The head of Rappler, a popular online news portal that has criticized President Rodrigo Duterte's war on illegal drugs, posted bail on Monday for a tax evasion case, which she described as government harassment.
Maria Ressa, president and CEO of Rappler Holdings Corporation, posted bail of up 60,000 pesos (U.S. $1,154) after a local court issued an arrest warrant against her last week.
The warrant against Ressa, a veteran journalist who formerly worked for Cable News Network (CNN), came after the government accused Rappler of violating the country’s tax code when the company allegedly misrepresented its tax returns when it issued Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR) for some of its former U.S.-based investors.
The government had moved earlier to shut down the website, saying it violated a constitutional provision that all media entities based in the country should be fully owned by Filipinos. Rappler’s American investors subsequently let go of their PDRs.
The case would have ended there, but the government said she failed to properly pay taxes on the sale or transfer of the PDRs.
“I surrendered to the court this morning, went through the process of what a criminal would go through, and filed bail without surrendering my right to question the Pasig court's jurisdiction over this tax case. This is a clear case of harassment,” said Ressa, who confirmed there was an arrest warrant released on the basis of what she described as “politically-motivated charges.”
“I think it is a way of sending a signal that we have to be careful. That's part of what they want to do,” she told reporters. “But the more they do things like this, these ridiculous things, the more we're going to continue to do investigative reporting.”
Presidential Spokesman Salvador Panelo rejected Ressa’s statement, saying the Rappler chief executive was “entitled to the presumption of innocence” and could avail of legal remedies.
“How can they be prosecuted? It’s a question of tax evasion, you violate tax laws then you will be prosecuted,” Panelo told reporters.
“If you have a justifiable reason for so doing or have … evidence to show that it’s not true, then you will be acquitted,” he said.
“We have repeatedly said that we have never and we’ll never interfere with the function of the judiciary. If the judiciary finds probable cause for an information filed, then we have to respect the law on the matter,” Panelo said.
Brad Adams, Asia director of New York-based Human Rights Watch, said the Duterte government’s move had "sent a chilling message to journalists and human-rights activists that they will be targeted for exposing his murderous campaign.”
“Friends of the Philippines should make it clear to the president that the case against Ressa and Rappler should be dropped or there will be serious diplomatic consequences,” Adams said.
The World Editors Forum also condemned Ressa’s arrest warrant, saying it was an attempt to intimidate journalists in the Southeast Asian country.
“She vows to #holdtheline. Editors around the world are with her on this,” the group said on Twitter.
The Brussels-based International Federation of Journalists issued a similar statement defending Ressa, citing the ongoing crackdown by the Duterte administration against critical voices as a violation of the Filipinos’ constitutionally-guaranteed right to a free press.
Duterte has also banned Rappler reporters from covering official presidential functions, arguing that they were not real journalists.
The government’s moves sparked widespread protests, with media groups saying it was a vendetta by Duterte for Rappler’s stories about his drug war that rights groups say has killed thousands. The president once accused Rappler of being controlled by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency without giving any proof.
The owner of Rappler’s PDRs – the U.S.-based Omidyar Network and North Base Media – later divested their shares and transferred them to Rappler employees.
According to police, almost 5,000 suspects have been killed in counter-narcotics operations between June 2016, when Duterte took office, and December 2017. But international and local rights groups have estimated a higher figure of about 12,000 deaths.