Once upon a time, being a journalist was a noble calling. Those who took up the mantle were entrusted to preserve the institution of the free press. Maria Ressa and Dmitri Muratov are two such journalists. Last week, they were jointly awarded the Nobel Peace for their unrelenting and courageous coverage of human rights abuses. 

A Dangerous Time for Journalism

The acknowledgement of Ressa and Muratov’s work highlights a time when it is dangerous to be a journalist. Like some cruel plot twist in a dystopian novel, those who endeavour to uphold truth and the common good have been facing increasing persecution.

Edward Bulwer-Lytton once said that the pen is mightier than the sword. In today’s climate, where the freedom to persecute trumps freedom of expression, it’s hard to tell if he’s right.

History shows that there have always been those who have gone against the grain and risen against the establishment. Ever since the invention of the printing press, the power of the printed word can elicit monumental change. Take Martin Luther’s 95 Theses and his attacks on the corruption of the Roman Catholic Church, for instance, without which we would never have had the Protestant Reformation.

Freedom of the press and the right to be honest, outspoken and critical has been fundamental to the tenets of democracy and lasting peace. But because of some sick time machine, we have travelled back to the dangerous climate of our historical forefathers. Those brave enough to have a dissenting voice are being subjected to draconian punishments.

Growing Distaste for Press Freedom

In Russia, several journalists have been labelled ‘foreign agents’. This not only makes them unemployable but also forces them to provide a legal disclaimer for all public statements, written or spoken. In Hong Kong, China’s crackdown over free press has resulted in the closure of multiple independent news outlets, particularly Apple Daily. In the Philippines, the country is currently ruled by a president who during his electoral campaign five years ago went so far as to publicly state that: ‘just because you’re a journalist you are not exempted from assassination’.

And he’s not wrong.

Gone are the days when journalists received a cautionary slap on the wrist. As long as we fail to hold those in power accountable, freedom of the press will suffer. Nowadays, authoritarian leaders are protected by strong internal institutions that allow them to use their authority to full advantage. A truth-seeking journalist that fails to toe the line can either be sent off to exile — if they’re lucky — or murdered.

For the Saudi Arabian journalist and Washington Post columnist, Jamal Khashoggi, that is what happened in that exact order. Despite Khashoggi’s credentials with one of the world’s esteemed news outlets, it was his unabashed criticism of the House of Saud (Saudi Arabia’s royal family) and the government that led to his permanent silence.

In 2018, Khashoggi was named Time’s Person of the Year. Together with Ressa and several other journalists, they were commended for defending press freedom. Oftentimes, we congratulate those who do the right thing. But is it all worth it if it means being killed for the truth? Muratov, Novaya Gazeta’s Editor-in-Chief, doesn’t believe that his accomplishment is his to claim. Rather, the recognition belongs to six of the newspaper’s journalists whose lives were sacrificed. He says humbly: ‘It’s for them — it’s just that the Nobel Prize cannot be awarded posthumously’.

Sadly, we now live in a world where ‘fake news‘ disseminates faster than a virus but without the life-saving vaccine. Still, all is not lost.

In the 2017 film The Post, President Nixon in all his vengefulness takes the state’s top newspapers to the Supreme Court after classified Pentagon Papers revealed justified criticism over the Vietnam War. Washington Post journalists printed the damning papers because they believed that ‘the press was to serve the governed, not the governors’, and they won. In our darkest moments, let’s remember these words.

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