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Live Updates: Nobel Peace Prize Awarded to 2 Journalists, Highlighting Fight for Press Freedom


Credit…Dmitry Serebryakov/Associated Press
Credit…Eloisa Lopez/Reuters

Seeking to bolster press freedoms at a time when journalists find themselves under increasing pressure from authoritarian governments and other hostile forces, the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday was awarded to two journalists thousands of miles apart for their tireless efforts to hold the powerful to account.

The journalists, Maria Ressa of the Philippines and Dmitri A. Muratov of Russia, were recognized for “their courageous fight for freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

“They are representatives of all journalists who stand up for this ideal in a world in which democracy and freedom of the press face increasingly adverse conditions,” the committee said in a statement released after the announcement in Oslo.

Ms. Ressa — a Fulbright scholar, and a Time magazine Person of the Year for her crusading work against disinformation — has been a constant thorn in the side of President Rodrigo Duterte, her country’s authoritarian president.

The digital media company for investigative journalism that she co-founded, Rappler, has exposed government corruption and researched the financial holdings and potential conflicts of interest of top political figures. It has also done groundbreaking work on the Duterte government’s violent antidrug campaign.

“The number of deaths is so high that the campaign resembles a war waged against the country’s own population,” the committee said. “Ms. Ressa and Rappler have also documented how social media is being used to spread fake news, harass opponents and manipulate public discourse.”

Speaking on Rappler’s Facebook Live platform, Ms. Ressa said she hoped the award was a “recognition of how difficult it is to be a journalist today.”

“This is for you, Rappler,” she said, her voice breaking slightly, adding that she hopes for “energy for all of us to continue the battle for facts.”

Mr. Muratov has defended freedom of speech in Russia for decades, working under increasingly difficult conditions.

He was one of the founders of the independent newspaper Novaya Gazeta in 1993, and he has been the newspaper’s editor in chief since 1995. Despite a near constant barrage of harassment, threats, violence and even murder, the newspaper has continued to publish.

Since its start, six of the newspaper’s journalists have been killed, including Anna Politkovskaya, who wrote revealing articles about the war in Chechnya, according to the committee.

“Despite the killings and threats, editor in chief Muratov has refused to abandon the newspaper’s independent policy,” the committee wrote. “He has consistently defended the right of journalists to write anything they want about whatever they want, as long as they comply with the professional and ethical standards of journalism.”

Mr. Muratov said the announcement of the prize came as a surprise. When he received a call from an unidentified number from Norway, he told Russian media, he did not initially pick it up.

He said he would donate some of the prize money to the fight against spinal muscular atrophy, a cause for which he has long advocated, and to support journalism against pressure from the Russian authorities.

“We will use this award to fight for Russian journalism, which they’re now trying to repress,” Mr. Muratov told Podyom, a Russian news website.

The Nobel committee chose from 329 candidates, one of the largest pools in the 126-year history of the prize. Those who had been considered favorites for this year included climate change activists, political dissidents and scientists whose work helped fight the Covid-19 pandemic.

In its citation, the committee said that “free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda.”

“Without freedom of expression and freedom of the press,” the committee said, “it will be difficult to successfully promote fraternity between nations, disarmament and a better world order to succeed in our time.”

Credit…Basilio Sepe/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The award of the Nobel Peace Prize to two journalists, Maria Ressa and Dmitri Muratov, comes at a time of growing assaults on a free press across the world, as authoritarian governments extend their reach and the slogan of “fake news” is used to suppress dissenting views.

Ms. Ressa has faced multiple criminal charges for the way her news website Rappler has challenged the rule of President Rodrigo Duterte. Both she and Mr. Muratov, whose Novaya Gazeta newspaper has been a persistent critic of President Vladimir V. Putin, work under governments that use a range of methods — from repressive legislation to arrests — to muzzle criticism.

Last year, both UNESCO and the Council of Europe issued reports deploring the erosion of media freedom. They noted growing police attacks on journalists covering protests, including intimidation and beatings, and the passing of so-called “fake news” laws in countries from Hungary to Russia that can be used to repress legitimate journalism.

