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Press Freedom Champion Urges Courage for Journalists Facing ‘World on Fire’

Nobel Peace Prize Winner Awarded Inaugural Prize From Merrill College

By Mennatalla Ibrahim ’22, M.Jour. ’24

Maria Ressa speaks

Filipino and American journalist Maria Ressa speaks Wednesday at Samuel Riggs IV Alumni Center, where she accepted the Philip Merrill College of Journalism's inaugural Maria Ressa Prize for Courage in Journalism. As co-founder of the news site Rappler, her struggles over free expression with the government of the Philippines led to her 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.

Photo by Kate DeBlasis ’21/Philip Merrill College of Journalism

A Nobel Peace Prize-winning advocate for press freedom in the Philippines called for journalists to stand strong in the face of political, economic and technological threats on Wednesday as the first recipient of a new University of Maryland journalism prize named for her.

The Philip Merrill College of Journalism’s Maria Ressa Prize for Courage in Journalism as well as three other Ressa Prizes for Courage in Journalism were presented to individual journalists or news organizations that demonstrate journalistic courage in the face of serious threats from governments or other powerful forces. Those went to ProPublica (investigative journalism), the Marion County Record (local or independent journalism) and The Daily Northwestern (student journalism). The Wall Street Journal’s Evan Gershkovich, who has been detained in Russia since March 2023, was also honored with a special citation.

“This is my 38th year as a journalist, and I have never lived through anything like this—a world on fire,” Ressa said.

As co-founder and CEO of Rappler, the top digital-only news site leading the fight for press freedom in the Philippines, Ressa endured constant political harassment and arrests by the government of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, and was forced to post bail 10 times to stay free.

“At a time when journalism and democracy are under assault, Maria Ressa stands as a beacon and example of the kind of courage required to hold the most powerful in our society to account,” Merrill College Dean Rafael Lorente said.

In her gripping keynote speech, Ressa reflected on her work and the state of journalism today. The highlights included:

  • Courage is crucial to being a good journalist: Courage is doing what’s right, speaking the truth and fighting for your values against intimidation, power and money, she said. Ressa stressed the importance of drawing a line between right and wrong, and holding that line. To do this, Ressa advised journalists to “embrace your fears—think of your worst case scenario and become OK with it.”
  • We are living through an existential crisis for journalism: Rapidly growing machine learning technology and generative AI, which have been increasingly used to prioritize profit over safety, pose huge threats to the journalism industry. Ressa argued that through these avenues, social media platforms, advertising companies and other powerful entities can clone and target individual users, blurring the lines between truth and lies.
  • Social media uses plenty of “insidious” tactics to manipulate its users: Social media operates as a system that modifies behaviors. It is built and designed to be highly addictive, shortens attention spans and encourages activities rooted in tribalism, which is particularly concerning in an election year ”when more than half of the world will vote without any idea of the difference between fact and fiction.”
  • “Online violence is real-world violence,” and it’s especially abundant among female journalists: Ressa vulnerably shared her experience of being harassed, demeaned and publicly shamed online. She was relentlessly criticized, dehumanized and meme-ified for years, and she emphasized her experience isn’t rare. A 2022 study showed 73% of female journalists have endured online abuse, many of whom received threats of physical violence or experienced real offline violence.
  • Journalists are losing their gatekeeping powers: Earlier this year, Ressa's likeness became the latest in a long line of deepfake scams. A manipulated video of her from 2022 created by a Russian scam network began circulating on Facebook and Bing, encouraging folks to invest in cryptocurrency. Ressa worries that large language models (LLMs) more room for personalization, which makes facts seem subjective and our realities seem vastly different from one another.
  • Journalists must reclaim their rights: Ressa and a colleague two years ago pulled together a 10-point action plan, signed by over 300 Nobel laureates, that advocates for journalists’ rights. “Where are the journalists? Why don’t we have a writer’s guild strike? Why are we allowing LLMs to eat all up our content?” Ressa asked. Among these points are stopping surveillance for profit, stopping coded bias and using journalism as an antidote to tyranny.

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