By Atty. Howard Calleja
In a time where misinformation has become so rampant due to netizens discovering the power of fear-mongering, the power -and struggle- of journalists is a mighty one: the ability to make the truth accessible to all. Access to truth, and facts, is not a challenge one would expect in the golden age of information but sensationalism has become a tactic for desperate characters to achieve notoriety and alternative facts give credence to every conspiracy theorist desperate for validation. Misinformation has thus, spread like wildfire, and those tasked with sharing the truth are accused of extinguishing the flames of debate – rather than being applauded for putting out dangerous fires. Those who continue fanning the flames claim “free speech” when, in fact, they spread dangerous lies that are demonstrably false. As Maria Ressa, the recent awardee of the coveted Nobel Peace Prize, recently stated, we are living in a world “where facts have become debatable.”
With the upcoming elections, and pledges of support to sons of dictators and trigger-happy senators, as well as coronavirus deniers running rampant, journalists take on the underappreciated and dangerous task of sharing facts. The danger of this task cannot be understated: in the past decade alone, the Philippines has been listed among the top 5 deadliest countries for journalists for 9 of the 10 years. And yet, Maria Ressa persists.
Her persistence has been well rewarded as she is now the Philippines’ first Nobel laureate. Her award was given by the Norwegian Nobel Committee alongside Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”.
Over the past year alone, the threat to journalists has been evident; from populist leaders claiming “fake news” every time their name is connected with corruption scandals to the bullying and belittling of individual reporters, and finally, to the loss of the livelihood of 11,000 ABS-CBN employees, journalists in the Philippines have been under attack since the start of this administration. The recognition of Maria Ressa as a harbinger of peace also sparks hope anew in those who are contemplating silence among the attacks, she simply cannot be silenced.
From the start of this administration Rappler, under the leadership of Ressa, has been critical of the administration’s policies – as is the right of any Filipino – and was rewarded with Duterte’s ire. From the start, he cast doubt around the ownership of Rappler. Later he announced he would revoke the site’s operating license, a fight that still continues to this day. Coupled with his ad hominem attacks against Ressa, there is a clear personal vendetta against her – which makes this victory all the sweeter.
Being the first Filipino to win a Nobel prize might have come with some acclaim, had she been on the President’s list of allies. Instead, she is rewarded with a sound we never expected from Malacanang – silence. What a glorious silence it is! That silence is the sound of a man who is feeling the shame of the international community and more importantly from a country he has looted and the people he has oppressed. Free press has won once again and he is the oppressive Goliath in this story.
As the congratulatory messages flooded in from human rights defenders and world leaders, the thundering silence from Duterte speaks volumes – it is a silence of a man that is seething in anger and jealousy. After all, he has long sought validation as a “powerful” man, but to the world, he is a joke, to his countrymen the broken promises and a nightmare soon to be forgotten. His greatest claim to fame, and the major promise of his administration, is his bloody War on Drugs, and the recognition he’s received for it is a reminder of the basic lesson he exchange for silver and gold; the rule of law and the sanctity of life. The lesson on basic legal principles also comes with the only other recognition he will receive in his time: an investigation by the International Criminal Court. Truly, this award -that has been given to the likes of Martin Luther King Jr., Nelson Mandela, and even Mother Teresa- landing in the lap of a Filipino journalist is a slap in the face to our very own President.
The recognition of Maria Ressa is a reminder to us all of the importance of journalism to a democratic nation. We must remember that information is the most fundamental human right, as it enables us to access all other rights and to make informed decisions that pave the road towards our pursuit of happiness. The role of a free press in protecting the freedoms of those whose voices are often submerged by the roar of populist leaders and their troll armies cannot be understated. Without a free press, accountability becomes a faint dream, the truth becomes debatable, and revisions to our history become fact. God bless you, Maria Ressa, for standing as a symbol that the power to our governments should never be unlimited and the people’s voices are the ones that should make up a nation!