By Karen Lema
MANILA – When Philippine journalist Maria Ressa shared the Nobel Peace Prize last week for representing press freedom, other media outlets under fire took heart.
One journalist described Ressa’s win as like getting a “shot in the arm” as they fight to keep free speech alive in one of the world’s most dangerous countries for reporters.
Media organisations interviewed by Reuters said Ressa’s victory could not have come at a more opportune time for a country heading to an election next year and where journalists and freedom of the press face growing threats.
Ressa shared the Nobel with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov on Friday, for what the committee called braving the wrath of leaders to expose corruption and misrule, in an endorsement of free speech under fire worldwide.
While the Philippines has one of Asia’s most liberal media environments, a growing atmosphere of fear has set in since Ressa’s libel conviction last year and the closure of its largest broadcasting firm that angered President Rodrigo Duterte.
“This gives all of us a shot in the arm so we can become more vigorous in this fight to preserve our independence,” said Ging Reyes, head of news at ABS-CBN broadcast network. “The existential challenge is still there”.
Philippine government regulators last year ordered ABS-CBN off the air after the lower house of Congress voted not to renew its license to operate.
Since its closure, the 66-year old broadcaster, which Duterte had publicly berated for its failure to air some of his paid election campaign commercials in 2016, has let go thousands of employees, including about 400 from the news division.
“To me, any closure of a media organisation, of a broadcasting station, is really an affront to press freedom,” Reyes said.
ABS-CBN continues to operate but on a limited scale by buying air time from other networks and streaming programmes on YouTube and Facebook.
Ressa’s news site, Rappler, had its license suspended and she has faced legal action for various reasons, motivated, activists say, by her scrutiny of Duterte.
The government denies hounding media and says any problems organisations face are legal, not political. It says it believes in free speech.
Duterte’s spokesperson, Harry Roque, welcoming Ressa’s Nobel prize, said on Monday, “press freedom is alive” in the Philippines.
The Philippines saw its ranking in the 2021 World Press Freedom Index drop two notches to 138 out of 180 countries, while the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines seventh in the world in its impunity index, which tracks deaths of media members whose killers go free.
While the National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) says it does not expect the government’s combative attitude toward adversarial press to change, it is hopeful that Ressa’s Nobel victory “will spur us to work past fear”.
The NUJP‘s national chairperson, Jonathan de Santos, said that work becomes more crucial as the country heads towards elections in 2022 to choose a successor to Duterte, who is barred by the constitution from seeking re-election.
The stakes are high for the populist Duterte. Analysts have said he would want to make sure an ally wins so he can shield himself from any legal action at home or abroad.
The 76-year old leader is facing an investigation by the International Criminal Court into thousands of drug-war killings. The government denies wrongdoing and says it will not cooperate with the ICC.
“We don’t expect threats to go away, but the Nobel serves as an inspiration for us to keep going,” de Santos told Reuters.
Joel Sy Egco, who heads the Presidential Task Force on Media Security, touted government effort to uphold the right to information by backing a freedom of information bill and creating the panel he heads to “protect the life, liberty and security of media workers”.
The Philippine Daily Inquirer, a broadsheet known for scrutinising Duterte’s government, said Ressa’s win had a “halo effect” for journalists.
“We believe it will inspire Filipino journalists to stay courageous, knowing that the world will be watching because of the Nobel effect,” the newspaper said in response to questions from Reuters.
“It’s hard to say that it will make the administration any less combative, especially those who have a stake in staying in power because of an international criminal investigation and who see the independent media as an enemy.”