The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that 274 journalists were imprisoned in 2020, the highest rate since 1992, and said “the number of journalists singled out for murder in reprisal for their work more than doubled in 2020.”

The V-Dem Institute, a Swedish organization that tracks democratic indicators, said in their 2020 report that “media censorship and the repression of civil society” were “typically the first move in a gradual process” of moving toward autocracy and so “an early warning signal for what might yet be to come.”

It reported that, with respect to freedom of the media, “32 countries are declining substantially, compared to only 19 just three years ago.”

The Committee to Protect Journalists has noted that authoritarian governments have repeatedly taken cover in “anti-press rhetoric from the United States.”

Leaders including Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro and Hungarian President Viktor Orban have used former President Trump’s term “fake news” as a means to discredit the press in general.

The existence online of a growing volume of disinformation becomes a means to undermine real and challenging journalism that adheres to the facts, especially for the growing number of governments across the world that brook no criticism.

Both the Council of Europe and the Committee to Protect Journalists have expressed concern over the way the Covid-19 pandemic has led to violations of journalists’ freedom.

“Despite the importance of media freedom, which arguably has never been more important than during this public health crisis, the pandemic has led to an array of restrictions on reporting,” Scott Griffen, the deputy director of the International Press Institute, said earlier this year.

Among the repressive methods being used to intimidate the press are censorship, restrictive legislation, harassment and, as in Egypt’s case, sweeping curtailment of any social media accounts or websites that are deemed to constitute national security threats.

Of her client, Ms. Ressa, Amal Clooney, a British international human rights lawyer, said: “I am grateful to the Nobel Committee for shining a light on her incredible courage.” She added that she hopes “this prize helps to protect the press around the world.”

Announcing the award, the Nobel committee chair, Berit Reiss-Andersen, said: “Free, independent and fact-based journalism serves to protect against abuse of power, lies and war propaganda. Without freedom of expression and freedom of the press, it will be difficult to successfully promote fraternity between nations.”

Among the prominent journalists murdered in recent years have been Daphne Caruana Galizia of Malta, the Slovakian investigative journalist Jan Kuciak, and, this year, Peter R. de Vries in the Netherlands. All had made it their business to reveal uncomfortable truths.

Credit…Aaron Favila/Associated Press

Maria Ressa said on Friday that her being awarded the Nobel Peace Prize was a recognition of the dangers of being a journalist at a time when freedom of the press was under attack.

In an interview, Ms. Ressa said she was “breathless, stunned and happy” upon hearing about the honor, which she shared with the Russian journalist Dmitri A. Muratov. She said she was in the middle of a live panel discussion about a PBS documentary — which follows her struggles in the war that President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines has waged on the press — when she got a call telling her that she had been awarded the prize.

“I didn’t know how to react, and then, wow,” Ms. Ressa said. “The folks clapped and asked me for a reaction and it hit me. It’s so much that we’ve gone through in the last five and a half years and then this. These highs and lows are making me crazy.”

Ms. Ressa, a co-founder of the independent news site Rappler, said that the Philippine government had filed 10 arrest warrants against her, with seven legal cases still pending. The authorities have essentially banned her from traveling, denying her last four requests to go overseas.

“I’ve just seen my rights being taken away, very slowly,” she said. “What we’re seeing is a thousand cuts to the body politic, to our democracy.”

In selecting two journalists for the Peace Prize, Ms. Ressa said, the Nobel committee showed the world “how dangerous it is to be a journalist today. We’ve never been under attack as much as we have been in the last few years.”

Speaking earlier on her publication’s Facebook Live platform, Ms. Ressa referred to Mr. Duterte’s sweeping crackdown on drugs, which Rappler has covered extensively, uncovering evidence of extrajudicial killings.

She called it a “moment that is so existential, the defense of our democracy in the Philippines, the defense of our rights, human rights, the fact that we have no idea exactly how many people have been killed in a brutal drug war.”

In the drug campaign, she said, police had issued conflicting figures on the numbers of people killed — while rights groups have said that the true toll could reach 30,000.

