The news that journalist Maria Ressa has been awarded the Nobel peace prize has been greeted with joy by defenders of human rights in the Philippines.
Ressa last week became the first Filipino journalist to be awarded the prestigious prize, which she shared with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.
The award put a spotlight on the struggle of journalists and activists fighting President Rodrigo Duterte’s attacks against press freedom and human rights, amid his brutal drug war that has left thousands dead.
For the past five years, Ressa and her news website Rappler did not waver in reporting on alleged abuses and corruption in the Duterte administration.
The award was announced on 8 October, as Ressa and Rappler were busy reporting on the last day of registration for candidates in next year’s national and local elections.
Six top politicians were among nearly 100 people who have registered to run to succeed Duterte in the May 2022 elections, but the final list will only be out later in the year.
Duterte critic Senator Leila De Lima, who has been detained since 2017 over drug charges that have drawn accusations of being politically motivated, said the timing of the prize award was perfect.
“This is truly a triumph of truth over lies, and the award has not come at a more opportune time than during our struggle to regain our lost freedoms under Duterte,” said De Lima, who is running for re-election while in detention.
Ressa and Muratov were honoured “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said the award was “not only a recognition of their work but of the importance of freedom of the press and of expression in their countries and throughout the world.”
“We hope this award will shine more light on those who put the spotlight on the truth at a time when basic freedoms and democracy are under attack,” the group said in a statement.
But the celebrations were not universal. Duterte supporters questioned Ressa’s credibility and claimed the Nobel was being used by the west as a political tool. Prominent Filipino writer Francisco Sionil Jose said the Nobel judges had been “taken for a ride by western media hype”.
It took three days for the Duterte administration itself to issue a lukewarm congratulation to Ressa.
“It’s a victory for a Filipina and we are very happy for that,” presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said. “But of course, it is true that there are individuals who feel that Maria Ressa still has to clear her name before our courts.”
“In fact, she’s a convicted felon for cyber libel in the Philippines and she faces other cases in the Philippines,” he said.
Ressa has appealed against her conviction last June, which stemmed from an article she did not write and was published four months before the law on cyber libel was enacted in 2012, sparking criticism that the case was filed to intimidate her and Rappler.
She is also fighting five tax evasion cases and a closure order on Rappler for allegedly violating a constitutional ban on foreign investments in media companies.
Roque said “no one has ever been censored in the Philippines” under the Duterte administration, and that “press freedom is alive [in the country] and the proof is even the Nobel prize award given to Maria Ressa”.
Aside from Rappler, the Duterte administration has also targeted the largest broadcast network, ABS-CBN, which was shut down last year after Congress did not renew its franchise. His political critics, like De Lima, have been slapped with criminal charges.
Ressa said she hoped that the award would re-energise the fight for facts and democracy.
“I hope it gives adrenaline and energy to Filipino journalists that we are not alone, that the world is watching and that this is hopefully a turn for the better,” she said on Monday.
Human rights activist Cristina Palabay, whose group Karapatan has been vilified by Duterte and his security forces, said the prize was also a “strong message of support by the international community for advocates of press freedom and freedom of expression in the Philippines who are bearing the brunt of the attacks by the current administration.
“We stand with her and all journalists in the battle for truth and democracy in the Philippines,” she added.
Leaders of the influential Roman Catholic church said Ressa’s win was a reminder of the importance of the truth and the difficult environment journalists are facing amid fake news and disinformation.
“This important recognition – the first for a Filipino – would hopefully strengthen our people’s conviction to build a nation where journalism is free, at the service of truth, goodness and justice,” said Archbishop Romulo Valles, president of the Catholic Bishops Conference of the Philippines.