LONDON—This Nobel Prize committee has just made one of the most aggressively political statements in its history by awarding the Peace Prize to two known enemies of powerful, serving heads of state.
The joint winners are a pair of journalists known as the bête noirs of two of the world’s most despotic, democratically elected leaders. Make no mistake; elevating the top critics of Russian President Vladimir Putin and Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte is intended as a direct insult.
Putin, who craves respect from the international community, dreams of winning the Peace Prize himself. Someone even nominated him this year—although the Kremlin claims to have absolutely no idea who submitted his name.
Putin will be fuming to see one of his critics receive the award instead.
Dmitry Muratov is the editor-in-chief of Novaya Gazeta, the leading independent newspaper yet to be snuffed out by the Russian authorities. He won the prize for “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression” along with Maria Ressa, a former CNN investigative reporter who founded a fiercely independent news site in the Philippines. She was thrown in jail last year under spurious circumstances after her website refused to tow Duterte’s line.
Since Putin became president in 2000, seven Novaya Gazeta journalists have been murdered and still the newspaper continues to hold the Kremlin to account.
This week marks the 15th anniversary of the assassination of Anna Politkovskaya, a New York-born Novaya Gazeta star whose investigative work spared no one in Putin’s inner circle. She was gunned down outside her apartment at the age of 48 after publishing Putin’s Russia: Life in a Failing Democracy, a bravura takedown of the Putin regime that compared it to the brutal and corrupt Soviet police states of a bygone era.
The anniversary was significant because 15 years marks the statute of limitations under Russian law. We now know—although we had already long-guessed—that the men who ordered Politkovskaya to be silenced on Putin’s birthday will never be held to account.
The deaths of Politkovskaya and six of her brave colleagues failed to shut Novaya Gazeta up. Muratov has been at the helm throughout this tumultuous period, as editor from 1995 to 2017 and then as editor in chief.
Speaking at a packed press conference in Moscow, Muratov said it was the assassinated journalists of his newspaper who were the real winners. “This prize is for Dmitry Domnikov, Yuriy Shekochikhin, Anna Politkovskaya, Stas Markelov, Anastasia Baburova, Natasha Estemirova, the father-founders of the newspaper who the war took away from us, all our killed professionals, who gave their lives to the profession. I am not an appropriate beneficiary of this award. Since they don’t give post-mortem Nobel prizes, I think they just found a way for Ania to get the Prize through the second pair of hands.
“If I were in the Nobel Prize committee I would have voted for Alexei Navalny. Navalny is a charismatic, sarcastic man. I think he has a huge political future.”
Pavel Kanygin, who is responsible for Novaya Gazeta’s teamwork with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, told The Daily Beast, “The Nobel Prize is our shield. Muratov told us that it is a prize for our entire newsroom and that now we are going to be able to protect the reporters under attack with our shield.
“But Muratov’s personal heroism is what really deserves the prize: He made it possible for us, the paper’s reporters, to investigate the crucial stories and stay alive, not get killed—that is a huge success for Russia today.”
This is a brilliant newspaper, responsible for wonderful reporting on the conflicts in Chechnya and Georgia; the downing of flight MH17; the purging of LGBT communities; and this week’s Pandora Papers revelations. This Peace Prize is clearly a snub to the Kremlin but that does not downplay how much the actual work done by Muratov and his team deserves recognition.
The Committee to Protect Journalists gave him their press freedom award in 2007, saying he had overseen “the only truly critical newspaper with national influence in Russia today.” In the years since, press freedom in Russia has dwindled ever further, with other independent news outlets being forced to close and Novaya Gazeta assuming ever more importance.
Ressa’s Rappler news site is also virtually a lone voice of dissent in a country where freedom of speech has been severely curtailed. She is determined to fight back. In fact, she wrote the book: How to Stand Up to a Dictator.
Ressa is a U.S. citizen but refused to leave the country despite persistent threats under the rule of a self-styled strongman, sometimes dubbed “the Trump of the East.” She is currently out of prison on bail—pending an appeal—after she was convicted under a newly introduced “cyber libel” law.
“In less than two years the Philippine government filed 10 arrest warrants against me—it was pretty bleak,” she said after Friday’s announcement.
The Peace Prize has not gone to a journalist since 1935, when Carl von Ossietzky was honored for exposing Germany’s secret re-armament plan.
“This is the first time in its history that the Nobel Committee has so explicitly recognized the global freedom to write and those who risk their freedom and safety to uphold it,” said PEN American CEO Suzanne Nossel.
The Nobel Peace Prize undoubtedly has a checkered history, with some recent winners going on to be associated with heinous, eminently non-peaceful acts, but it is still the most heralded, important, and prestigious award on earth.
For Putin and Duterte, this will sting.
Additional reporting by Anna Nemtsova.