“This hall of mirrors has to change at a time when accountability does count,” she said. “And I think that what we have to do as journalists is to just hold the line.”

“When you don’t have facts, you don’t have truth,” she added. “You don’t have trust. Trust is what holds us together to be able to solve the complex problems our world is facing today.”

Credit…Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters

In Russia, the prize for Mr. Muratov comes amid the most intense wave of repression against the independent news media in the country’s post-Soviet history.

Leading Russian-language news outlets such as Meduza, TV Rain and Proekt have been declared “foreign agents” or banned outright in recent months, and investigative journalists have been driven into exile. The foreign agent designation puts onerous requirements on the outlets, such as having to publish lengthy disclaimers on social media, threatening their viability.

Mr. Muratov’s Novaya Gazeta is the most prominent independent outlet remaining that has not been declared a foreign agent. Unlike some other independent journalists, Mr. Muratov has sought to find ways to engage with the Kremlin, and he took part in a meeting of Russian editors in chief with Mr. Putin earlier this year.

But he has grown increasingly pessimistic about the future of political freedoms in Russia. Increasingly, he has said, it is the powerful Federal Security Service — the main successor agency to the K.G.B. — that is charged with managing domestic politics, limiting the space for activism or independent journalism ever more.

In recent months, the Kremlin has been able to carry out its crackdown on dissent without provoking a widespread public backlash. That has emboldened the authorities, he says.

“The authorities have suddenly realized that most people have absolutely no need for freedom,” Mr. Muratov told the Russian news website Znak.com in August.

Some Russian analysts and journalists have speculated that it would be only a matter of time until Novaya Gazeta were outlawed or forced out of business. With its extensive coverage of sensitive matters like rights abuses in the Russian republic of Chechnya, environmental disasters caused by leading Russian companies and torture in prisons, the newspaper has earned many enemies.

The recognition by the Nobel committee should give the newspaper a fresh lease on life, its supporters hope.

On Friday, even Margarita Simonyan, the editor of the pro-Kremlin television channel RT, congratulated Mr. Muratov, noting he worked to help ill children.

“We can congratulate Dmitri Muratov,” President Vladimir V. Putin’s spokesman, Dmitri S. Peskov, told reporters. “He consistently works according to his ideals. He is committed to his ideals, he is talented, he is brave and of course this is a high-level recognition.”

The question now is whether the award for Mr. Muratov — the first Russian Nobel Peace Prize laureate in post-Soviet times — helps protect what remains of independent journalism in Russia. Some critics were quick to allege on Twitter that the award could serve the Kremlin by allowing Mr. Putin to point to Novaya Gazeta as proof that freedom of expression in Russia still exists.

“We will try to help those people who are now being declared agents, who are being repressed, and who are being exiled from the country,” Mr. Muratov told a Russian news website, Podyom.

Credit…Alexander Zemlianichenko/Associated Press

During the tenure of President Vladimir V. Putin, six reporters for Novaya Gazeta, the newspaper that Dmitri A. Muratov co-founded in 1993, have been killed for their work. Most prominent was Anna Politkovskaya, an investigative journalist who was shot and killed on Oct. 7, 2006.

Ms. Politkovskaya, a vocal critic of Mr. Putin and his policies in the Chechen war, was shot in the elevator to her apartment building in Moscow. While a court convicted several men for carrying out the assassination, the authorities left unanswered the question of who organized it. Mr. Putin, speaking soon after her death, denied any role by saying Ms. Politkovskaya’s death had created a bigger problem for Russia because of international criticism than her life and work as an investigative journalist.

Founded in 1993, Novaya Gazeta has become the highest-profile independent newspaper in Russia for social and political affairs. The newspaper has three main owners: the last Soviet leader Mikhail S. Gorbachev, who used proceeds from his Nobel Peace Prize to finance the venture; Aleksandr Y. Lebedev, a former KGB agent turned banker and critic of the rise of a new police state; and the newspaper staff, which owns shares.

