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Maria Ressa: A Nobel cause

By JOANNE RAE M. RAMIREZ, The Philippine STAR Published Dec 14, 2021 5:00 am

One hundred twenty years ago, in 1901, the first Nobel Peace Prize was awarded in Kristiania (now Oslo), Norway. It was named for a gifted Swedish scientist Alfred Nobel, who aside from having bequeathed his fortune to establish the Nobel Prize, invented dynamite. 

The Nobel Peace Prize, in a major way, is as earthshaking as dynamite. And when used properly, just like the pen, it leads to the building of greater edifices.

Such as the edifice of freedom of expression, freedom of a responsible press and the protection of human rights of all people, not just journalists.

Journalist Maria Ressa is the first Filipino to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

Last Dec. 10, journalist Maria Ressa became the first Filipino to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee, in a statement, said it   has decided to award the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021 to Maria Ressa and Russian Dmitry Muratov for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

All of a sudden now there’s this bright light on journalists and on the Philippines. That will help make our elections more transparent.

“Ms. Ressa and Mr. Muratov are receiving the Peace Prize for their courageous fight for freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia. At the same time, they are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press.”

In a press conference in Oslo the day before she walked up the stage to receive her Nobel, Maria said, “It’s wonderful to see you all and it’s such a privilege to have spent some time together.  Just a quick thing of what’s happened while we’ve been coming to Oslo. I had to get four courts to give approval to allow me to travel, for seven different criminal charges.”

  The 2021 Nobel peace prize winners, Dmitry Muratov, right, and Maria Ressa, during the Oslo ceremony.

A few weeks before she received her award, Maria said in an interview with this writer, “You know how I survived the uncertainty? I just don’t create expectations. I am just getting ready for whatever comes.”

Maria and I covered Malacañang during the presidency of Corazon Aquino, through all the seven coup attempts that rocked it. I met her again recently after she was chosen as one of  PeopleAsia’s “People of the Year” and was being photographed for its cover.

She was energetic and bubbly after her usual four cups of coffee. “Hyper’ is how she describes herself at 11 a.m., after having risen at dawn to finish her third book.

  One of PeopleAsia’s three flip covers features journalist Maria Ressa. The last time a journalist received the Nobel Peace Prize was in 1936.

She expressed hope that more people would make a stand on the country’s future.

“They also have to take a position because silence is complicity. I think there are some people who are trying. But if you are out there, and you’re the only one, it’s so easy to hammer you down. But if there are thousands of you, then it’s not so easy. I know we’re on the right side of history.”

Without disclosing her choice for the presidential elections of 2022, she says she wants to be hopeful. “I think we have to. We have to demand transparency from Comelec.”

Maria believes the “baton” has been passed from the previous generation of courageous journalists, and she isn’t going to drop the baton.

“It’s our turn, from that generation to our generation,” she says, adding the next breed of journalists are being molded right here, right now. “This administration is creating the journalists of the future. What do you learn from this period? You sometimes learn to follow? I hope not. I don’t think that’s the case. In fact, I think I do see it in our reporters. I mean, the younger Filipino reporters they are still idealistic.”

She recalls that when she was being arrested by government agents in the newsroom of  Rappler, which she co-founded in 2012, one of the group’s reporters persisted on taking a video of the arrest.

“The reason that moment, even though I was being arrested, is incredible, was because our next generation of journalists was being formed. When you push back, when you know you’re in the right, and when there is an effort to control you.”

Maria has been convicted of cyber libel. The case is on appeal. One of her lawyers is the renowned human rights lawyer Amal Clooney. Maria remembers Clooney’s husband George, a Hollywood A-Lister, even brewing his own coffee at their first meeting.

Maria took up pre-med (Molecular Biology) because she wanted to be a dutiful daughter. Eventually, she graduated from Princeton, where she was on scholarship, with a bachelor of arts in English and a certificate in theater and dance. 

  Maria Ressa joins other luminaries on the cover of the latest issue of PeopleAsia magazine.

Maria believes Princeton’s “Honor Code” strengthened her moral backbone.  At Princeton, all in-class examinations, including finals, midterms, and quizzes, are administered under the Honor Code. Students pledge their honor while faculty proctors are not present during exams.

Maria also credits her high school Toms River in New Jersey for the blossoming of her talents. “Toms River’s public school system gave me free music lessons, computer programming classes, advanced placement classes that allowed us to compete in Ivy league schools.” Maria wrote in 2019, “a future that promised you can accomplish anything if you work hard enough.” At Toms River, she learned to play  several musical instruments and is said to be best with the violin. She was also class president thrice.

And when she was starting out in her career, she found a mentor in broadcast journalist Cheche Lazaro.

“Her lines are very clear. Like, that’s what I realized, you have to draw your line. And you know, on this side, you’re good. This side, you’re evil, regardless of what the world says. Cheche’s lines are clear. She’s a black and white person. And that’s tough to be in a country like the Philippines.”

Her college thesis, which brought her to the Philippines in 1986 on a Fullbright scholarship for political theater, was a play.

Once immersed in Philippine life, she realized life here was more political theater than theater itself. She decided to stay on in the Philippines, and be part of the shaping of its narrative. After working with CNN Jakarta, Maria returned to the Philippines after 9/11 to work with ABS-CBN.

As the first Filipino to receive the prestigious Nobel, what does she hope it will accomplish for her cause? ‘

“It’s already done. It’s to shine the light. All of a sudden now there’s this bright light on journalists and on the Philippines. So that will help make our elections more transparent.”

“So when I found out, when they asked me how I felt, that was the first time where it hit me, this is for every journalist around the world.”

Dynamite, indeed.