Senate of the Philippines

Maria Ressa ‘automatically qualifies’ for Senate Medal of Excellence – Drilon, Gordon

Mara Cepeda
Maria Ressa ‘automatically qualifies’ for Senate Medal of Excellence – Drilon, Gordon

Rappler CEO and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa smiles during a media interview in Taguig City on October 9, 2021.

LeAnne Jazul/Rappler

The 2 veteran lawmakers' position are a stark contrast to that of Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri, who argues a unanimous vote must be done before the award can be given to Maria Ressa

Senate Minority Leader Frank Drilon and Senate blue ribbon committee chair Richard Gordon said Rappler CEO and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa “automatically qualifies” to receive the Senate Medal of Excellence, the chamber’s highest honor. 

On Monday, October 11, Drilon said a specific provision that he introduced himself in Senate Resolution (SR) No. 110 – which created the Senate Medal of Excellence – makes the grant of the award “automatic” for any Filipino who wins the Nobel Prize.

“It is only fitting that the Senate bestows and confers the Senate Medal of Excellence to Maria Ressa for giving the country its first Nobel Prize since the award’s establishment in 1895,” Drilon said. 

“Maria Ressa’s victory will inspire today’s journalists and the future generation of the press to be fearless in defending our freedom of expression and the freedom of the press and in holding those in power to account,” he added.

This was echoed by Gordon, who filed a separate resolution on Monday that wants the Senate to confer upon Ressa “the highest of praises” for winning the Nobel Peace Prize along with Russian journalism Dmitry Muratov.

When asked if he believed Ressa should automatically get the Senate Medal of Excellence, Gordon told Rappler: “Yes, definitely. I have known and respected her.”

The veteran lawmakers’ statements in favor of Ressa were a stark contrast to the insistence of Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri that the chamber had to first unanimously agree to grant the award to her before she can receive the honor from the Senate. 

A majority of senators are allies of President Rodrigo Duterte, whose relentless attacks on Rappler turned Ressa into an international icon for press freedom and democracy. 

Ressa and Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021 in recognition of the role of a free press in modern times.

They won the prize “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

Ressa is the first Filipino recipient of the prestigious award, and the first woman so far in this year’s roster of laureates.

The first recipients of the Senate Medal of Excellence were the four Filipino athletes who took home medals in the Tokyo Olympics: Hidilyn Diaz, Nesthy Petecio, Carlo Paalam, and Eumir Marcial.

‘Restrictive’ provision: Medal should be automatic for Nobel laureates

The provision in SR 110 that Drilon was referring to read this way: “Resolved, further, That the Philippine Senate Medal of Excellence be conferred upon Filipinos who are awarded the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, the A.M. Turing Award, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, or an Olympic medal.”

The veteran lawmaker’s assertion that this provision in fact meant an automatic concernment of the medal to Nobel laureates was backed by a statement that Senator Francis Tolentino made during the August 23 plenary session, when senators were deliberating on SR 110.

Tolentino was tasked on August 23 to relay to the rest of the chamber the amendments introduced to SR 110 for final approval.

In citing the provision added by Drilon, Tolentino said it is a “very restrictive” provision that “automatically” qualifies Nobel laureates as recipients of the Senate Medal of Excellence. At the time of the debates, the award was still called the Senate Medal of Honor. 

“So it is very restrictive, Mr. President. And it would automatically confer the Senate Medal of Honor to the recipients of the five international awards. There is no need to explain the Nobel Prize, the Pulitzer Prize, the Ramon Magsaysay Award, the Olympic medal,” Tolentino had said. 

Senators then decided to change the name of the award to the Senate Medal of Excellence before proceeding to adopt the resolution, including Drilon’s provision on the medal’s conferment upon the recipients of prestigious international awards. 

Zubiri, however, argued on Monday that the last clause of SR 110 indicates that senators must unanimously vote to confer the Senate Medal of Excellence upon a possible recipient. 

The final provision reads: “Resolved, finally, To confer the Philippine Senate Medal of Excellence to such other Filipinos and Philippine institutions upon the unanimous vote of the members of the chamber.”

The Majority Leader said senators can later move to amend their rules on the Senate Medal of Excellence to clarify if the recipients of the five prestigious international awards automatically qualify to receive the chamber’s highest honor. 

“And to be sure, this will be taken up immediately when we resume session in November. We will have to clarify when the clause for a unanimous vote does and does not apply, and if need be, we will introduce the proper amendments to avoid any further confusion in the future,” Zubiri said.

“Until then, I join the whole country, not just as a legislator but as an ordinary Filipino, in celebrating Maria Ressa’s historic achievement,” he said.

Senators are currently on a month-long break and will reopen session in early November. – Rappler.com

Mara Cepeda

Mara Cepeda specializes in stories about politics and local governance. She covers the Office of the Vice President, the Senate, and the Philippine opposition. She is a 2021 fellow of the Asia Journalism Fellowship and the Reham al-Farra Memorial Journalism Fellowship of the UN. Got tips? Email her at mara.cepeda@rappler.com or tweet @maracepeda.