In one of the early murders, the investigative reporter and member of Parliament, Yuri Shchekochikhin died of a mysterious and painful illness that caused the epidermis, or upper layer of skin, to slough off, in a rare symptom caused by some drug allergies but which Novaya Gazeta newspaper concluded in its own investigation was poisoning.

Mr. Shchekochikhin became ill days before he planned to travel to the United States to share information with American law enforcement about suspected corruption and money laundering at a furniture importing business, the Three Whales, linked to the Federal Security Service, the successor agency to the K.G.B., touching a nerve on an important trend of the security services moving into business. His autopsy results remain classified.

In 2009, Russian nationalists shot to death another of the newspaper’s journalists, Anastasia Boburova, on a sidewalk in the capital together with a human rights lawyer.

In another high-profile killing in 2009, the human rights activist Natalia Estemirova was kidnapped in the Chechen capital of Grozny and subsequently killed. Ms. Estemirova cooperated with Novaya Gazeta in cataloging killings, torture and abductions in Chechnya and linked them to the region’s leader, Ramzan A. Kadyrov. Ms. Estemirova continued this work even after the death of Ms. Politkovskaya in 2006, with whom she had begun her collaboration with the Novaya Gazeta newspaper.

In recent years, the newspaper’s reporters have broken stories investigating the deaths of Russian soldiers in eastern Ukraine.

Their leading reporter on the war, Pavel Kanygin, was kidnapped and beaten by separatists, but nonetheless returned for on-the-ground reporting for the newspaper’s investigation into the shoot-down of a civilian airliner over Ukraine in 2014.

Credit…Bullit Marquez/Associated Press

Since it went live in January 2012, Rappler, the website co-founded by Maria Ressa and three other female journalists, has become one of the Philippines’ most popular and influential media platforms, mixing reporting with calls for social activism. Rappler’s reporters, most of whom are in their 20s, have been especially critical of President Rodrigo Duterte, investigating his extrajudicial killing campaign against people suspected of dealing or using drugs, documenting the spread of government disinformation on Facebook and reporting on malfeasance among his top advisers.

As a result, the site has incurred Duterte’s wrath and been targeted by his loyalists; Ms. Ressa has been forced to increase her personal security and been in and out of court to answer a litany of charges — from libel to tax evasion — that she describes as politically motivated.

In 2020, after years of government threats and accusations, Ms. Ressa and a former Rappler colleague were convicted of cyber libel by a court in Manila. Each could face up to six years in prison, and each was fined $8,000; Ms. Ressa has appealed the ruling.

At the time, she said her conviction should serve as a warning. “We’re redefining what the new world is going to look like, what journalism is going to become,” she said. “Are we going to lose freedom of the press?”

While former President Donald J. Trump called American reporters “the enemy of the people,” Mr. Duterte goes a step further, calling them “sons of bitches” who are “not exempt from assassination.” He has publicly targeted Rappler, calling it a “fake news outlet” sponsored by the C.I.A.

Ms. Ressa, 58, is a dual citizen of the Philippines and the United States, where she spent part of her childhood in Toms River, N.J. She attended Princeton and returned to the Philippines in 1986 on a Fulbright fellowship, as the country was transitioning away from authoritarianism and adopting liberal, democratic ideas.

CNN was looking for a fluent English speaker to report on the transformation and hired Ms. Ressa. She became a fixture of the network’s Asia coverage. After a stint at the ABS-CBN network, she left to start Rappler.

In 2016, Rappler began dispatching reporters into the barrios to investigate the drug killings. Ms. Ressa’s reporters found that the police versions of the murders often didn’t match witness accounts. “Some of the victims seemed to be innocent men whom the police had set up, planting drugs and guns to make it look like these were suspects who resisted,” said Rambo Talabong, a Rappler intern at the time who covered the drug war.

Rappler disputed the death count of 2,167 announced by the Duterte administration at the end of 2016, reporting that about 4,000 more shootings that the government had listed as “unexplained homicides” were in fact part of Mr. Duterte’s drug war.

