The Nobel Peace Prize & the importance of freedom of expression

Since 1901, the Nobel Prize has been awarded annually on 10th December, so it seemed fitting for me to share my blog about the Nobel Peace Prize today…

It’s always important to celebrate female recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize and, even more important in these times of increased threats to democracy, to celebrate those who are working hard to ensure freedom of speech and expression. Maria Ressa (pictured), a journalist from the Philippines has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021. As the Nobel Committee said, Maria Ressa ‘uses freedom of expression to expose abuse of power, use of violence and growing authoritarianism in her native country‘. She shared the Prize with Dmitry Muratov, who has similarly been defending the freedom of speech in Russia for many years. She’s probably not a very well-known figure here in the UK, so I will sketch in a few background details about her.

She was born in the Philippines but grew up in the US and only returned to the Philippines in the 1980s after the fall of an earlier authoritarian leader of the country, Ferdinand Marcos (whose wife, Imelda, some of you may know was infamous at the time for her extremely extravagant collection of shoes).

After working for CNN, Maria Ressa founded a news website called Rappler in 2012. It is now one of the few sites in the country to criticise openly the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte, who is widely seen to be carrying out a brutal war on the Philippines drugs trade, which has led to thousands of casualties. Critics of the President say that since he came to power, the media has been subject to pressure and retaliation from the government, if it criticises the administration – being branded ‘fake news’ in a way that we have seen in a number of other countries, including of course the US under Donald Trump. Maria Ressa herself has said – and this is undoubtedly an indicator of why her campaigning is seen as of such global importance – that ‘I think we’re fighting the same battles that journalists all around the world are facing against populist authoritarian leaders that are hitting the messengers’.

When looking at the coverage of the award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Maria Ressa, I noticed that the Philippines ranks 138th out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index run by Reporters without Borders. This Index takes into account things like pluralism (or the degree to which different opinions are represented in the media), the degree to which the media are able to function independently of sources of political, governmental, business and religious power and influence, and a number of other factors – and of course I got interested in which were the leading countries in the Index and also where the UK (and US) rank.

The top four countries are – as with so many indicators of social justice – Norway, Finland, Sweden and Denmark. The Netherlands, New Zealand and Switzerland are also in the top ten. Ireland, interestingly, comes a respectable twelfth, showing perhaps how times have changed there. The UK ranked 33rd, one ahead of France but quite a few behind Germany. And the US came a surprising 44th.

It’s an interesting Index, and the Reporters without Borders website sets out their methodology in more detail. What this does also show is the danger of assuming that if the Philippines is 138th, the UK or US must be near the top…

The other thing I noticed when reading the coverage of Maria Ressa’s award was the head of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, Göran Hansson, recognising the ongoing issues with the gender balance of Nobel Prize winners. Maria Ressa was in fact the only woman to be honoured this year and since the Prizes were founded in 1901 only 58 of the 975 recipients have been women.

When one studies the winners of the individual Prizes, an even more unequal position emerges. Women have made up around 13% of the winners of the Prizes for Literature and for Peace (like Maria Ressa’s). However, if we look at the Prize for Physics it’s 1.8% and for Chemistry 3.7%.

As Mr Hansson of the Swedish Academy pointed out ‘It’s sad that there are so few women Nobel Laureates and it reflects the unfair conditions in society, particularly in years past, but still existing. And there’s so much more to do’.

I couldn’t agree more. There is so much more to do and we as educators have an important role to play in promoting equality and inclusion in our schools. We also need to teach our students the value of respecting freedom of expression and robust debate. We must not be lulled into a false sense of security by the progress that we do see being made in some areas – or distracted from the importance of the gender equality issue across our society and across the world. It’s the duty of all of us to continue to push ahead, take all the opportunities open to us, and to call out the issues where we see them.

Let me just finish with a few extracts from the announcement of this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, which remind us of the importance of a free press.

‘The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021 to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace. Ms Ressa and Mr Muratov are receiving the Peace Prize for their courageous fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia. At the same time, they 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… Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda. The Norwegian Nobel Committee is convinced that freedom of expression and freedom of information help to ensure an informed public. These rights are crucial prerequisites for democracy and protect against war and conflict. The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov is intended to underscore the importance of protecting and defending these fundamental rights.

Without freedom of expression and freedom of the press, it will be difficult to promote successfully fraternity between nations, disarmament and a better world order to succeed in our time…’

Photo Credit:
Maria Ressa: Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons (license)

Photo of Maria Ressa at a press conference held on October 9, 2021, following her Nobel Peace Prize win
Date 9th October 2021
Source From Rappler
Author Rappler