At Nobel ceremony, Maria Ressa slams social media's 'toxic sludge'

Co-winner Dmity Muratov calls for a minute of silence to honor fallen journalists around the world.
2021.12.10
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At Nobel ceremony, Maria Ressa slams social media's 'toxic sludge' Nobel Peace Prize laureates Maria Ressa of the Philippines (left) and Dmitry Muratov of Russia wave to well-wishers from the balcony of the Grand Hotel in Oslo on Dec. 10, 2021 following the prize award ceremony.
AFP

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa took aim at American social media companies for allowing the “toxic sludge” of disinformation to spread online and impede the work of reporters worldwide, as she accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Friday.

The crusading Philippine editor and CEO of the news website Rappler is one of two journalists to receive the rare honor of being named co-winners of the world’s most prestigious peace prize. When she set up the Rappler company almost 10 years ago, Ressa said she tried to put together two sides of a coin that she believes shows all that is wrong in today’s world.

“Journalists, the old gatekeepers, are one side of the coin,” Ressa said during her acceptance speech at Oslo City Hall.

“The other is technology, with its god-like power that has allowed a virus of lies to infect each of us, pitting us against each other, bringing out our fears, anger and hate, and setting the stage for the rise of authoritarians and dictators around the world.”

According to Ressa, the need of the hour is to transform hate and violence.

“[T]he toxic sludge that’s coursing through our information ecosystem, prioritized by American internet companies that make more money by spreading that hate and triggering the worst in us… well, that just means we have to work much harder.”

Press freedom activists said Ressa had been targeted for Rappler’s critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte’s five-year war on illegal drugs, which has left thousands dead. Duterte has accused Ressa of spreading “fake news.”

In June last year, she and a former colleague were convicted of cyber libel. Ressa and her colleague face up to six years in prison – they are currently free on bail pending an appeal.

“In less than 2 years, the Philippine government filed 10 arrest warrants against me. I’ve had to post bail 10 times just to do my job,” she said in her lecture.

“Last year, I and a former colleague were convicted of cyber libel for a story we published 8 years earlier at a time the law we allegedly violated didn’t even exist. All told, the charges I face could send me to jail for about 100 years.”

Ressa also described social media as a “deadly game for power and money.”

“[D]estructive corporations have siphoned money away from news groups and now pose a foundational threat to markets and elections,” she said.

She cited a disinformation campaign waged by China last year that undermined her own news operation.

“To show how disinformation is both a local and global problem, take the Chinese information operations taken down by Facebook in Sept 2020: it was creating fake accounts using AI generated photos for the U.S. elections, polishing the image of the Marcoses, campaigning for Duterte’s daughter, and attacking me and Rappler,” Ressa said.

RESSA.jpg

Maria Ressa of the Philippines (left) is applauded by laureate Dmitry Muratov of Russia as she is presented with the Nobel Peace Prize diploma and medal during the award ceremony for the Nobel Peace prize in Oslo, Dec. 10, 2021. [AFP]

‘Progress without freedom’

Meanwhile, Ressa’s co-winner, Russia newspaper editor Dmitri Muratov, said he believed the world had fallen out of love with democracy and is beginning to turn to dictatorship.

“We’ve got an illusion that progress can be achieved through technology and violence, not through human rights and freedoms,” he said in his lecture after being presented the Nobel Peace Prize.

“This is progress without freedom. It is as impossible as getting milk without having a cow. The dictatorships have secured access to violence. In our country (and not only) it is common to think that politicians who avoid bloodshed are weak. While threatening the world with war is the duty of true patriots.”

In this scenario, he said, it is more important than ever for journalists to distinguish between facts and fiction.

The dictatorships have secured access to violence. But he warned this was a dangerous venture.

 “Over a hundred journalists, media outlets, human rights defenders and NGOs have recently been branded as ‘foreign agents.’ In Russia, this means ‘enemies of the people,’ he said.

“Many of our colleagues have lost their jobs. Some have to leave the country. Some are deprived of the opportunity to live a normal life for an unknown period of time. Maybe forever.”

Since its launch two decades ago, Muratov’s newspaper, Novaya Gazeta, has repeatedly written about alleged corruption in the Russian government – and many link that to the killings of six of the paper’s reporters.

“But this is their mission,” he said, speaking of journalists who risk their lives.

“As governments continually improve the past, journalists try to improve the future.”

Muratov said his Nobel was “for all true journalism.”

“This award is to my colleagues from Novaya Gazeta, who have lost their lives …. This award is also to the colleagues who are alive, to the professional community who perform their professional duty,” Muratov said.

He then called for a minute of silence to honor fallen journalists around the world.

“Let us rise and honor my and Maria Ressa’s reporter colleagues, who have given their lives for this profession, with a minute of silence, and let us give our support to those who suffer persecution,” he said.

“I want journalists to die old.”

Ressa to co-head new fund for shielding journalists

Earlier this week, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken, praised the “extraordinary work of journalists and media workers” worldwide, including Ressa and Muratov.

“And yet, as we all know, for too many journalists, doing this work means having to endure threats, harassment, attacks,” he said, speaking at a panel ahead of U.S. President Joe Biden’s Summit for Democracy held on Dec. 9-10.

The top U.S. diplomat also announced three new funding initiatives to protect reporters and support independent international journalism worldwide.

One of these initiatives, the International Fund for Public Interest Media, will be co-chaired by Ressa and New York Times CEO Mark Thompson, according to an Oct. 1 article in Rappler. The fund is part of a global push to support public interest media organizations worldwide.

“Having co-chairs of the stature of Maria and Mark is a testament to the scope and ambition of the Fund, and a sign of the progress we’ve made,” said Sheetal Vyas, the fund’s founding director.

“The International Fund makes supporting independent media simple, effective and most likely to develop the long term strategies that can address the business model collapse.”

Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.

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