Philippine Nobel laureate Maria Ressa cleared in final tax evasion case

BenarNews staff
Philippine Nobel laureate Maria Ressa cleared in final tax evasion case Philippines Nobel laureate Maria Ressa faces the media after she and her news site Rappler were acquitted of tax fraud by a trial court in Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines, Sept. 12, 2023.

A Philippine court on Tuesday acquitted Nobel laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa of her final tax evasion charge, in what is being hailed as another win for press freedom in the Southeast Asian nation.

Ressa, a fierce critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte, has been embroiled in legal battles after Rappler began its critical reporting of Duterte’s notorious drug war, which killed thousands of Filipinos. 

The Pasig Regional Trial Court Branch 157 cleared Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corporation of criminal and civil liability in an 18-page ruling on Tuesday. The decision comes eight months after the 59-year-old was cleared of four other tax charges that were filed by the Duterte-era Bureau of Internal Revenue and Department of Justice.

After the hearing, a smiling Ressa told reporters the verdict showed that the “court system works,” and it was a good signal to the business community because the tax evasion case threatened the rule of law.

“The acquittal now strengthens our resolve to continue with the justice system, to submit ourselves to the court despite the political harassment, despite the attacks on press freedom … We hope to see the remaining charges dismissed,” she said.

Ressa, the co-founder of Rappler, still faces two more cases, including a cyber libel conviction currently being appealed.

Rappler called the acquittal a “victory” not just for itself “but for everyone who has kept the faith that a free and responsible press empowers communities and strengthens democracy.”

“We share this with our colleagues in the industry who have been besieged by relentless online attacks, unjust arrests and detentions, and red-tagging that have resulted in physical harm,” the news website said in a statement.

“We share this with Filipinos doing business for social good but who, like us, have suffered at the hands of oppressive governments,” it added.

20230912 Ressa Tax Case Promulgation at Pasig RTC - jvc-6.jpg
Rappler CEO Maria Ressa, with her lawyers, outside the Pasig Regional Trial Court on Sept. 12, 2023 after she was acquitted on her fifth and final tax evasion case. [Gerard Carreon/BenarNews]

Rappler’s years-long legal battles began after drawing the ire of Duterte, who earned a reputation for launching foul-mouthed attacks and threatening critics.

Thousands of Filipinos died in extrajudicial killings under his drug crackdown, which is being investigated by the International Criminal Court in The Hague.

“The tax evasion cases against Rappler were politically motivated and this verdict vindicates the news organization and its journalists,” Carlos Conde, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, told reporters on Tuesday.

Despite the acquittal, there are only two remaining cases against Rappler and Ressa, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her “efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.”

In June 2020, Ressa was convicted of cyber libel along with researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. They are currently out on bail pending their appeal at the Supreme Court.

This case stemmed from a May 2012 report that exposed a former chief justice’s alleged links to businessmen, including Wilfredo Keng. The court ruled that Ressa and Santos had maligned Keng’s reputation.

Rappler, meanwhile, is challenging a closure order from the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission, which was acting on an allegation from the Duterte administration that it is foreign-owned. Constitutional rules bar foreign media ownership in the Philippines.

Rappler maintains it is a 100% Filipino-owned company.

Jeoffrey Maitem and Jojo Riñoza in Manila contributed to this report.


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