Nobel winner Maria Ressa, news outlet cleared of tax evasion

MANILA, Philippines (AP) — 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 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,” 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.”

British human rights lawyers Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher welcomed the court’s decision on behalf of Ressa’s international legal team, calling the charges political and an attempt to silence a journalist.

Clooney said Ressa had a 30-year sentence hanging over her head for four years while the court considered “the spurious charges. ... But today we see justice being done. We see judges drawing a line. We see freedom being upheld.”

In a statement, Clooney said, “May this be the beginning of a new chapter in the Philippines in which journalists are safe, speech is free, democracy is secured and the rule of law can prevail.”

Gallagher said Ressa should never have been prosecuted.

“Now, the question is whether this is a one-off, rare victory for justice and press freedom in the Philippines, or a sign of wider change to come,” she said. “The world is watching.”

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

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. They were honored for “their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

The tax charges against 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 nontaxable, removing the basis of the tax evasion charges filed by Justice Department prosecutors under 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 Duterte.

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.

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 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.

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.