CNN  — 

The Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to journalists Maria Ressa and Dmitry Muratov, for their longstanding efforts to safeguard freedom of expression in the Philippines and Russia.

Ressa is the CEO of Rappler, a news outlet critical of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s regime, while Muratov heads the independent Russian newspaper Novaya Gazeta. Both have faced legal and physical threats during their careers, as their respective governments cracked down on the rights of journalists.

“Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda,” Berit Reiss-Andersen, chair of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, said as she announced the prize in Oslo on Friday.

She said the pair are “representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions.” Reiss-Andersen added that the committee’s choice was intended to “underscore the importance of protecting and defending these fundamental rights.”

Ressa, a former CNN bureau chief and TIME Person of the Year, has been engulfed in legal battles in recent years and says she has been targeted because of her news site’s critical reports on Duterte.

Muratov and Ressa have faced legal and physical threats since they established their news outlets.

“We need to sound the alert to every person in a democracy,” she told CNN in 2019 on her fight for freedom of expression. “These freedoms are being eroded in front of our eyes … If you don’t have facts, you can’t have truth.”

Ressa becomes the first woman to be awarded a Nobel Prize this year. The awards in medicine, physics, chemistry and literature were given out earlier this week.

Six staff members at the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta have been killed since Muratov co-founded the outlet in 1993, the committee said. He has served as the paper’s editor-in-chief since 1995.

“The newspaper’s fact-based journalism and professional integrity have made it an important source of information on censurable aspects of Russian society rarely mentioned by other media,” the committee said.

It added that Muratov has “consistently defended the right of journalists to write anything they want about whatever they want, as long as they comply with the professional and ethical standards of journalism.”

Press freedom curtailed worldwide

The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s decision to recognize two journalists comes as countries around the world roll back the rights of reporters.

Media watchdog Reporters Without Borders, themselves considered a contender for the prize, said in its most recent Press Freedom Index that journalism “is totally blocked or seriously impeded in 73 countries and constrained in 59 others.”

Last year the organization told CNN that had a free press been allowed in China, the world would have known about the coronavirus outbreak far earlier and the virus may not have been allowed to spiral into a global pandemic.

“Freedom of expression and freedom of information help to ensure an informed public,” Reiss-Andersen said during Friday’s ceremony. “These rights are crucial prerequisites for democracy and protect against war and conflict.”

The crackdown on journalistic freedom is closely felt at both Rappler and Novaya Gazeta. Reacting to his win, Muratov said the prize is a testament to the newspaper’s dedication to free speech and his colleagues who have died fighting for it, Russian state media TASS reported.

“I worked, I was busy. They called me from the Nobel Committee, but I didn’t pick up the phone. I didn’t even have time to read the entire text,” he told TASS. “I’ll tell you this: this is not my merit. This is Novaya Gazeta. These are those who died defending the right of people to freedom of speech.”

Anna Politkovskaya, once a leading voice in Russia reporting on the Chechnya war for Novaya Gazeta, was killed 15 years ago on Thursday.

“I am in shock,” Ressa said during a live broadcast by Rappler on Friday, according to Reuters. On Thursday, a day before she won the prize, Ressa spoke to CNN about next year’s Philippine elections. “I have covered this country since 1986, I’ve never been the news but the only reason I’ve become the news is because I refuse to be stamped down, I refuse to stop doing my job the way I should,” she said.

Maria Ressa during a press conference in Manila in 2018.

Ressa added that while she was at CNN, she “had enough of a network to be able to fight back” against threats to freedom of expression. “I’m not fighting against the Duterte administration, I’m fighting for my rights. I’m still idealistic,” she said.

Joel Simon, the executive director of the Committee to Protect Journalists, congratulated the pair on their victory, calling Ressa and Muratov “two fearless journalists and symbols of the struggle for press freedom.”

It is the 102nd time the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded. Previous winners include Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Polish dissident Lech Walesa, the Soviet Union’s last leader Mikhail Gorbachev, and four US Presidents. Last year the UN’s World Food Programme claimed the prize.

The prize has at times attracted controversy. In 2019, the award was given to Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who has since become an international pariah for his role in presiding over a protracted civil war in Tigray that, by many accounts, bears the hallmarks of genocide and has the potential to destabilize the wider Horn of Africa region.

Reiss-Andersen was asked to comment on whether Ahmed has lived up to the committee’s expectations during Friday’s press conference, but avoided the question.