On Tuesday, Maria Ressa, a Philippine journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, was cleared of tax fraud by a Philippine court, marking the latest legal triumph in her campaign to protect her news site Rappler, which has come to symbolise the vulnerability of press freedoms in the country.
According to the verdict, a regional trial court in Pasig City, not far from Manila, determined that Ms. Ressa did not break Philippine tax law. According to a statement released by Rappler, this was the sixth and last tax-related complaint brought against Ms. Ressa and her newspaper. In January, they were found not guilty on four related offences.
Since Ms. Ressa started the news site in 2012, the country’s most renowned journalist has been subjected to harassment and intimidation. She has been the target of many lawsuits, both civil and criminal, alleging anything from tax fraud to breaches of foreign ownership regulations. She was accused of spreading false information online and was released on bond.
While reporting on the harsh antidrug campaign of authoritarian but popular former leader Rodrigo Duterte, the government filed tax fraud charges against the news outlet. Ms. Ressa was able to receive the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 thanks in part to this publicity.
Representing Ms. Ressa, attorney Francis Lim said he hoped Tuesday’s acquittal was “the start of the winding but long series of victories” for the journalist.
To what extent Rappler’s legal issues will persist under current president Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the tax accusations were among the first high-profile tests. He has used internet misinformation to his advantage since entering power in June 2022, when he attempted to downplay the harshness of his father’s leadership from decades before. Many people who care about press freedom have asked him to help Ms. Ressa so that he can back up his claims that he supports press freedom.
North Base Media and Omidyar Network, two American corporations, were accused of tax evasion for their stakes in Rappler. The Philippine government claimed that Rappler broke laws prohibiting foreign ownership of Philippine media. Rappler said that the investment was legitimate since neither investor held equity in the firm or had any say in day-to-day operations.
Rappler has maintained publication during its legal conflicts. The news outlet said the government’s case should have been dropped once the Omidyar Network gave its investment to Rappler staff in 2018. But then the government accused Rappler of tax evasion related to that deal.
Ms. Ressa said at the time that the allegations were made as if Rappler were a “dealer in securities,” rather than a journalistic organisation. She also noted that Rappler has made all of the requisite tax payments for a Philippine news organisation.
Ms. Ressa and Rappler are now defendants in many additional lawsuits. She was found guilty of cyber libel in June of 2020 and faces up to six years in jail if convicted. She is also challenging a decision by the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission to remove the site’s operating licence for breaking laws limiting foreign ownership of Philippine media.