Nobel laureate and journalist Maria Ressa acquitted by Philippine court
Ressa and online news site Rappler had faced multiple charges of tax evasion
A Philippine tax court on Wednesday cleared Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa and her online news company of tax evasion charges she said were part of a slew of legal cases used by former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte to muzzle critical reporting.
The Court of Tax Appeals ruled that prosecutors failed to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corp. evaded tax payments in four instances after raising capital through partnerships with two foreign investors.
"The acquittal of the accused is based on the findings of the court...that respondents did not commit the crime charge," the court said in its decision.
Rappler welcomed the court decision as "the triumph of facts over politics."
"We thank the court for this just decision and for recognizing that the fraudulent, false, and flimsy charges made by the Bureau of Internal Revenue do not have any basis in fact," Rappler said in a statement. "An adverse decision would have had far-reaching repercussions 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.
Ressa, Rappler still face other charges
Ressa, 59, won the Nobel with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov in 2021 for fighting for the survival of their news organizations, defying government efforts to shut them. The two were honoured for "their efforts to safeguard freedom of expression, which is a precondition for democracy and lasting peace."
The tax evasion case stemmed from accusations by the state revenue agency that Rappler had omitted from its tax returns the proceeds of a 2015 sale of depositary receipts to foreign investors, which later became the securities regulator's basis to revoke its license.
The Philippine Justice Department said it respected the decision of the court.
Ressa and Rappler face three more legal cases, a separate tax case filed by prosecutors in another court, her Supreme Court appeal on an online libel conviction, and Rappler's appeal against the closure order issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Rappler, founded in 2012, was one of several Philippine and international news agencies that critically reported on Duterte's brutal crackdown on illegal drugs that left thousands of mostly petty drug suspects dead and his handling of the coronavirus outbreaks, including prolonged police-enforced lockdowns, that deepened poverty, caused one of the country's worst recessions and sparked corruption allegations in government medical purchases.
The massive drug killings sparked an investigation by the International Criminal Court as a possible crime against humanity.
Duterte ended his often-turbulent six-year term last year and was succeeded by Ferdinand Marcos Jr., the son of a dictator, who was overthrown in an army-backed "people power" uprising in 1986 following an era marked by widespread human rights violations and plunder.
The Philippines ranked 147 out of 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, and the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines seventh in the world in its 2021 impunity index, which tracks deaths of media members whose killers go free.
With files from Reuters