Rappler’s tax evasion acquittal ‘a victory for press freedom,’ groups say
MANILA, Philippines – Several groups on Wednesday dubbed the acquittal of Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corporation of tax evasion as a win for press freedom.
The Court of Tax Appeals First Division ruled in favor of Ressa and Rappler on four charges of tax evasion, ending more than four years of trial for a 2018 case that was filed by the Department of Justice under the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte.
‘Victory for press freedom’
Human Rights Watch senior researcher Carlos Conde said in a statement that the media outfit’s acquittal is “a victory for press freedom in the Philippines.”
“We’re happy that the Court of Tax Appeals saw no basis for the charges. We have always maintained that these were bogus and politically motivated,” he said.
“This gives hope for a better press freedom landscape in the Philippines. This signals to journalists and civil society that it is worth fighting for press freedom. This is also a repudiation of Duterte and his brand of brutal, withering politics.”
Conde also sought for the courts to have a similar decision “in the other questionable cases” lodged against Ressa and Rappler.
Bayan Muna chairman Neri Colmenares echoed Conde’s words, calling the court ruling a win for Philippine journalism, but he noted that “the struggle still continues against fake news, red tagging and repression.”
“May this embolden our journalists to hold the line in their fight for truth and in fulfilling their role as the people’s advocates for transparency and accountability,” he said in a separate statement.
Colmenares then called for this court decision to “serve as a reminder that dictatorships will never succeed.”
“We must not let our guard down as fascists, who are intolerant of dissent, are again occupying key positions in the Marcos Jr. administration, itching to ram their kind of thinking on the populace,” he added.
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines, meanwhile, congratulated Ressa and Rappler “for this legal victory and for their resoluteness and perseverance in the face of the cases.”
“While colleagues similarly face legal challenges – from libel to made-up terrorism charges – in relation to their work, we take inspiration from this acquittal that if we stand up and hold the line, we can win,” the group said in its statement.
[Statement] A win for journalists and the rule of law
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines welcomes the acquittal of Maria Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corp. at the Court of Tax Appeals. pic.twitter.com/CJ2SWnH2MO
— NUJP (@nujp) January 18, 2023
An ‘important, positive’ step
The International Center for Journalists and the Hold the Line coalition likewise celebrated the acquittal verdict for Ressa and Rappler as it joined the call for the dismissal of other cases hounding the media outlet.
“This verdict indicates that it is possible for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to hit reset on his predecessors’ vast campaign of media repression,” the coalition’s steering committee said in its own statement.
It then expressed hope that this would signal “the beginning of an end to the previous administration’s strategy to instrumentalize the courts as a means to undermine independent news organizations and damage journalists’ credibility.”
“As an immediate next step, we call for all remaining cases against Rappler and Ressa to be closed and their constant persecution to be stopped once and for all,” the panel added.
ICFJ & the #HoldTheLine coalition applaud today’s Philippine Court of Tax Appeals verdict which has cleared Nobel Laureate @MariaRessa & the news organization she founded, @rapplerdotcom, of tax evasion in 4 of 7 cases brought by the government. Statement: https://t.co/sZNLRp0iXn pic.twitter.com/quGrEUcDES
— International Center for Journalists (@ICFJ) January 18, 2023
The embassies of the Netherlands and Canada, who are co-chairs of the media freedom coalition in the Philippines, said this “marks an important and positive step towards upholding rule of law and media freedom.”
“Any measure that undermines the independence and freedom of the press must be strictly scrutinized with the highest standards of law and human rights,” they said in a joint statement with the embassies of the United Kingdom, Denmark and Germany in the Philippines.
Moving forward, they called for the verdict to “help guide future implementation and regulation that impacts media freedom to effectively safeguard and protect it.”
— NLEmbassyPhilippines (@NLinPhilippines) January 18, 2023
The Movement Against Disinformation, for its part, urged the Marcos administration “to reverse the repressive actions of its predecessor, particularly those that impede the freedom of the press.”
“Trust is one of the most fundamental pillars of democracy, and the ability of journalists to report freely on matters of public interest is crucial,” it underscored in a statement.
MAD LAUDS CTA DECISION ACQUITTING RESSA OF TAX EVASION
On January 18, 2023, the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) acquitted Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corporation (RHC) of four charges of tax evasion. (1/4) pic.twitter.com/qSz8SzhFCY
— Movement Against Disinformation (@PhilippinesMAD) January 18, 2023
Pushing back on harassment
Alliance of Concerned Teachers Partylist Rep. France Castro similarly welcomed the acquittal, noting that the charges filed against Ressa and Rappler were merely forms of government intimidation on forces in the opposition.
“Alam naman natin ang tipo ng harassment suit ang isinampa ng Duterte administration noon kay Maria Ressa, tulad ng mga trumped up charges na isinampa din laban sa mga aktibista at oposisyon,” she said in another statement.
(We know the type of harassment suits that were filed by the Duterte administration against Maria Ressa are similar to the trumped up charges filed against activists and the opposition.)
“With Maria Ressa acquitted, we hope that the P203 billion estate tax of the Marcoses should be collected as soon as possible, because the country needs all the funds we can get, and it is but right that this fund can be utilized by the Filipino people,” Castro further argued.
To recall, the family of President Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has an unsettled P203 billion estate tax.
Marcos has since said he wants to reopen his family’s estate tax case to give them a chance to argue and “clarify the properties” that were said to belong to them.
While Ressa and Rappler have been cleared of four counts of tax evasion, they still have a tax case at the Pasig Regional Trial Court Branch 157, a pending court appeal on the Securities and Exchange Commission’s assertion of its 2018 decision to shut down the company and a petition for review in the works after the Court of Appeals denied the motion for reconsideration filed by Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. on their cyberlibel conviction.