When the Nobel Prize Committee recently honored its winners for the 2021 Peace Prize – Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov – it was a much-needed booster shot for journalism and for the democracies that the profession protects by producing real news of public interest, often at the risk of life and limb. Sometimes journalism can amount to heroism, and we never needed such heroism more than we do now, living, as we do, in an age when journalists (Khashoggi) can be dismembered in a foreign embassy located in a country (Turkey) legendary for its abuses of reporters. That seems to be what the Committee was suggesting when it honored Muratov’s work in Russia under KGB sentimentalist Vlad Putin, and Ressa’s work in the Philippines under Rodrigo “Muerte” Duterte, citing their courage in fighting for freedom of expression.
At the Columbia Journalism Review, you’ll find a relatively brief delineation of previous journalists nominated for or receiving a Nobel prize for their journalism in “Celebration and impunity as journalists win the Nobel Peace Prize.” Referring to impunity of authoritarian governments, John Allsop writes,
The killers of journalists getting away with it, of course, is a global phenomenon. CPJ monitors the trend via an annual “impunity index;” last year, both the Philippines, with 11 unsolved journalist murders, and Russia, with six, featured among its 12 worst offending countries.
Journalists risk retribution for reporting facts, which are “a precondition for democracy and lasting peace,” as the Nobel Prize announcement puts it.
Shortly after the award ceremony on December 10, Maria Ressa told Al Jazeera News, “The Committee made a point to show that journalists under attack are critical and that perhaps our future is going to be dependent on how well we do our jobs.” In 2012, Ressa established the news site Rappler, which has taken to task the excesses of the Duterte regime’s war on drugs that has included death squad activity and widespread human rights abuses throughout the Philippines, home of America’s start in waterboarding. Ressa continued with a very sharp observation of the stakes for future news reporting, in the battle between “fake news” and real fact-based news:
Our experience in the Philippines is actually, I think, the experience of everyone around the world. When news organizations lost [their] gatekeeping powers to technology platforms. Those platforms abdicated responsibility for the public sphere, and that has made facts debatable because the data, facts, and lies are actually treated equally. In fact, the algorithms of the world’s largest distributor of news, Facebook [now Meta], actually favors lies laced with anger and hate that spreads faster and further than facts. So when facts are debatable, when you don’t have facts, then you can’t have truth.
Similarly, in Russia, Dmitry Muratov has put himself at risk challenging the Putin regime and its henchmen, who, as Reporters Without Borders (RWB), says, “has curbed press freedom and encouraged a climate of impunity for crimes of violence against journalists ever since he took over [in 2000].” RWB cites the murder of journalist Anna Politkovskaya as an example of Putin’s repression of oppositional news. He describes the chilling effect of Politkovskaya’s “vicious” murder, so described, he told Time magazine:
Because of how they followed her. The people who were ready to put each of those five bullets in her body, they knew everything about her life. That’s why I call it vicious. They were plugged into her life. They watched who came and went from her home, all her private dramas, when her granddaughter would be born, how sick her mother was, how she races to the newsroom to turn in an article. And in the middle of all that, they shot her.
Vicious as a mob hit. (Jesus, suddenly I see that Obama strut, while a drone strike flashes in my head; another Jonas brother bites the dust.)
Muratov has used his platform, Novaya Gazeta, to challenge the thuggish policies of the never-ending Putin presidency. It’s clear how much he detests the Putin era. In the same Time interview, he said:
I can’t stand bullying and torture. I know the case against [Alexei Navalny]. It is a total fabrication. It represents the return of Stalin’s practices – the forced confessions, the ruined fates, the isolation, the absolutely trumped-up charges. The political views of Alexei Navalny do not matter to me in the least. He and I have discussed our disagreements. But he has faced his imprisonment stoically and courageously. He has shown us all how to have a backbone, how to have a sense of irony and humor, to be brave. These are qualities I hold in the highest regard.
Good on the Nobel Committee for honoring such diminishing courage amongst the reactionary pablum of mainstream journalism. Of all the prizes the Nobel Committee awards, the Peace Prize is the most politically-motivated and controversial – you slap your forehead in brainfart wonder when you recall awards to Henry Kissinger (Daniel Ellsberg feared K. might kill him for knowing too much) and Barry Obama (remember that arrogant casus belli acceptance speech?) and, yes, you punch yourself in the face when you remember that Donald Trump was nominated for the Peace Prize – but these awards to these journalists are meet and timely.
