When the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony is held in Oslo on Dec. 10, one of its recipients may not be allowed to attend.
Despite facing possible restrictions that could prevent her from traveling to Norway, Philippine journalist Maria Ressa was upbeat when I spoke to her and her lawyer, Amal Clooney, last week about the Nobel, Ressa’s ongoing legal troubles against manufactured complaints, and the future of press freedom at a time when new technologies are making it easier to alter reality and target individuals.
But Ressa’s optimism, which she maintains despite the efforts of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime, should not be mistaken for naivete.
“The last time a working journalist received the Nobel Prize was in 1936, and he languished in a Nazi concentration camp,” Ressa said. “So I just reminded my team that, you know, this could get worse.”
She was speaking of the German journalist Carl von Ossietzky, who was presented with the award in the mid-1930s for his “burning love for freedom of thought and expression and his valuable contribution to the cause of peace.” Those words could just as easily describe Ressa and her work right now.
“We’re in a moment where, if we don’t take the right steps forward and we turn right, it will be a descent to fascism that is global in scope, or descent to tyranny. And if we turn left, we can still salvage our democracies,” Ressa, the founder and chief executive of Rappler, the Philippines’ leading independent news source, told me.
The struggle between governments that want to suppress criticism and the voices pushing back is not new, but the tools and tactics of repression have evolved. A favorite move of today’s illiberal leaders is to weaponize the courts against their critics. Because of the cases against her, Ressa has to file a travel request to the court to gain permission to leave the country.
“The government has opposed the request to travel in very strong terms,” Clooney told me. “Although in their legal brief they acknowledge that the Nobel Prize is a rather prestigious award, they say it’s not a compelling reason for Maria to be allowed to travel.”
Duterte’s government was initially silent about Ressa’s Nobel selection. That’s not a surprise, because the award is in recognition of her unflappable commitment to reporting in the face of a multifaceted campaign by the government and its allies to silence her. This campaign includes a cyber army directed at her, constant threats to her safety and well-being, and baseless legal cases, all designed to shut her up.
“He congratulated the first Filipino to win the Nobel Prize and then reminded everyone that I still need to face the cases in court,” Ressa told me. “And then the third part of his response was how this is proof that press freedom exists in the Philippines.”
Such is the absurd state of free expression at a moment when authoritarianism is on the rise. Strongman leaders attempt to maintain a veneer of tolerance, but the right to expression seems to be tightening almost everywhere.
In Clooney’s work with journalists around the world, she increasingly sees governments using legal pretenses in a sort of war of attrition against independent media.
“We have to have a system where every time there's repression of the media, liberal democracies fight back by imposing targeted sanctions,” Clooney explained.
So far, though, that’s not happening.
“The age-old methods of repression are not going to go away, because autocrats are getting away with them, and they're very effective at scaring journalists,” Clooney said. “There's many more journalists who decide to put their pen down and shut up, and that's the whole point.”
The Philippines may feel like a world away to many here in the United States. But, as I’ve learned from Ressa — who for years has been sounding the alarm about the destructive potential of social networks to spread disinformation and inflame hate — her homeland is a test case for the rest of the world. And if the information landscape in the Philippines is a predictor of what’s to come, we’re all in trouble.
Ressa understands all too well that her Nobel Prize is as much a recognition as it is a warning. She believes immediate action is required to save democracy, especially related to technology companies whose products can encourage people’s worst tendencies and harm society.
“It’s going to get worse unless guardrails are put in place for technology. This is not a problem just to talk about or to think about,” Ressa said. “It is a problem to act on now, and it requires governments. It requires journalists. It requires civil society. The tech can bring us far lower than where we are today.”
Societies can still reverse course, but it will require urgent attention. Whether Ressa is permitted to travel to receive her Nobel Prize in person will be a good litmus test of current efforts.
Jason Rezaian is a writer for Global Opinions. He served as The Post's correspondent in Tehran from 2012 to 2016. He spent 544 days unjustly imprisoned by Iranian authorities until his release in January 2016.