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Maria Ressa's fight

Ayee Macaraig portrait
Ayee Macaraig
October 8, 2021

The Nobel Peace Prize awarded to the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa is a recognition of the importance and precarity of holding the line for independent journalism in an age of authoritarian populism and fake news.

Maria Ressa, wearing glasses, earrings, sits in profile, her mouth resting on her hand
Ressa is a tireless advocate for the Philippine press and inspiration to global journalistsImage: Getty Images/AFP/N. Celis

"We will not duck. We will not hide. We will hold the line."

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa has tearfully repeated this mantra as she has received international honors in recent years — from being featured on the cover of Time's "Person of the Year" issue in 2018 to a standing ovation from colleagues in Hamburg at a global investigative journalism conference in 2019 to receiving the UNESCO World Press Freedom Prize earlier this year. Her most recent accolade, sharing the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize with the Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, is recognition not just of her work, but also of the importance and precarity of holding the line for independent journalism in an age of authoritarian populism and fake news. 

Woman smiles in front of an apartment building
Ayee Macaraig, a Filipino journalist and junior lecturer in communication science at the University of Amsterdam, worked with Ressa for eight years as a producer for the ABS-CBN News Channel and as a multimedia reporter for Ressa's news website Rappler.Image: Privat

As a Filipino reporter, I have known Maria personally and professionally to be a courageous journalist. A dual US citizen, Maria was CNN's bureau chief for Jakarta and Manila, where she covered terrorism, before heading the news at the Philippines' largest broadcaster, ABS-CBN. I was a producer for the station then. She earned the reputation of making tough decisions to protect the newsroom's integrity. 

'No matter what'

When she and other respected journalists established a news startup in 2011, I agreed to join them in a heartbeat. From its days as a small outfit with a strange name, Rappler has grown to become one of the Philippines' top news websites. "The small team that could” is what Maria called her squad of young reporters, encouraging us to write stories that "hold up a mirror to society, no matter what critics say."

It was when the populist leader known as "The Punisher,” Rodrigo Duterte, became president in 2016 that Maria and Rappler came into the crosshairs of the government. Since 2018, Rappler has battled a closure order, multiple lawsuits and a ban on covering presidential events. Then a correspondent for Agence France-Presse, I interviewed Maria on her arrests. She would emphatically say: "I am a journalist, not a criminal." To her, the cases were harassment for Rappler's critical reporting of rights abuses in Duterte's war on drugs. 

In 2020, a Philippine court sentenced Maria and a colleague to up to six years in prison for cyberlibel over a story that linked a businessman to the former chief justice. Though she neither edited nor wrote the story, Maria has written about how paid trolls are "weaponizing the internet" for disinformation. She has called out the government for extrajudicial killings and its pandemic response.  

Philippine journalist: Nobel winner Ressa 'an absolute visionary'

A global mission

Owing to her dogged persistence, international network and sheer eloquence, Maria has become the face of press freedom in unconsolidated democracies such as the Philippines. Yet her Nobel Peace Prize is recognition of not just her struggles, but of the daily ordeals that many Filipino journalists face in holding power accountable — especially reporters who have much less clout. The Southeast Asian nation is a mainstay in the Committee to Protect Journalists' Global Impunity Index because of the unsolved murders of provincial correspondents who have worked to expose corruption and environmental destruction. The murders persist because of frail institutions and weak rule of law. 

Media watchdogs say Duterte's insulting of journalists and his government's regulatory measures against critical outlets have aggravated a dangerous media climate. Maria's Nobel stands as the international community's recognition of the relevance of accountability journalism in such perilous times. 

Beyond the Philippines, the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize shines a light on the value of independent media in a world where populists use social media to spread hate and lies against journalists. Freedom House warned that such threats occur even in established democracies in the European Union and in the US. Demonized as reporting "fake news,” journalists work with increased risks. The Peace Prize's recognition of journalism as essential to democracy is a resounding affirmation of the need to hold the line for watchdogs who refuse to duck and hide when speaking truth to power.