At a ceremony in Oslo on Friday, the Nobel Peace Prize will be awarded not to a politician, diplomat or campaigner, as it has been in recent years, but to two journalists, one of them a co-author of this essay.
Both recipients work in challenging conditions. Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper co-founded and edited by Dmitry Muratov, is one of Russia’s last independent news outlets of national significance. Dmitry and his investigative reporters resolutely hold President Vladimir Putin’s government to account, but the human cost has been terrible. Six of Novaya Gazeta’s journalists, including the celebrated Anna Politkovskaya, have been killed during Putin’s tenure.
I, Maria Ressa, co-founded the digital news site Rappler in Manila in 2012. Our aim has always been to pursue the truth wherever it may lead and to report the facts, not what the powerful want the public to hear. But the Philippines is also a dangerous place to be a reporter: 22 journalists have been killed since President Rodrigo Duterte came to power, the latest just this week. At Rappler, relentless political intimidation and harassment are daily realities. In less than two years, the government has filed 10 arrest warrants against me. I’ve had to post bail 10 times just to do my job. Currently I am appealing a conviction and potential six-year jail term for “cyber libel.” I cannot leave the Philippines — even to accept my Nobel Prize — without permission from different courts.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee decided to award the Peace Prize to journalists for the first time in more than 80 years, not because the challenges that Dmitry and I confront in reporting the news are unique, but because they are becoming increasingly common for editors and reporters across the world. This year’s prize is a welcome public acknowledgment that independent journalism today faces a combination of threats that without decisive intervention risk what U.N. Secretary General António Guterres has called a global “media extinction event.”
The growing intolerance of governments and elites toward a free press across the globe is one major cause of the crisis. Global surveys of censorship, arrests and journalist deaths suggest that the picture has been darkening for years. But Zaffar Abbas, the editor in chief of the independent newspaper Dawn in Pakistan, views Donald Trump’s campaign against “fake news” as a further fateful turn for the worse. Abbas believes that authoritarian regimes and populists see it as a green light to step up their own attacks on journalists. If the leader of the free world could show such open contempt for a free press, why shouldn’t they?
But the world’s independent news companies face a second, more insidious but potentially no less lethal threat: bankruptcy. Digital disruption has made the news business tough everywhere, but media entrepreneurs in developing countries face particularly brutal economics. For them, digital subscriptions are a distant dream at best. Local advertising is often dominated by governments and other powerful interests who wield it like a weapon to punish anyone who dares publish inconvenient truths. Local sponsors and philanthropists can easily conclude that the political risks of supporting independent journalism are just too great. Covid and the resulting collapse in advertising revenue are for many publishers the last straw. Some have closed for good. Many more are on the brink.
International grants to support journalism are a lifeline for some. But current grant-giving can be sporadic, uncoordinated and susceptible both to duplication and yawning gaps. Sometimes it reflects the narrow diplomatic and cultural agendas of the givers. And many of today’s donors would freely volunteer that, given the growing need, the present level of funding is woefully inadequate.
That is why the two of us have agreed to become joint chairs of a new multilateral fund to support independent journalism across the world. We both know from our different vantage points — Maria on the frontline of the battle for free media in Manila, Mark as a past leader of two of the world’s global news providers, The New York Times and the BBC — what a difference great journalism can make both to the individual lives of readers and viewers and to the civic health of a society. We both know how important secure and sustainable income is if you want to preserve that journalism for today and tomorrow. We both know that the great political and cultural battles that free media faces everywhere can only be won if we first stabilize and future-proof its economics.
The fund we will lead — the International Fund for Public Interest Media — will seek donations from governments, foundations and private companies and issue grants to promising and trustworthy independent news providers worldwide. The fund’s decisions on grants will be independent of its donors and, both in its strategy and its makeup, the fund will seek to be a true South-North collaboration.
Building the fund is an immense task that has only just begun. But it’s encouraging that this week, at President Biden’s Summit for Democracy, the United States pledged up to $30 million toward it and the leaders of several other countries also announced that they also intend to back it.
At the summit, heads of state from around the world emphasized the importance of a free press for democracy. They’re quite right: Without access to trustworthy independent news, populations are left in the dark, governments grow corrupt and democratic institutions soon become a sham. But it will take more than speeches — or indeed Nobel Prizes — to save independent journalism. It will take a plan and a new more equal partnership between practitioners and their supporters in the prosperous North. It will take a renewed sense of mission. It will also take hard cash.
Maria Ressa (@mariaressa) is the co-founder and chief executive of the Filipino digital news site Rappler and a co-recipient of the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
Mark Thompson is a former chief executive of The New York Times Company and a former director general of the BBC.
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