The Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for 2021 jointly to crusading journalists Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitry Muratov of Russia “for their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”
“Free, independent and fact-based journalism,” the Nobel Committee said in its announcement, “serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda.”
Born in the Philippines on Oct. 2, 1963, but raised since she was a girl in the United States, Maria Ressa returned to the Philippines. There she co-founded Rappler, a digital media company for investigative journalism. Rappler started in August 2011 as a Facebook page named MovePH and soon grew into an independent news website on Jan. 1, 2012
“As a journalist and the Rappler’s CEO, Ressa has shown herself to be a fearless defender of freedom of expression,” the Nobel announcement continued. “Rappler has focused critical attention on Rodrigo Duterte regime’s controversial, murderous anti-drug campaign. The number of (extra-judicial) deaths is so high that the campaign resembles a war waged against the country’s own population. Ms. Ressa and Rappler have also documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents and manipulate public discourse.”
As has been seen in recent Senate hearings, the algorithms, or formulas used by outlets such as Facebook to determine what content is boosted or repeated, are skewed to reward and repeat content that is abusive and inflammatory, without regard to its truth.
Ressa’s reporting on the Duterte regime has earned her its wrath. She has been convicted by the government of cyber libel under a law passed in 2012 and used to punish criticism of the president and his allies. She is out on bond and appealing, yet facing the possibility of six years in prison.
Until just recently, Ressa was forbidden to leave the country. The government of the Philippines relented and she will be joining her family, now living in the state of Florida, for Thanksgiving. She will have to request permission again to travel to Oslo to receive her prize in person on Dec. 10.
When Maria was one, her mother Hermelina was pregnant with her second daughter, Mary Jane. Before Mary Jane was born, the girls’ father, Phillip Aycardo, died and their mother moved to the United States, where she met and married Peter Ressa. The girls took their stepfather’s name and three more siblings were born: Michelle, Peter and Nicole.
The family lived in Toms River, New Jersey, where Maria graduated from Toms River High School North in 1982. According to a story published on Toms River High School North’s website on Feb. 22, 2021, “she served as class president for three years; performed as a member of the chorus, orchestra, and theatre clubs; played basketball and softball and, unsurprisingly, was voted “most likely to succeed.”
‘She had a facility for learning anything’
Robert Atkins, a former teacher at the school, directed her in a school musical.
“She was in advanced placement classes early in her high school career,” Atkins said. “She had a facility for learning anything: science, math, language arts.
“I was a young teacher, directing her in plays and musicals,” Atkins added. “She was brilliant and very popular; she was humble and mixed very well with students of every level.”
Atkins said she played old, bald Pappy Yokum in a production of the musical “Li’l Abner.”
“She could speak like an old man, holding a corncob pipe and walking with a cane; she didn’t need much coaching or directing,” her teacher recalled. “If something happened on stage during an actual performance or another character forgot their line, she saved the scene. She could send a kid a prompt, turning her head sideways so the audience didn’t know.”
Monroe and beyond
After Maria graduated from high school, the family moved to Monroe, New York, where Maria’s siblings all graduated from Monroe-Woodbury High School. Maria was then attending Princeton University on a full scholarship. She graduated in 1986 with B.A. degree in English and certificates in theater and dance.
She returned to the Philippines as a Fulbright scholar at the University of the Philippines Diliman where she also taught several journalism courses. She began a career in journalism, heading CNN’s bureaus in Manila, Philippines and Jakarta, Indonesia for almost two decades. Besides reporting on politics, she investigated and reported on terrorist networks.
“Technology enabled Rappler’s fast growth,” Ressa said in a Princeton commencement address in 2020, “but we were also among the first victims when social media was weaponized in 2016.”
‘Facebook broke democracy’
Her reporting on the Duterte regime brought about “sustained, coordinated social media attacks—including death threats,” according to Frank Langfitt and Charles Maynes’ podcast on “All Things Considered.” “Social media and some news outlets have propagated disinformation and seek to “undermine the credibility of fact-based news organizations.”
“Facebook broke democracy in many countries around the world, including in mine,” Ressa has said.
A sister’s take
Ressa’s younger sister, Mary Jane Ressa Ballinger, who recently moved from Monroe to the state of Florida, spoke by phone with this newspaper.
The Chronicle: Who were the people who inspired your sister? And in what way? I know she mentioned Cheche Lazzaro as a mentor and co-founder of Probe Productions. Who else inspired her and how?
Ballinger: There have been many people in all phases of her life who inspired Maria. Among the first people was her orchestra teacher Don Spaulding.
The Chronicle: What does she plan to do with the prize money?
Ballinger: She’s owner of Rappler; she has to pay for her own legal fees and employees.
The Chronicle: What drives Maria?
Ballinger: You know I don’t think anything drives her except that she has a passion for truth. She was putting him (Duterte) in a bad light and all she was doing was exposing the truth. And a sense of integrity. Imagine being in jail when you’ve done nothing. We were worried especially with all the death threats and she didn’t want to get any security. The Philippine government denied her travel for the past two years. Our government says we cannot protect you when you leave the US. The Philippine government relented and they’re (Maria and sister Michelle, who also lives in the Philippines) coming home for Thanksgiving.
The Chronicle: How does she manage to be so courageous in the face of a dictatorial regime and death threats?
Ballinger: She’s four foot nothing and braver and stronger than someone eight feet tall. She went head to head with Facebook.”
“Truth at what cost? My answer, apparently, is at all cost. Truth above all. Maybe more accurately, the facts at all cost.”