MANILA, Philippines — Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa and her online news outlet were acquitted on Wednesday of tax evasion allegations she says were part of a series of legal cases used by former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to try to muzzle critical reporting.
The Court of Tax Appeals ruled that prosecutors had failed to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corp. evaded taxes in four cases after raising capital through partnerships with two foreign investors. “The acquittal of the defendant is based on the court’s findings … that the defendants did not commit the charge,” read the court’s decision.
Rappler hailed the court decision as a “triumph of facts over politics”.
“We thank the court for this fair decision and for recognizing that the fraudulent, false and flimsy allegations made by the Bureau of Internal Revenue have no factual basis,” Rappler said in a statement. “A negative decision would have had far-reaching effects on both the press and the capital markets.”
“Today, facts win, truth wins, justice wins,” Rappler quoted Ressa as saying after the verdict was announced.
Human Rights Watch said the tax bills under Duterte’s rule were “false and politically motivated” and that Ressa and Rappler’s acquittal “is a victory for press freedom in the Philippines.”
Ressa won the 2021 Nobel Prize alongside Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov for fighting to keep their news organizations alive and resisting government efforts to shut them down. The two were honored for “their efforts to uphold freedom of expression, which is a prerequisite for democracy and lasting peace.”
The tax allegations against Ressa and Rappler stemmed from a separate indictment by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Manila’s corporate regulator, in 2018 that the news website violated a constitutional provision that prohibits foreign ownership and control of Filipino media companies when they receive foreign-funded funds Investors were raised by Omidyar Network and North Base Media through financial paper called Philippine Depositary Receipts.
The Philippine Commission then ordered the closure of Rappler based on the allegation, which Rappler denied and appealed as being a news company wholly owned and controlled by Filipinos.
The Tax Court ruled that the Philippine depositary receipts issued by Rappler were not taxable, removing the basis for the tax evasion charges brought by Justice Department prosecutors under Duterte.
“No profit or income was made by the defendants in the transactions concerned,” the court said.
There was no immediate response from the government and Duterte.
Ressa and Rappler are facing three other court cases, a separate tax lawsuit filed by prosecutors in another court, their appeal to the Supreme Court of an online defamation conviction, and Rappler’s appeal of the shutdown order issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Ressa faces up to six years in prison if she loses an appeal against the defamation conviction 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 Filipino and international news outlets critical of Duterte’s crackdown on illicit drugs that has killed thousands of mostly low-level drug suspects and tightened its handling of the coronavirus outbreaks, including extended police lockdowns poverty, caused one of the country’s worst recessions and sparked allegations of corruption in the government’s procurement of medicines.
The massive drug killings sparked an investigation by the International Criminal Court as a possible crime against humanity.
Duterte completed his often tumultuous six-year tenure last year, being succeeded by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of a dictator who was overthrown in an army-backed “People Power” uprising in 1986 after an era of widespread human rights abuses and plunder.
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