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A Courageous Journalist's Nobel Speech
2021 Nobel peace prize laureate Maria Ressa on speaking the truth despite danger
Maria Ressa, editor of the Manila-based news portal Rappler, is the co-winner of this year’s Nobel Prize for Peace along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov. Here is the full text of her speech in Oslo.
Your Majesties, Your Royal Highnesses, Distinguished Members of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, Your Excellencies, Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen.
I stand before you, a representative of every journalist around the world who is forced to sacrifice so much to hold the line, to stay true to our values and mission: to bring you the truth and hold power to account. I remember the brutal dismemberment of Jamal Khashoggi, the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia in Malta, my friend, Luz Mely Reyes in Venezuela, Roman Protasevich in Belarus (whose plane was literally hijacked so he could be arrested), Jimmy Lai languishing in a Hong Kong prison, Sonny Swe, who after getting out of more than seven years in jail, started another news group and now is forced to flee Myanmar. And in my own country, 23-year-old Frenchie Mae Cumpio, still in prison after nearly two years, and just 36 hours ago, the news that my former colleague, Jess Malabanan, was killed with a bullet to his head.
There are so many to thank for keeping us safer and working. The #HoldTheLine Coalition of more than 80 global groups defending press freedom and the human rights groups that help us shine the light. There are costs for you as well: more lawyers have been killed than journalists in the Philippines – at least 63 compared to the 22 journalists murdered after President Rodrigo Duterte took office in 2016.
Since then, Karapatan, a member of our #CourageON human rights coalition, has had 16 people killed, and Senator Leila de Lima, because she demanded accountability, is serving her fifth year in jail. Or ABS-CBN, our largest broadcaster, a newsroom that I once led, which, last year, lost its franchise to operate.
I helped create a startup, Rappler, turning 10 years old in January – we’re getting old – our attempt to put together two sides of the same coin that shows everything wrong with our world today: the absence of law and democratic vision for the 21st century. That coin represents our information ecosystem, which determines everything else about our world. Journalists – that’s one side – the old gatekeepers. The other is technology, with its god-like power, the new gatekeepers. It has allowed a virus of lies to infect each of us, pitting us against each other, bringing out our fears, anger, hate, and setting the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world.
Our greatest need today is to transform that hate and violence, the toxic sludge that’s coursing through our information ecosystem, prioritized 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 harder. In order to be the good, we have to believe there is good in the world.
I have been a journalist for more than 35 years: I’ve worked in conflict zones and war zones in Asia, reported on hundreds of disasters, and while I have seen so much bad, I have also documented so much good, when people who have nothing offer you what they have.
Part of how we at Rappler have survived the last five years of government attacks is because of the kindness of strangers, and the reason they help – despite the danger – is because they want to, with little expectation of anything in return. This is the best of who we are, the part of our humanity that makes miracles happen. This is what we lose in a world of fear and violence.
You’ve heard that the last time a working journalist was given this award was in 1936, awarded in 1935. He was supposed to come and get it in 1936; Carl von Ossietzky never made it to Oslo because he languished in a Nazi concentration camp. So, we’re here, hopefully a little bit ahead, because we are both here!
By giving this to journalists today – thank you – the Nobel committee is signaling a similar historical moment, another existential point for democracy. Dmitry and I are lucky because we can speak to you now (Yay for court approvals)! But there are so many more journalists persecuted in the shadows with neither exposure nor support, and governments are doubling down with impunity. The accelerant is technology, when creative destruction takes new meaning.
You’ve heard from David [Beasley]: we are standing on the rubble of the world that was, and we must have the foresight and courage to imagine what might happen if we don’t act now, and instead, please, create the world as it should be – more compassionate, more equal, more sustainable.
To do that, please ask yourself the same question we at Rappler had to confront five years ago: What are you willing to sacrifice for the truth?
I’ll tell you how I lived my way into the answer in three points: first, my context and how these attacks shaped me; second, by the problem we all face; and finally, finding the solution – because we must!
In less than two years, the Philippine government filed 10 arrest warrants against me. I’ve had to post bail 10 times just to do my job. Last year, I and a former colleague were convicted of cyber libel for a story we published eight years earlier, at a time the law we allegedly violated didn’t even exist. All told, the charges I face could send me to jail for about 100 years.
But the more I was attacked for my journalism, the more resolute I became. I had firsthand evidence of abuse of power. What was meant to intimidate me and Rappler only strengthened us.
At the core of journalism is a code of honor. And mine is layered on different worlds – from how I grew up, the golden rule, what’s right and wrong; from college, and the honor code I learned there; and my time as a reporter, and the code of standards and ethics I learned and helped write. Add to that the Filipino idea of utang na loob – literally the debt from within – at its best, a system of paying it forward.
Truth and ethical honor intersected like an arrow into this moment where hate, lies, and divisiveness thrive. As only the 18th woman to receive this prize, I need to tell you how gendered disinformation is a new threat and is taking a significant toll on the mental health and physical safety of women, girls, trans, and LGBTQ+ people all around the world. Women journalists are at the epicenter of risk. This pandemic of misogyny and hatred needs to be tackled now. Even there, though, we can find strength. After all, you don’t really know who you really are until you’re forced to fight for it.
Now let me pull out so we’re clear about the problem we all face and how we got here.
