A Philippine court on Tuesday acquitted Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and her media company Rappler of tax evasion charges filed during the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte, a move that may help but won’t entirely calm concerns over media freedom in one of Asia’s oldest democracies.
It was the fifth and final tax evasion charge appealed successfully by Ressa and the online news site stemming from their alleged failure to file accurate tax return in 2015 in connection with Rappler’s issuance of depositary receipts to North Base Media and Omidyar Network. In January, a tax court cleared Ressa and Rappler of four charges that they didn’t pay taxes when the company raised capital through a partnership with the two companies.
In acquitting Ressa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 for her work to safeguard freedom of expression, and Rappler, the local court judge Ana Teresa Cornejo-Tomacruz said “they did not commit the offense charged.”
The online news company said the victory was “for everyone who has kept the faith that a free and responsible press empowers communities and strengthens democracy.”
President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. last year vowed to protect press freedom shortly after the killing of a veteran broadcaster in October. His father, the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos shut down and took over major media outlets including ABS-CBN Corp. when he imposed Martial Law in 1972, only allowing several print media owned by his close associates to operate.
It’s “too early” to say whether Ressa’s acquittal, would bode well for media freedom in the Southeast Asian nation, said Vergel Santos, trustee at the Center for Media Freedom and Responsibility in Manila.
“The nature of governmental power today is not anything so much different from the days of the last regime,” Santos said, referring to Duterte’s administration. “So I wouldn’t be very happy about this. I am only happy for Maria,” he said.
Despite surviving the string of tax charges, Ressa is still facing two other legal cases. Rappler is fighting an order from the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission to close for allegedly violating rules against foreign ownership in mass media. The journalist is also appealing against a cyber libel conviction that could lead to nearly seven years in jail.
Rappler has denied the allegations in the past, accusing Duterte’s government of harassment, intimidation and attempting to silence journalists.
Apart from Ressa, another staunch critic of Duterte, former Senator Leila de Lima who has been in detention for six years had her bail petition denied in June.
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