Later, Rappler reporters uncovered evidence that Mr. Duterte’s loyalists had manipulated Facebook to spread misinformation, prompting Facebook to take down hundreds of pages, accounts and groups for “coordinated inauthentic behavior,” all of them linked to a group started by Nic Gabunada, Duterte’s social media strategist at the time.

Credit…Rappler, via Associated Press

In receiving the Nobel Peace Prize on Friday, the Philippine journalist Maria Ressa became only the 18th woman to be selected for the award in its 126-year history.

With half the world made up of women, the obvious question arises: Why have so few been granted the committee’s most prestigious prize and, more broadly, been generally underrepresented across the Nobel prizes?

Addressing the criticism, the Nobel committee in 2017 acknowledged its poor track record.

“We are disappointed looking at the larger perspective that more women have not been awarded,” said Göran Hansson, vice chair of the board of directors of the Nobel Foundation.

“Part of it is that we go back in time to identify discoveries,” he said. “We have to wait until they have been verified and validated before we can award the prize. There was an even larger bias against women then. There were far fewer women scientists if you go back 20 or 30 years.”

But he acknowledged other problems, including the way people are considered for prizes. Starting in 2018, he said, the committee would take steps to address the imbalance.

“I hope that in five years or 10 years, we will see a very different situation,” he said.

A total of 109 individuals have received the Nobel Peace Prize, which has also been awarded to organizations. The first woman to receive the prize was Bertha von Suttner, an Austrian writer who was a leading figure in a nascent pacifist movement in Europe. She was recognized in 1905, two years after Marie Curie became the first woman to receive a Nobel Prize, in physics.

It would be 26 years before another woman was selected for the award: the American Jane Addams, regarded as the founder of modern social work and an advocate for the concerns of children and mothers. She shared the 1931 prize with Nicholas Murray Butler, then the head of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Other women to receive the honor include Mother Teresa in 1979; the legal reformer Shirin Ebadi of Iran in 2003; the Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Maathai in 2004; and in 2014 the education activist Malala Yousafzai, the youngest recipient of the award.

In 2011, three women shared the award: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia; Leymah Gbowee, a peace activist from Liberia; and Tawakkol Karman, a journalist from Yemen who became the face of the “Arab Spring” uprising in her country.

Credit…Alex Welsh for The New York Times

For more than a century, the annual announcement of the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize has generated global fascination, making the award a byword for selflessness and integrity.

Some of the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s selections, however, have also created controversies that have cast a shadow over the award.

In 2019, Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed of Ethiopia was honored for his “efforts to achieve peace and international cooperation,” especially his initiative to resolve a long-running border conflict with Eritrea. In his Nobel laureate’s lecture, Mr. Abiy spoke of the need to “plant seeds of love, forgiveness and reconciliation in the hearts and minds of our citizens.”

Two years later, Mr. Abiy has faced condemnation from human rights groups for unleashing a brutal military offensive in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Pro-government forces have been accused of massacres, sexual assault and ethnic cleansing, and United Nations officials have said the fighting has worsened a famine in which hundreds of thousands are going hungry.

Even at the time of his award, some experts questioned the wisdom of granting the prize to a young leader who had only been in office for a year, and whose commitment to peace had not been tested. Asked by Al Jazeera in late 2019 whether Mr. Abiy deserved the award, the Nobel committee declined to address concerns about human rights, saying in a statement: “The Norwegian Nobel Committee hopes the peace agreement will help to bring about positive change for the entire populations of Ethiopia and Eritrea.”

To some, the questions recalled those raised about another young, unproven leader: President Barack Obama, who was awarded the prize in 2009 after less than a year in office. The committee honored Mr. Obama for “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.”

Three years later, after Mr. Obama had led the overthrow of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi in Libya, surged U.S. troops into Afghanistan and escalated U.S. drone strikes in Pakistan and Yemen, the author and security analyst Peter Bergen described him as “one of the most militarily aggressive American leaders in decades.”

Other selections have also generated criticism. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was awarded the prize in 1973 for his efforts to negotiate an end to the war in Vietnam, despite his alleged involvement in the devastating U.S. bombing campaign in Cambodia. Aung San Suu Kyi was given the award in 1991 for her opposition to military rule in Myanmar; two decades later, she is better known as the elected leader who defended the army’s brutal offensive against Rohingya Muslims, and who was ousted in a coup earlier this year.

