By Anna Liz Thomas
On the 8th of October, 2021, two journalists- Dmitry Muratov, the chief of Novaya Gazeta, a Moscow based newspaper; and Filipino investigative journalist and co-founder of digital media platform Rappler, Maria Ressa- were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. The press release notes that they were awarded “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression which is a pre-condition for democracy and lasting peace”.
For journalists everywhere, this constitutes a moment of validation. As the Nobel Committee also noted, Ressa and Muratov are considered to represent all journalists who stand up to defend the freedom of expression. Both journalists covered issues in countries that do not have the best track record when it comes to human rights protections. The Philippines and Russia rank 132nd and 150th out of 180 countries in the Reporters Without Borders’ 2021 World Press Freedom Index.
This award also serves as a reminder that being a journalist in the current times is an undertaking rife with insecurity. Independent journalism often requires standing up against governments, with the consequences attached to this. Ressa has faced several criminal charges for her reporting against Philippine’s President Rodrigo Duterte, and six of Muratov’s colleagues who worked for Novaya Gazeta, have been killed since 2000.
The disinformation pandemic has also had its impact on independent journalism. Politicians have successfully managed to subvert the notion of ‘fake news’ and make it into a tool to discredit legitimate journalisms. Overbroad disinformation laws have been introduced with the aim of curbing the spread of fake news during the pandemic, which has then provided the excuse for governments to crack down on their critics, including opposition journalism. When the political climate increasingly adopts a repressive attitude towards journalists, it often results in the social climate turning against journalists too. In 2020, it was reported that retaliatory killings of journalists worldwide more than doubled in relation to 2019 numbers. Journalists report facing increasing harassment, intimidation and doxing, both offline and online, with a disproportionate impact felt by female journalists.
It is not just government activities that pose a threat to credible journalism. The internet, and more recently, the pandemic, have brought about their own sets of challenges to the news industry. With the possibility of online targeted advertising, newspapers have been steadily losing ad revenue. Readership has also been in decline since readers migrate to receiving their news online. Countries like Australia and France have successfully attempted to create revenue sharing models that require search engines and social media platforms to share advertising revenue with publications that feature on their platforms. However, not all of these attempts have been successful, and it remains to be seen whether such arrangements may end up entrenching the status quo and restricting entry for smaller publishers.
Naturally, as newspaper revenues decline, so has employment. According to research published in the context of the United States, by Pew Research Centre, in 2020, there were 30,820 employees in the newspaper industry, less than half of the number of employees in 2006. Lay-offs of staff have increased substantially in the context of the pandemic, and jobs and salaries have been cut within press organizations across the world, with local news publications increasingly on the decline. What’s more, this translates into not just journalists losing their jobs, but also losing job security, when they are forced to work freelance, part-time, or on temporary contracts.
In the midst of all this turmoil, the Nobel Peace Prize awarded to two journalists offers great hope. It acknowledges the role that the press plays in enhancing democratic processes and institutions, and the cost attached to such bravery. As a pro-bono student-run publication, based in Switzerland- one of the best-ranked countries for its press freedom, The Graduate Press (TGP) occupies an incredibly different context. TGP operates with significant independence, with a goal to provide a platform for all voices within the IHEID Community. It, therefore, feels valuable to acknowledge the privilege to speak freely, without fear of retaliation, that this relative context offers to the diverse writers’ community within IHEID. At TGP, we do not take this privilege lightly. The Nobel Committee’s recognition of the work done by Resso and Muratov also pushes us to reflect on our role as student journalists. We strive to meet journalistic standards of transparency, accountability and integrity, while also offering every student a safe space for free expression, and the opportunity to talk comfortably about subjects that may come with higher risks within one’s own native context. At a time when news media is being clamped down on so many fronts, we aspire to, in our own way, provide a microcosmic experience of journalism as it should be: unfettered, independent and honest.