MANILA – Philippine Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and her news site Rappler were acquitted of tax fraud by a trial court on Tuesday, in another legal victory for the embattled journalist and for press freedom in the South-east Asian country.
Ms Ressa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 alongside a Russian journalist, is head of Rappler, which earned a reputation for its intense scrutiny of former Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly war on drugs.
After the verdict was announced, Ms Ressa told reporters her acquittal sends a “good signal” to the business community, as her tax charges “have a lot to do with the rule of law”.
“The acquittal now strengthens our resolve to continue with the justice system, to submit ourselves to the court despite the political harassment, despite the attack on press freedom,” she said.
“It shows that the court system works. We hope to see the remaining charges dismissed.”
Shortly after Tuesday’s verdict was read out in court, a beaming Ms Ressa returned to Rappler’s newsroom, where she was greeted by clapping and cheering colleagues.
Ms Ressa told AFP the latest acquittal was confirmation that “we weren’t foolish to trust the justice system at a time when it was being used against us because we’re journalists”.
While the legal process had taken nearly five years and been “absolutely exhausting”, she said she hoped this latest victory would remind the public that journalists were needed “to keep power accountable, and to help power make the right decisions”.
“Doing the right thing is the right thing,” said Ms Ressa, who is also a US citizen.
“It’s up to us to… hold the line.”
Ms Ressa’s acquittal was expected after she was cleared of similar tax charges nine months ago.
Those charges stem from a 2018 government indictment that accused her and Rappler of dodging tax payments after failing to declare proceeds of a 2015 sale of depositary receipts to foreign investors.
Ms Ressa and Rappler are still fighting two cases, including a cyber-libel conviction that could put her behind bars for nearly seven years, and another that could shut down Rappler.
She is now on bail.
Rappler is still operating unhindered, pending its appeal against a closure order from the securities regulator.
Many Filipino journalists had feared for press freedom under President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who largely shunned the mainstream media on the 2022 campaign trail.
His own father had shut down independent media outlets during his rule, which ended in a bloodless revolution in 1986.
Since taking office, however, Mr Marcos has been more open to answering questions from reporters, though one-to-one interviews are still rare.
He has also publicly vowed to protect the rights of journalists.
Mr Marcos, who has been in office for 14 months, has said he would not interfere in the court cases against Rappler.
Ms Ressa said the “fear that engulfed us” during Mr Duterte’s rule had largely gone since Mr Marcos took power.
She attributed that to his desire to “change that history” of his family and vindicate their “tarnished” name.
Mr Francis Lim, one of Ms Ressa’s lawyers, said the team hoped the latest acquittal would lead to the dismissal of the other cases, including the closure order.
The Philippines is ranked 132 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, which describes its media as “extremely vibrant despite the government’s targeted attacks and constant harassment” against journalists who are “too critical”. REUTERS, AFP
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