On January 17, Maria Ressa and her online media outlet, Rappler, were acquitted of four tax evasion charges at the Philippines’ Court of Tax Appeals (CTA). If found guilty, Ressa faced a 34-year sentence.
The prosecution alleged that Rappler failed to include tax income owed from the sale of depository receipts to foreign investors in its financial accounting in 2015. This formed the basis for the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission to revoke Rappler’s operating licence.
In an 80-page decision, three CTA judges ruled that Ressa and the Rappler Holdings Corporation had not committed the alleged tax fraud, as no income had been generated or ownership shares sold through the transactions in question.
The legal decision has been celebrated by journalists' associations and press freedom advocates including the #HoldTheLine coalition, a collection of media and press freedom organisations dedicated to supporting Maria Ressa and Rappler amid targeted legal harassment, of which the IFJ is a member.
Ressa was first charged with tax evasion in 2020, in a series of politically motivated legal challenges by the then-Duterte government after her vocal criticism of Duterte’s drug war. The journalist still faces a previous conviction of cyber libel currently in the final appeal stage before the Philippine Supreme Court.
The NUJP said: “The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines welcomes the acquittal of Maria Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corp. at the Court of Tax Appeals. The cases against Maria and Rappler illustrate the increasing use of the law for reprisal against and intimidation against journalists and civil society. We congratulate Maria and Rappler for this legal victory and their resoluteness and perseverance in the face of the cases.”
The IFJ said: “The legal reprisal and intimidation against Maria Ressa and Rappler for their independent reporting have set a continually grave precedent for press freedom in the Philippines. The decision by the Court of Tax Appeals makes welcome headway in repealing the previous administration’s strategy of bringing politically-motivated cases against journalists and media workers. The IFJ calls for all remaining charges against Ressa to be dropped immediately and urges the government of the Philippines to cease the silencing of critical voices in the media.”