The controversies have dogged the committee, which according to Nobel rules cannot withdraw a prize once it is given. Some commentators have called for the committee, which is made up of five members appointed by Norway’s Parliament, and often include retired politicians, to resign and for international experts to take their place.

“The Nobel name carries international weight and a committee with world-class capabilities should protect it,” Kjetil Tronvoll, director of Peace and Conflict studies at Bjorknes University College in Norway, wrote this year in the Guardian.

Credit…From Left: Frank Vinken/Mpi Fuer Kohlenforschung Epa-Efe, via Shutterstock; John Minchillo, via Associated Press

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded on Wednesday to Benjamin List and David W.C. MacMillan for their development of a new tool to build molecules, work that has spurred advances in pharmaceutical research and lessened the impact of chemistry on the environment.

Their work, while unseen by consumers, is an essential part in many leading industries and is crucial for research.

Chemists are among those tasked with constructing molecules that can form elastic and durable materials, store energy in batteries or inhibit the progression of diseases. That work requires catalysts, which are substances that control and accelerate chemical reactions without becoming part of the final product.

In 2000, Dr. List and Dr. MacMillan — working independently of each other — developed a new type of catalysis that reduced waste and allowed for novel ways to construct molecules. It is called asymmetric organocatalysis and builds upon small organic molecules.

Catalysis is what makes plastics possible; it also allows the manufacture of products such as food flavorings to target the taste buds and perfumes to tickle the nose. But until the discovery by the Nobel laureates, some of the catalysts used by chemists could be harmful to the environment or lead to vast amounts of waste.

The concept developed by Dr. List, a German chemist who is director at the Max Planck Institute for Coal Research, and Dr. MacMillan, a Scottish chemist and a professor at Princeton University, offered a solution. The new process paved the way for creating molecules that can serve purposes as varied as making lightweight running shoes and inhibiting the progress of disease in the body.

“Why did no one come up with this simple, green and cheap concept for asymmetric catalysis earlier?” the Nobel committee wrote. “This question has many answers. One is that the simple ideas are often the most difficult to imagine.”

Credit…Pontus Lundahl/TT News Agency, via Associated Press

Three scientists received the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for work that is essential to understanding how the Earth’s climate is changing, pinpointing the effect of human behavior on those changes and ultimately predicting the impact of global warming.

The winners were Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University, Klaus Hasselmann of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Germany, and Giorgio Parisi of the Sapienza University of Rome.

Others have received Nobel Prizes for their work on climate change, most notably former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, but the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences said this is the first time the Physics prize has been awarded specifically to a climate scientist.

Complex physical systems, such as the climate, are often defined by their disorder. This year’s winners helped bring understanding to what seemed like chaos by describing those systems and predicting their long-term behavior.

In 1967, Dr. Manabe developed a computer model that confirmed the critical connection between the primary greenhouse gas — carbon dioxide — and warming in the atmosphere. His later models, which explored connections between conditions in the ocean and atmosphere, were crucial to recognizing how increased melting of the Greenland ice sheet could affect ocean circulation in the North Atlantic, said Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University.

“He has contributed fundamentally to our understanding of human-caused climate change and dynamical mechanisms,” Dr. Mann said.

About a decade after Dr. Manabe’s foundational work, Dr. Hasselmann created a model that connected short-term climate phenomena such as rain to longer-term climate like ocean and atmospheric currents. Dr. Mann said that work laid the basis for attribution studies, a field of scientific inquiry that seeks to establish the influence of climate change on specific events like droughts, heat waves and intense rainstorms.

Dr. Parisi is credited with the discovery of the interplay of disorder and fluctuations in physical systems, including everything from a tiny collection of atoms to the atmosphere of an entire planet.

All three scientists have been working to understand the complex natural systems that have been driving climate change for decades, and their discoveries have provided the scaffolding on which predictions about climate are built.

