Philippine Court Tosses Final Tax Charge Against Nobel Laureate

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Philippine Court Tosses Final Tax Charge Against Nobel Laureate

Maria Ressa and her publication Rappler have once again scored a legal victory against charges brought under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

Philippine Court Tosses Final Tax Charge Against Nobel Laureate

Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and her legal team await the start of a court hearing in Pasig, Philippines, September 12, 2023. (Twitter/Maria Ressa)

Credit: Twitter/Maria Ressa

A Philippine court has acquitted Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and her publication Rappler of tax evasion, notching another legal victory for the journalist, who gained international renown for her probing investigations of President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration.

In an 18-page ruling, Pasig City Regional Trial Court Branch Judge Ana Teresa Cornejo-Tomacruz acquitted Ressa and Rappler “on the ground that they did not commit the offense charged in the Information.”

Today’s case was the fifth and final case filed against Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corporation (RHC) by the Bureau of Internal Revenue in March 2018, claiming that Rappler evaded tax payments by failing to declare the capital that it raised through a 2015 sale of depositary receipts to foreign investors. The first four charges were dismissed by the Court of Tax Appeals in January.

Specifically, the court ruled that RHC did not act as a dealer in securities when it made the sale, and hence, did not generate a tax liability.

After the verdict was announced, Ressa told reporters that 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,” Ressa said, according to a Reuters report. “It shows that the court system works. We hope to see the remaining charges dismissed.”

As the founder and chief editor of Rappler, Ressa gained international attention for her fearless scrutiny of President Duterte – in particular, his violent crusade against illegal drugs.

Ressa’s supporters, as well as most objective observers, have dismissed the charges as a political confection designed to silence one of the Duterte administration’s most persistent critics. In recognition of her work, and the persecution that she faced from the Duterte administration, Ressa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021, alongside Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.

“This is a victory not just for Rappler but for everyone who has kept the faith that a free and responsible press empowers communities and strengthens democracy,” Rappler said in a statement. “We share this with our colleagues in the industry who have been besieged by relentless online attacks, unjust arrests and detentions, and red-tagging that have resulted in physical harm.”

The facts in the tax case heard in Pasig were nearly identical to the four charges thrown out by the Court of Tax Appeals in January, as were the court’s grounds for acquittal. In that case, the judges ordered the acquittal due to the “failure of the prosecution to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt.”

As Rappler itself explained in a report today, with the dismissal of the latest tax evasion charge there are only two remaining active cases against Rappler and its CEO. The first is an appeal against the 2020 cyber libel conviction against Ressa and former Rappler researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr., which is pending before the Supreme Court. The second is the appeal against the closure order handed down by the Securities and Exchange Commission in 2018, for an alleged violation of foreign ownership rules, which is pending at the Court of Appeals. (Rappler has been permitted to continue operating while the case is ongoing.)

It is taking time, but the Philippine courts are slowly freeing Ressa and Rappler from the sticky legal bonds in which the Duterte administration entangled them.