Americans may see the Philippines and Russia as far-flung hoodlum wildernesses of disorder, not relevant to our relatively advanced lifestyle, but that, too, is delusion and a disease of conceit, as the Bard from Duluth puts it. Ed Snowden reminds his fellow Americans, in his aptly titled memoir, Permanent Record, that Americans were well on their way to a secretive, repressive, anti-democratic system rife for exploitation by future demagogues and Jan 6 types, like neo-animists QAnon, all horns no dilemma, and the Proud Boys on the threshold of a dream. No, but seriously, Snowden writes presciently, and rather soberly I thought,
A decade [after 9/11], it had become clear, to me at least, that the repeated evocations of terror by the political class were not a response to any specific threat or concern but a cynical attempt to turn terror into a permanent danger that required permanent vigilance enforced by unquestionable authority.
And, he later adds, that the government could always find something in our permanent record that could be “criminalized” for repressive purposes. We are already marks for State and corporate intel phishing expeditions. “By creating a world-spanning system that tracked [us] across every available channel of electronic communications, the American Intelligence Community gave itself the power to record and store for perpetuity the data of your life.” (p.247)
Not long after the award ceremony for Ressa and Muratov breaking news informed us that a British court has upheld the extradition process of Julian Assange to the United States to face life-withering Espionage Act charges for his journalism – which the State deems illegal and politically incorrect, which is to say, embarrassingly revealing haughty disregard for human rights and conventions. For some brass in the Pentagon and pollies in DC, Assange might as well as have been one of the Reuters reporters murdered by laughing gunships in Baghdad, as depicted in the “Collateral Murder” video Wikileaks published in 2010. Radical transparency of government?
There has been plenty of justifiable hand-wringing over the fate of journalism, given the implications of prosecuting Assange for his publishing his revelations of American imperialism’s vicious excesses. But, in typical sardonic fashion, former Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges catches the spirit of the Assange take-down in his blog post, “The Execution of Julian Assange.” Hedges begins the piece,
He committed empire’s greatest sin. He exposed it as a criminal enterprise. He documented its lies, callous disregard for human life, rampant corruption and innumerable war crimes. And empires always kill those who inflict deep and serious wounds.
Ouch. And this, too, seems to be what the Committee was responding to. It reminded me of Harold Pinter’s go at American Empire in his Nobel Literature Prize speech, and gave new metaphorical wings to his Birthday Party. Remember when Stan gets taken away by the Deep Underworld State for “adjustments”?
If you resist their invisible authority or persist in seeking clarity, they will come for you and blow out your fucking candles. Happy birthday, motherfucker.
What Muratov claims about the Putin regime is equally true, and perhaps even more sinister because of the “patriotic” (see vaterland) deceit involved, journalists, real journalists, are in a war with the highest stakes – the publication of state propaganda versus information of vital public interest. A couple of years ago, The Intercept ran “Team of American Hackers and Emirati Spies Discussed Attacking The Intercept,” a piece about how the publication was the target of secret eavesdropping and spying originating from ex-NSA agents who’d gone to the UAE to enhance its nascent hacking activities embodied by the “security” company Dark Matter. They had reported on Dark Matter’s start-up three years prior, in a piece called “Spies for Hire.” They have also been the target of Israel for reporting on the Jewish state’s brisk ascension into the upper echelons of hacking tools, “selling its products around the world to governments that want to spy on their own citizens,” The Intercept notes.
It’s important to begin a campaign to overturn the politically initiated 1917 Espionage Act, which is what Assange faces should he be extradited to America. But also, once he is here, it is important, ironically, that he stay in America. There has been talk from US government officials that perhaps Assange could “finish out” his sentence in Australia – a bizarre arrangement motivated by the fact that in Australia he’d be beyond American jurisprudence. America has, among many things, two advantages that Aussies lack, guns and proactive Bill of Rights-defending lawyers (there is no Bill of Rights in Australia). And it’s not clear if Assange would receive better prison treatment in Australia, where he’s not regarded as a hero, beyond the Lefty academic lot, by the largely conservative populace – the state has rarely come to his assistance. Max prison life in Australia is harsh as all get out, if the account by Gregory David Roberts in his 2003 reality-based prison escape novel Shantaram (highly recommended by the way) is any indication.
In the meantime, raise a glass to these intrepid spirits all around us. And raise a finger to the surveillance state that always assumes that you’re up to no good. Like they should talk. – Rappler.com
John Kendall Hawkins is an American poet and freelance journalist currently residing in Australia. He is a regular contributor to CounterPunch magazine, a progressive magazine of politics and culture.