Filipino journalist acquitted in ‘triumph of facts over politics’

Journalist Maria Ressa, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, has been acquitted of the first of many legal cases used by former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to silence her. Human Rights Watch called the charges “bogus and politically motivated.”

Basilio Sepe/AP
Filipino journalist Maria Ressa (center) speaks to the media after a court decision at the Court of Tax Appeals in Quezon City, Philippines, Jan. 18, 2023. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for defying government efforts to close her news organization.

Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa and her online news company were cleared Wednesday of tax evasion charges she said were among a slew of legal cases used by former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to try to muzzle critical reporting.

The Court of Tax Appeals ruled that prosecutors failed to prove beyond reasonable doubt that Ms. Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corp. evaded tax payments in four instances after raising capital through partnerships with two foreign investors. “The acquittal of the accused is based on the findings of the court ... that respondents did not commit the crime charge,” the court said in its decision.

Rappler welcomed the ruling as a “triumph of facts over politics.”

“We thank the court for this just decision and for recognizing that the fraudulent, false, and flimsy charges made by the Bureau of Internal Revenue do not have any basis in fact,” Rappler said in a statement. “An adverse decision would have had far-reaching repercussions on both the press and the capital markets.”

“Today, facts win, truth wins, justice wins,” Ms. Ressa said after the verdict was announced, fighting back tears. “This acquittal, even if took a long time, is not just for Rappler. It is for every Filipino who has ever been unjustly accused.”

Human Rights Watch said the tax charges under Mr. Duterte’s rule were “bogus and politically motivated” and the acquittal of Ms. Ressa and Rappler “is a victory for press freedom in the Philippines.”

Ms. Ressa won the Nobel Peace Prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov in 2021 for fighting for the survival of their news organizations, defying government efforts to shut them down. They were honored for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

The tax charges against Ms. Ressa and Rappler stemmed from a separate charge by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Manila’s corporate watchdog, in 2018 that the news website violated a constitutional provision prohibiting foreign ownership and control of Philippine media companies by receiving funds from foreign investors Omidyar Network and North Base Media through financial papers called Philippine Depositary Receipts.

The commission ordered the closure of Rappler on the basis of the allegation, which Rappler denied and has appealed, saying it is a news company totally owned and controlled by Filipinos.

The tax court ruled that the Philippine Depositary Receipts issued by Rappler were non-taxable, removing the basis of the tax evasion charges filed by Justice Department prosecutors under Mr. Duterte.

“No gain or income was realized by accused in the subject transactions,” the court said.

There was no immediate reaction from the government and Mr. Duterte.

Ms. Ressa and Rappler face three more legal cases – a separate tax case filed by prosecutors in another court, her Supreme Court appeal of an online libel conviction, and Rappler’s appeal of the closure order issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Ms. Ressa faces up to six years in prison if she loses the appeal of the libel conviction, which was filed by a businessman who said a Rappler news report falsely linked him to a murder, drug dealing, human trafficking, and other crimes.

Rappler, founded in 2012, was one of several Philippine and international news agencies that reported critically on Mr. Duterte’s brutal crackdown on illegal drugs that left thousands of mostly petty drug suspects dead and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, including prolonged police-enforced lockdowns, that deepened poverty, caused one of the country’s worst recessions, and sparked corruption allegations in government medical purchases.

The massive drug killings are being investigated by the International Criminal Court as a possible crime against humanity.

Mr. Duterte ended his often-turbulent six-year term last year and was succeeded by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of a dictator who was overthrown in an army-backed “people power” uprising in 1986 following an era marked by widespread human rights violations and plunder.

This story was reported by The Associated Press.

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