The attacks against us in Rappler began five years ago when we demanded an end to impunity on two fronts: Rodrigo Duterte’s drug war and Mark Zuckerberg’s Facebook. Today, it has only gotten worse – and Silicon Valley’s sins came home to roost in the United States on January 6 with mob violence on Capitol Hill.
What happens on social media doesn’t stay on social media.
Online violence is real-world violence.
Social media is a deadly game for power and money, what Shoshana Zuboff calls surveillance capitalism, extracting our private lives for outsized corporate gain. Our personal experiences sucked into a database, organized by AI, then sold to the highest bidder. Highly profitable micro-targeting operations are engineered to structurally undermine human will. I’ve repeatedly called it a behavior modification system in which we are all Pavlov’s dogs, experimented on in real-time with disastrous consequences in countries like mine, Myanmar, India, Sri Lanka, and so many more. These destructive corporations have siphoned money away from news organizations and now they pose a foundational threat to markets and elections.
Facebook is the world’s largest distributor of news, and yet studies have shown that lies laced with anger and hate spread faster and further than facts.
These American companies controlling our global information ecosystem are biased against facts, biased against journalists. They are, by design, dividing us and radicalizing us.
I’ve said this repeatedly over the last five years: without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with the existential problems of our times: climate, coronavirus, now, the battle for truth.
When I was first arrested in 2019, the officer said, “Ma’am, trabaho lang po (Ma’am, I’m only doing my job).” Then he lowered his voice to almost a whisper as he read my Miranda rights. He was really uncomfortable, and I almost felt sorry for him. Except he was arresting me because I’m a journalist!
This officer was a tool of power – and an example of how a good man can turn evil – and how great atrocities happen. Hannah Arendt wrote about the banality of evil when describing men who carried out the orders of Hitler, how career-oriented bureaucrats can act without conscience because they justify what they’re doing because they’re only following orders.
This is how a nation – and a world – loses its soul.
You have to know what values you are fighting for, you have to draw the lines early, but if you haven’t done so, please, do it now – where this side you’re good, this side, you’re evil. Some governments may be lost causes, and if you’re working in tech, I’m talking to you.
How can you have election integrity if you don’t have integrity of facts?
That’s the problem facing countries with elections next year: among them, Brazil, Hungary, France, the United States, and my Philippines – where we are at a do or die moment with presidential elections on May 9. Thirty-five years after the People Power Revolt ousted Ferdinand Marcos and forced his family into exile, his son, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is the front-runner for president, and he has built an extensive disinformation network on social media, which Rappler exposed in 2019. It’s literally changing history in front of our eyes.
To show how disinformation is both a local and global problem, take the Chinese information operations taken down by Facebook in September 2020, a year ago: it was creating fake accounts using AI-generated photos for the US elections, polishing the image of the Marcoses in the Philippines, campaigning for the daughter of President Duterte, and attacking me and Rappler.
So what are we gonna do?
An invisible atom bomb has exploded in our information ecosystem, and the world must act as it did after Hiroshima. Like that time, we need to create new institutions, like the United Nations, and new codes stating our values, like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to prevent humanity from doing its worse. It’s an arms race in the information ecosystem. To stop that requires a multilateral approach that all of us must be part of. It begins by restoring facts.
We need information ecosystems that live and die by facts. We do this by shifting social priorities to rebuild journalism for the 21st century while regulating and outlawing the surveillance economics that profit from hate and lies.
We need to help independent journalism survive, first by giving greater protection to journalists and standing up against states which target journalists. Then we need to address the collapse of the advertising model for journalism. This is part of the reason that I agreed to co-chair the International Fund for Public Interest Media, which is trying to raise money from overseas development assistance funds. Right now, while journalists are under attack on every front, only 0.3% of ODA funds is spent on journalism. If we nudge that to just 1%, we can raise $1 billion a year for news organizations. That will be crucial for the global south.
Journalists must embrace technology. That’s why, with the help of Google News Initiative, Rappler rolled out a new platform two weeks ago designed to build communities of action. It won’t be as viral as what the tech platforms built, but the north star is not profit alone. It is facts, truth, and trust.
Now for legislation. Thanks to the EU for taking leadership with its Democracy Action Plan. For the US, reform or revoke Section 230, the law that treats social media platforms like utilities. It’s not a comprehensive solution, but it gets the ball rolling. Because these platforms put their thumbs on the scale of distribution. So while the public debate is here, down here on content moderation downstream, the real sleight of hand happens further upstream, where algorithms of amplification, algorithms of distribution have been programmed by humans with coded bias. Their editorial agenda is profit-driven, carried out by machines at scale. The impact is global, with cheap armies on social media rolling back democracy, tearing it down in at least 81 countries around the world. That impunity must stop.
Democracy has become a woman-to-woman, man-to-man defense of our values. We’re at a sliding door moment, where we can continue down the path we’re on and descend further into fascism or we can choose to fight for a better world.
To do that, please, ask yourself: What are YOU willing to sacrifice for the truth?
I didn’t know if I was going to be here today. Every day, I live with the real threat of spending the rest of my life in jail because I’m a journalist. When I go home, I have no idea what the future holds, but it’s worth the risk.
The destruction has happened. Now it’s time to build – to create the world we want.
So please, with me, just close your eyes for just a moment, and imagine the world as it should be. A world of peace, trust, and empathy, bringing out the best that we can be.