Filipino journalist and a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize co-winner, told INMA members earlier this year. She encouraged media companies to combat these attacks with journalism, communities, and technology.
When she got a call from Oslo Friday morning, informing her about the prize, Ressa gasped: “Oh my gosh! I am speechless.”
The Norwegian Nobel Committee announced it awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize to her and a Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
Ressa is the co-founder and CEO of Rappler, a news Web site in the Philippines. She led coverage of Rodrigo Duterte’s populist presidency, which got her and her colleagues arrested and charged with multiple crimes, including tax evasion, fraud, and “cyber libel.”
Muratov is the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, one of the few remaining independent newspapers in Russia. Gazeta is known for hard-hitting investigative reporting on the presidency of Vladimir Putin and saw six of its reporters killed since 2000.
“[Ressa and Muratov] are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions,” said Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee.
“INMA congratulates Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov,” INMA CEO Earl J. Wilkinson said. “When we talk about transformation, we typically mean business models, revenue, P&Ls, workflows, and the like. Yet Maria’s and Dmitry’s achievement today is a reminder there is a bigger parallel battle that we are all fighting: attacks from governments and a dilution of democracy via attacks on facts and truth. In one form or another, this battle is happening on every continent today.”
“In the battle for facts, journalism is activism”
Ressa might have been speechless when she received the call from Oslo, but her voice had been loud and clear for years: “The reason [Rappler is] still alive and I am not in prison is because we shine the light.”
When she met INMA members in March this year, she talked about how journalism, truth, and democracy are under attack across the world. She criticised social media platforms for facilitating the spread of disinformation and even violence against journalists.
“If you can make people believe lies are the facts, then you can control them,” she warned. She quoted Tim Snyder, author of On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century: “If you want to rip the heart out of a democracy directly, if you want to go right at it and kill it, what you do is you go after facts.”
What differentiates Ressa from many Western journalists is her belief that “in the battle for facts, the battle for truth, journalism is activism.”
In her interview with INMA, she urged media companies to focus on truth: “We don’t have the power we’ve had in the past. And while you still have your vestigial power, please collect truth tellers together. Create a new vocabulary and find ways to protect the facts.”
Her conviction helps one understand her vision and Rappler’s unique operating model: its pillars are journalism, community, and technology.
In the March master class hosted by INMA’s Espen Egil Hansen, Ressa talked as much about hardships of reporting in an increasingly authoritarian state as about building networks, or “communities of action” as she called them, and developing a digital platform Lighthouse.
“Technology is both the curse and the blessing,” she told INMA members.
Shining the light with in-house tech
INMA’s Researcher-In-Residence Greg Piechota has been advising Ressa in the development of a revenue model for Rappler, with the support of Media Development Investment Fund.
Rappler has been funding its mission with advertising sold against its journalism, communities turned into members and contributors, and technology tools for social media monitoring.
Those tools were developed to help map the information ecosystem in the Philippines, monitor the spread of disinformation on Facebook and other networks, and inform Rappler’s coverage and Ressa’s thinking.
“Maria is a courageous journalist, a passionate leader, and technology visionary,” Piechota said. “Her newsroom is a movement and not the ordinary place of work. She cares more about the impact the journalism has on communities than simply engagement.”
Ressa’s pet project is Lighthouse, an in-house technology platform that:
Manages and serves its content.
Collects and analyses the user data to help personalise experiences.
Helps distribute content across platforms.
Helps manage and mobilise communities of Filipinos to tackle problems together: from climate change to “fake news” about vaccines.
In reaction to the Nobel Peace Prize, Ressa said in a statement: “It could not have come at a better time — a time when journalists and the truth are being attacked and undermined. We thank the Nobel for recognising all journalists both in the Philippines and in the world who continue to shine the light even in the darkest and toughest hours.”
In the past, Ressa was named Time magazine’s Person of the Year 2018 and won numerous journalism awards. Before founding Rappler, she worked for two decades as an investigative reporter in Southeast Asia for CNN.