Credit…Jonathan Nackstran/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine was awarded jointly on Monday to David Julius and Ardem Patapoutian, two scientists who independently discovered key mechanisms of how people sense heat, cold, touch and their own bodily movements.

Dr. Julius, a professor of physiology at the University of California, San Francisco, used a key ingredient in hot chili peppers to identify a protein in nerve cells that responds to uncomfortably hot temperatures.

Dr. Patapoutian, a molecular biologist at Scripps Research in La Jolla, Calif., led a team that, by poking individual cells with a tiny pipette, hit upon a receptor that responds to pressure, touch and the positioning of body parts.

After Dr. Julius’s pivotal discovery of a heat-sensing protein in 1997, pharmaceutical companies poured billions of dollars into looking for nonopioid drugs that could dull pain by targeting the receptors. But while research is ongoing, the related treatments have so far run into huge obstacles, scientists said, and interest from drug makers has largely dried up.

Pain and pressure were among the last frontiers of scientists’ efforts to describe the molecular basis for sensations. The 2004 Nobel Prize in Medicine was given to work clarifying how smell worked. As far back as 1967, the prize was awarded to scientists studying vision.

But unlike smell and sight, the perceptions of pain or touch are not located in an isolated part of the body, and scientists did not even know what molecules to look for. “It’s been the last main sensory system to fall to molecular analysis,” Dr. Julius said at an online briefing on Monday.

The biggest hurdle in Dr. Julius’s work was how to comb through a library of millions of DNA fragments encoding different proteins in the sensory neurons to find the one that reacts to capsaicin, the key component in chili peppers. The solution was to introduce those genes into cells that do not normally respond to capsaicin until one was discovered that made the cells capable of reacting.

In search of the molecular basis for touch, Dr. Patapoutian, too, had to sift through a number of possible genes. One by one, he and his collaborators inactivated genes until they identified the single one that, when disabled, made the cells insensitive to the poke of a tiny pipette.

Dr. Patapoutian said that he gravitated to studying the sense of touch and pain because those systems remained so mysterious. “When you find a field that’s not well understood,” he said, “it’s a great opportunity to dig in.”

Credit…Frank Augstein/Associated Press

The Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded on Thursday to Abdulrazak Gurnah for “his uncompromising and compassionate penetration of the effects of colonialism and the fate of the refugee in the gulf between cultures and continents.”

Mr. Gurnah was born in Zanzibar, which is now part of Tanzania, in 1948, and currently lives in Britain. He left Zanzibar at age 18 as a refugee after a violent 1964 uprising in which soldiers overthrew the country’s government.

He is the first African to win the award in almost two decades and the fifth overall, after Wole Soyinka of Nigeria in 1986, Naguib Mahfouz of Egypt in 1988, and the South African winners Nadine Gordimer in 1991 and John Maxwell Coetzee in 2003.

Mr. Gurnah’s 10 novels include “Memory of Departure,” “Pilgrims Way” and “Dottie,” which all deal with the immigrant experience in Britain; “Paradise,” shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 1994, about a boy in an East African country scarred by colonialism; and “Admiring Silence,” about a young man who leaves Zanzibar for England, where he marries and becomes a teacher.

Gurnah’s first language is Swahili, but he adopted English as his literary language, with his prose often inflected with traces of Swahili, Arabic and German.

Anders Olsson, the chair of the committee that awards the prize, said at the news conference on Thursday that Gurnah “has consistently and with great compassion, penetrated the effects of colonialism in East Africa and its effects on the lives of uprooted and migrating individuals.”

Laura Winters, writing in The New York Times in 1996, called “Paradise” “a shimmering, oblique coming-of-age fable,” adding that “Admiring Silence” was a work that “skillfully depicts the agony of a man caught between two cultures, each of which would disown him for his links to the other.”

In an interview with the website Africainwords earlier this year, Gurnah spoke about how, throughout his career, he has been engaged with the questions of displacement, exile, identity and belonging.

“There are different ways of experiencing belonging and unbelonging,” he said. “How do people perceive themselves as part of a community? How are some included and some excluded? Who does the community belong to?”


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