Manila Court acquits Nobel Laureate Ressa of tax evasion

Camille Elemia
Manila Court acquits Nobel Laureate Ressa of tax evasion Philippine journalist Maria Ressa raises her hands in jubilation as she emerges from court after being acquitted in a tax evasion case, in Manila, Jan. 18, 2023.
[Gerard Carreon /BenarNews]

A Philippine court on Wednesday acquitted journalist and Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa of tax evasion, a legal victory that human rights advocates hoped would spur similar outcomes in politically motivated cases against other reporters. 

Ressa, a fierce critic of former President Rodrigo Duterte, said the court ruling was a triumph for truth and justice. The co-founder and CEO of the Rappler news website still faces three more cases, including a cyber libel conviction currently being appealed.

The first division of the Court of Tax Appeals in Manila cleared Ressa and her company, Rappler Holdings Corp., on all four tax evasion charges “for failure of the prosecution to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt.”

“No civil liability may be adjudged against the accused as the alleged unpaid tax obligations have not been factually and legally established and proven,” the court said in ruling on the case, which was filed against Ressa and Rappler under the Duterte administration (2016-2022).

According to the charges, Rappler evaded tax payments when it raised capital through its partnership with two foreign investors. Rappler issued local financial instruments, known as Philippine Depository Receipts (PDR), to the two investors in 2015.

Prior to the tax cases, the Philippine Securities Exchange Commission had ordered Rappler to shut down for allegedly violating constitutional rules on foreign media ownership. Rappler argued that it was fully owned by Filipinos and that the PDRs did not give the investors voting rights or ownership.

The website’s legal battles began after Duterte lambasted the news outlet for its critical reporting of his notorious drug war, which killed thousands of Filipinos. 

After the court verdict, an emotional Ressa spoke to reporters and reiterated that the cases against her were politically motivated.

“These charges were a brazen abuse of power, political harassment against journalists trying to hold power to account,” said Ressa, who was awarded the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize along with Russian news editor Dmitry Muratov.

She called for freeing jailed journalists and dissenters, such as Frenchie Mae Cumpio and former Sen. Leila de Lima.

“This is where business, capital markets, and press freedom meet. So this victory is not just for Rappler, it’s for every Filipino who has ever been unjustly accused,” Ressa said.

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.

Ressa also faces a tax case at a local trial court, and her company Rappler’s appeal against its closure order.

Human rights groups welcomed the verdict, with Amnesty International urging that the cyber libel case against Ressa be dropped.

“We call on authorities to now drop cyber libel and other additional charges looming over Ressa so she can continue doing her job,” it said in a statement.

“The cyber libel provision of the Cybercrime Prevention Act continues to be misused and abused by the authorities to intimidate journalists and harass human rights defenders speaking truth to power. This practice threatens the right to freedom of expression and the press, and further drives impunity in the government.”

Amnesty also called on President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to ensure that stronger measures be put in place to investigate rights violations that journalists write about.

Human Rights Watch called the court ruling “a victory for press freedom in the Philippines.” 

“We’re happy that the Court of Tax Appeals saw no basis for the charges. We have always maintained that these were bogus and politically motivated,” said Carlos Conde, senior HRW researcher, in a statement sent to reporters.

“We hope the courts rule similarly in the other questionable cases Maria and her colleagues at Rappler have been forced to face.” 

Business implications

Francis Lim, Rappler’s lead counsel, said the court ruling would have “implications not just for freedom of the press, but investors in general.” 

Several companies in the Philippines use the same financial instruments as Rappler did for investment.

“Taxation can never be used by the government to muzzle press freedom,” Rappler tax counselor Eric Recalde said.

Rappler, in a separate statement, welcomed the court decision that countered the findings of “a politicized Bureau of Internal Revenue under the Duterte administration.”

“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 (BIR) do not have any basis in fact,” Rappler said.

“An adverse decision would have had far-reaching repercussions on both the press and the capital markets.”

Basilio Sepe and Gerard Carreon in Manila contributed to this report.


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