Speaking truth to power at great personal peril
Nobel Prize-winning Journalist and Co-Founder of Rappler
1986 Fulbright U.S. Student to the Philippines
Maria Ressa, a Filipino-American author, Fulbrighter, longtime CNN investigative journalist, and co-founder of the digital media company Rappler, received a 2021 Nobel Peace Prize for her work to support a free press.
“Free, independent, and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies, and war propaganda,” said the Norwegian Nobel Committee, in announcing her as a joint winner of the Peace Prize. “Freedom of expression and freedom of information help to ensure an informed public. These rights are crucial prerequisites for democracy and protect against war and conflict.”
Born in Manila, Ressa moved to the United States with her family at the age of nine and was raised in New Jersey. She earned a bachelor’s degree in English and graduated with honors from Princeton University. In 1986, she received a Fulbright U.S. Student Program award to study toward a master’s degree at the University of the Philippines Diliman.
After her Fulbright, she produced weekly public affairs programs for Philippine television and joined CNN as a local correspondent. For CNN, she traveled and reported extensively in Asia, including China, Japan, South Korea and India. She was the network’s lead reporter on three tumultuous changes of governments in Southeast Asia: in Indonesia in 1998, in East Timor in 1999 and finally in the Philippines in 2001. She opened and ran CNN’s Manila Bureau for nearly a decade before opening the Jakarta Bureau, which she ran from 1995 to 2005. Covering timely and urgent stories such as the growth of terrorism in Southeast Asia, she wrote Seeds of Terror: An Eyewitness Account of al-Qaeda’s Newest Center of Operations in Southeast Asia and From Bin Laden to Facebook: 10 Days of Abduction, 10 Years of Terrorism.
In 2012, she co-founded the Rappler online news site, one of the first multimedia websites in the Philippines. She has distinguished herself as a fearless defender of freedom of expression and has exposed the abuse of power, use of violence and human rights abuses of the regime of President Rodrigo Duterte. In particular, Ms. Ressa focused critical attention on President Duterte’s controversial anti-drug campaign.
She and Rappler have also documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents, and manipulate public discourse. Her investigative work covering terrorism and seeing how it was used both to drive radicalism and build movements for positive change led her to explore how social networks could be used for both good and evil. She serves as a member of the “Real Facebook Oversight Board," which monitors Facebook independently through experts who scrutinize Facebook's decisions in a public forum.
As Rappler’s CEO and president, Maria has endured constant political harassment and arrests by the Duterte government. “The Nobel Committee’s spotlight on journalists acknowledges the increased dangers we face today just to do our jobs,” said Ms. Ressa. “In a battle for facts, journalism is activism. Newsrooms require new thinking and a re-evaluation of leadership: How do we turn our upside-down world right-side-up? What values must guide us?”
In fall 2021 she had a visiting fellowship at the Harvard’s Kennedy School, where she was a Joan Shorenstein Fellow at the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy and a Hauser Leader at the Center for Public Leadership. According to the Kennedy School, Ressa has become something of a one-woman personification of the struggles, perils, and promise of journalism in the age of social media. “Rappler’s mission statement is to speak truth to power and build communities of action for a better world—but for Ressa, speaking truth to power has come at a high personal cost. She has been subjected to harassment, criminal and civil legal action, and even arrest, even as she has refused to back off even an inch.”
For her courage and work on disinformation, Ressa was named Time Magazine’s 2018 Person of the Year, was among its 100 Most Influential People of 2019, and has also been named one of Time’s Most Influential Women of the Century. She was also part of BBC’s 100 most inspiring and influential women of 2019 and Prospect magazine’s world’s top 50 thinkers. In 2020, she received the Journalist of the Year award, the John Aubuchon Press Freedom Award, the Most Resilient Journalist Award, the Tucholsky Prize, the Truth to Power Award, and the Four Freedoms Award.
Among her previous awards are the National Headliner Award for Investigative Journalism in 2002, the SAIS-Novartis International Journalism Award in 2000 for her work in East Timor, the Asian Television Awards in 1999 for Indonesia, and the Ferris Professorship of Journalism at Princeton University for 2001, where she taught a course on Politics and the Press in Southeast Asia.