THIS must be said first: Not just criticisms but also praises from Filipinos greeted the October 8 announcement that Rappler chief executive officer Maria Ressa won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, sharing the award with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.
While most Pinoys must have cheered the news -- a safe assumption in the absence of an opinion poll -- the critics included presidential spokesperson Harry Roque and at least two personalities in journalism and letters, namely, fictionist and former journalist F. Sionil Jose, and Manila Times opinion columnist Rigoberto D. Tiglao.
But the country benefits from the controversy as the nation sees two pictures on the state of press freedom and more people may bother to check which is true: what the Nobel committee tells us and what Malacañang and its supporters say it is.
Subjects of criticism
The criticisms have dwelt on three points:
 THAT THERE'S NO PRESS FREEDOM IN THE COUNTRY. The Nobel Peace Prize for Maria Ressa supposedly rewards her fight for press freedom.
Harry Roque, the president's spokesman, congratulated Ressa for the award, "the first even given to a Filipino," but blasted the "premise" for the honor, the supposed "slap" on the government. There is no censorship in the country, says Roque.
For support, Roque cited F. Sionil Jose. Jose, a Ramon Magsaysay awardee in journalism and literature and a National Artist, said the Philippine press is "alive and well."
Manila Times' Tiglao quoted the Nobel Prize committee, thus: "Ressa's Rappler focused on the Duterte regime's controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign. The number of deaths is so high that the campaign resembles a war waged against the country's own population." Tiglao said the Nobel justification is "clearly a total lie and a fabrication," alleging that Ressa used the press freedom issue to defend herself from a P50 million libel suit against Rappler and another lawsuit for "taking in foreign money" for her digital news site.
 THAT IT AWARDS RESSA, WHO "DOESN'T DESERVE IT," AND INSTEAD "INSULTS" FILIPINOS. To Roque and Tiglao, because the Nobel committee's justification was wrong. To F. Sionil Jose, because the country's press is "alive and well" and because Ressa "does not deserve it."
Tiglao bristled at the Nobel's statement that the killings in President Duterte's anti-drug war "resemble a war waged against the country's own population." The columnist, dripping with sarcasm, said that "only Ressa, Rappler and the puny opposition (were) brave enough to fight this murderer." "How could the other journalists not expose and oppose this murderer? Are you Filipinos so cowardly?"
 THE CLAIM THAT RESSA IS NOT A FILIPINO. Roque didn't question Ressa's citizenship; he couldn't because he also congratulated her for the award. In effect, the government accepts the award and Ressa being a citizen of the country.
Tiglao said she is "really an American who got Filipino citizenship to be employed at ABS-CBN in 2004." Broadcaster Jay Sonza, without showing proof, claimed that "both her parents were Indonesians and she uses a US passport." Ressa herself said she lived in Jakarta for a decade, her parents are not Indonesian (hahahaha!), I have dual citizenship -- US and PH..." That could be settled by showing birth records and passports but it was irrelevant to the Nobel committee.
Attack on award's premise
All three criticisms involve the judgment of the board of judges of the Nobel Peace Prize, with which no one outside the award-giving organization has business questioning. It's not arrogance; it's the standard, practical rule in any prestigious competition.
But the first subject of criticism -- absence of press freedom -- affects not just the awardee but also President Duterte and his administration, and, in a way, the rest of the nation.
Other than the hoopla over the honor and the prize to Ressa and Murakov, there's the embarrassment to their respective leaders and governments.
Debate on whether the president's drug war has killed hundreds of its citizens has gone on and on and now reaches the Nobel Peace Prize. And it can be resolved only by an independent court trial, to which the president won't submit.
State of press freedom
Meantime though, there has been no word on the state of press freedom from the Philippine press itself. The reports come from news organizations abroad, on which the Nobel committee must have relied.
Does the lack of complaint and noise from the country's own media practitioners indicate press freedom is "alive and well"? Not necessarily, at least not all the time. It can mean that nobody else, as Tiglao cited, are as brave as Maria Ressa and her Rappler band. What the outside world sees and hears clearly are such actions as the closure of the giant network ABS-CBN and the bans on Rappler and the president's hardly veiled threats against major media outlets.
Nobel's intention, decision
Ressa and Muratov won the Nobel Peace Prize for "their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression." Safeguarding freedom is needed even when freedom has not yet been taken away. It's more crucial in fact before censorship or the shutdown comes. To Nobel's world view, there must already be such a threat in the Philippines and Russia.
And it is Nobel that's giving the award. It's that committee that determines who among the 329 nominees are deserving -- and when the award must be given. Cory Aquino didn't get it shortly after the Edsa Revolution in 1986 but her loss then can't be used to assail the choice of Ressa and Muratov in 2021.
It seems not to matter to the Nobel committee that Ressa is American or Filipino. What it thinks she has done is what prompted the award.
And it's open about its intentions: (a) it wants more international visibility for Ressa and Muratov, to protect them from reprisal, and (b) it seeks to inspire other journalists in places where press freedom is endangered, if not yet lost.
October 13, 2021
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