Disinformation poses a growing threat to security and democracy, the journalists awarded the Nobel Peace Prize have told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview.
Maria Ressa of the Philippines said the greatest threat to democracy is “when lies become facts”, while Dmitry Muratov of Russia said society is currently in a dangerous “post-truth period”.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the prize to the two journalists during a ceremony in Oslo, Norway on Friday “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace”.
The journalists and their teams have faced attacks and harassment in their countries for their journalism.
In 2012 Ressa, 58, co-founded Rappler, an investigative journalism website critical of the Philippine government.
In 1993 Muratov, 59, was one of the founders of the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta, one of the few media outlets that does not follow the Kremlin’s line.
The last time the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to a journalist was in 1935 when it was given to German Carl von Ossietzky, who alerted the world that Hitler was re-arming.
Von Ossietzky was unable to go to Norway to pick up his prize as he was imprisoned in a Nazi camp.
Ressa told Al Jazeera in an interview from Norway following the ceremony that she sees parallels between that period and now as authoritarianism is again a growing threat.
“I think that’s the signal the Nobel committee was sending out. We are yet at another similar moment – a historical, existential moment – and we have to do something about it,” Ressa said.
She said the greatest threat to democracy is “when lies become facts. Because that breaks our shared reality and that allows the manipulation of the public,” Ressa said.
Muratov also told Al Jazeera that disinformation was a significant and growing threat.
“Manipulation leads to war,” he said. “We are in the middle of a post-truth period. Now, everyone is concerned about their own ideas and not the facts,” Muratov said.
“Social scientists have shown that, when even knowing what is the truth and what is a lie, 75 percent of people will consider the lie as truth as they like the lie better. This is happening already. We are at the very bottom of the manipulation of the human mind.”
‘We’re on the same side fighting for facts’
In her acceptance speech earlier on Friday, Ressa had criticised US tech giants such as Facebook for making a profit by disseminating lies and hate.
Ressa told Al Jazeera that facts are being doubted and news organisations must collaborate and help each other.
“The days when we used to compete with each other, those days are gone. We are now on the same side fighting for facts. Who I always call out on the other side … are the new gatekeepers, the technology companies that have abdicated responsibility for the public sphere,” Ressa said.
She said that many countries are using the same authoritarian tactics to repress the media and dissent through “the weaponisation of social media, followed by the weaponisation of the law”.
“This weaponisation of social media ‘gets rid’ of facts … How do we avoid the doubting of facts? … How can we do our jobs if trust is broken down? The people watching – do they believe us? That’s the core of the problem I think that we are facing today,” Ressa said.
When a recent poll conducted by Al Jazeera had asked viewers whether they trust journalism, 71 percent said no.
The award comes as violations of journalists’ rights and media freedoms are growing worldwide.
Novaya Gazeta is one of the last independent newspapers in Russia that has not been labelled as a foreign agent.
Her reporting exposed high-level corruption in Russia and rights abuses in Chechnya.
“Despite [the fact that] Russian journalism is going through a dark valley now, we don’t reject our principles,” Muratov told Al Jazeera when asked how his newspaper endures amid the threat of violence.
Much of Ressa’s work has focused on President Rodrigo Duterte’s controversial war on drugs, which has led to the extrajudicial killings of 7,000 people. As a result, she has faced smear campaigns and government legal action.
In order to travel to Norway to receive her award, Ressa had to ask for permission from four courts in the Philippines.
She currently faces up to six years in jail for defamation over a published article implicating the former chief justice of the Supreme Court in corruption.
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists (IFJ) said in a statement on Thursday that the number of imprisoned journalists is on the rise, with 365 journalists imprisoned in 2021 compared with 235 last year.
China has jailed the most journalists with 102 behind bars, while Turkey had 34 journalists in prison, Belarus and Eritrea 29, Egypt 27 and Vietnam 21.
Russia still has 12 journalists behind bars, and at least three journalists were killed in the Philippines in 2021.
At least 45 journalists and media workers have been killed this year, 33 of them killed in targeted attacks, IFJ said.
Ressa said she is “very lucky” to be with the audience in Norway as just 36 hours ago, a former colleague, Jesus Malabanan, was shot dead – making him the 22nd journalist to be killed in the Philippines since Duterte came to power in 2016.
When asked by a young female journalist for advice, Ressa said while the “world as it used to be, our world, is dead,” there is still “the excitement that you can help create what journalism is going to be like in the 21st century.
“Think about what is your worst fear, and then embrace it,” Ressa said.
“Whatever you are most afraid of, you touch it, hold it, imagine it and then think through what you will do if that happens. Come out with a plan and then let it go. Drill it if you need to, but when you do that, you take away the fear and then you do the job.”