"We’d like to understand her and what she is fighting for."
It is now generally accepted that the late President Corazon Aquino is one of several individuals who should have been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize -- but was not. She is in the company of Mahatma Gandhi, U Thant and Eleonor Roosevelt among others. Gandhi, for instance, was nominated five times but never received the award.
In the case of Cory Aquino, I remember reading a news item about a Filipino priest who went to Oslo to protest against the award to Cory. One might ask why a priest, of all people, would take all the trouble to go to Norway to protest against a fellow Filipino. I do not have any answer except to say that we Filipinos perhaps belong to a different breed of humans. So, instead of Cory Aquino being the first Filipino Nobel laureate, we now have multi-awarded Filipino-American journalist Maria Ressa as our first recipient.
As the past several days have shown, instead of everyone celebrating that a Filipino is now a Nobel laureate, the reaction has been mixed with some people questioning whether Maria Ressa is deserving of the award. Is this crab mentality? Perhaps, but it is really a lot more complicated than that.
To understand why there have been many criticisms of some recent Nobel Peace Prize recipients, it is helpful to know how it evolved over time. The award is one of five Nobel prizes established according to the will of Swedish industrialist Alfred Nobel. It was first awarded in 1901 with a few exceptions to those who have “done the most or the best work for the fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for holding and promotion of peace congresses.” The recipient is selected with much secrecy by the five member Norwegian Nobel Committee. Why Norwegian? Because Sweden and Norway at the time of Nobel’s death were under the same monarch.
As of 2020, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to 107 individuals and 28 organizations. Of the 107 individuals, 17 were women, 18 now that Maria Ressa is the 2021 awardee. Only one person refused the award and that was Le Duc Tho of Vietnam.
At first, the conditions of the will were followed. But because times change, the Nobel Peace Prize Committee also changed with it. This is why we find many awardees whose accomplishments did not have anything to do with reducing standing armies or promoting peace congresses. What we have are many social activists fighting for social justice. There have also been unusual awardees like the European Union. There is the Prime Minister of Ethiopia who is now embroiled in a war in the Tigray province. The young Pakistani Malala Yousafzai who was shot for wanting to go to school also received the award.
The Nobel Committee has a lot of leeway on who gets the award. For this reason, it has been accused at times of bowing to pressure and making controversial selections. This year, it is about press freedom.
People here can debate to their heart’s content on whether Ressa is deserving of the award or not but the fact remains that the award is not up to us but a European non-government organization. The implication of course, is that there is no press freedom in this country. That’s why Ressa was seen as fighting for press freedom by the Nobel Committee. It does not help if 49 per cent of our citizenry believe that it is dangerous to criticize the government and only about 19 per cent believe otherwise, with 29 per cent having no opinion. The important thing that has happened here because of the award is that for a few days, world attention was focused on press freedom in this country.
The real challenge now is whether this government and succeeding governments will work to improve press freedom here. Let us therefore set aside our differences and congratulate Ressa for her award. It would help however, if she can issue a statement as to what and who she really is. We know that she was born here to Filipino parents. But in one of her interviews, she was quoted as saying that when she was in the United States, she found out that she did not belong there because of the color of her skin. But she also said that when she came back here, she also found out that she did not belong here. So, how does she identify herself? American because of her US upbringing and her passport, or true-blue Filipino? She appears to want the best of both worlds which is not bad in itself. But knowing what and who she is will somehow help us better understand what exactly she is fighting for.