The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Democracy must not die in darkness

An electronic screen projects the logo of online news site Rappler at their offices in Manila on June 29. (Rolex Dela Pena/EFA/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
3 min

In their Nobel Peace Prize lectures last Dec. 10 in Oslo, both Dmitry Muratov of Novaya Gazeta and Maria Ressa of Rappler, journalists of distinction and grit who faced off against repressive governments, warned of dangers ahead. “The world has fallen out of love for democracy,” said Mr. Muratov. “The world has begun to turn to dictatorship.” Ms. Ressa declared: “Without facts, you can’t have truth. Without truth, you can’t have trust. Without trust, we have no shared reality, no democracy, and it becomes impossible to deal with our world’s existential problems: climate, coronavirus, the battle for truth.”

They were the first working journalists to win the Nobel Prize since 1936, but just months after the ceremony, their warnings ring more true than they might have imagined. Mr. Muratov’s publication suspended operations in March under President Vladimir Putin’s threat to punish news media that criticize Russia’s barbaric war on Ukraine. On June 28, Ms. Ressa announced that Rappler has again been ordered to close by Philippine authorities after a years-long struggle to expose the underside of President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on drugs — and other abuses.

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They are at the front lines of a global contest of immense importance. A healthy democracy depends on a vibrant civil society in which independent associations and groups act as connectors between the public and its rulers. The press plays an indispensable role, making the system accountable and leading to change. But a regime that holds a monopoly on power cannot tolerate a free and freewheeling press, as both Rappler and Novaya Gazeta discovered. Democracy dies in darkness, the words that grace our front page, also describe a deepening crisis around the globe, from Ukraine to Myanmar, Belarus to Cuba, China to Russia. Journalists are struggling, their backs against the wall in the quest for truth.

Ms. Ressa, who has been an outspoken champion of free speech, founded Rappler in 2012, building a scrappy news website that exposed arbitrary executions in the drug war and took on the difficult topic of social media manipulation and disinformation. On June 29, the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission reaffirmed a 2018 decision that Rappler violated a ban on foreign ownership in mass media — involving an investment by Omidyar Network — and issued a shutdown order. Rappler vowed to appeal, and called the proceedings “highly irregular.” Ms. Ressa said it would not shut down. She has been a target of government harassment for years. “In less than two years, the Philippine government filed 10 arrest warrants against me,” she said in the Nobel address. “I’ve had to post bail 10 times just to do my job. … All told, the charges I face could send me to jail for about 100 years.” She added, “What was meant to intimidate me and Rappler only strengthened us.”

Her determination is admirable, but no one should underestimate the difficulty of standing up to a powerful tyrant. Hopefully, Rappler will not stop shedding light on dark corners, and Novaya Gazeta will soon return to this essential mission.

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Editorials represent the views of The Post as an institution, as determined through debate among members of the Editorial Board, based in the Opinions section and separate from the newsroom.

Members of the Editorial Board and areas of focus: Opinion Editor David Shipley; Deputy Opinion Editor Karen Tumulty; Associate Opinion Editor Stephen Stromberg (national politics and policy, legal affairs, energy, the environment, health care); Lee Hockstader (European affairs, based in Paris); David E. Hoffman (global public health); James Hohmann (domestic policy and electoral politics, including the White House, Congress and governors); Charles Lane (foreign affairs, national security, international economics); Heather Long (economics); Associate Editor Ruth Marcus; and Molly Roberts (technology and society).