World

Maria Ressa, Journalist and Nobel Laureate, Is Cleared of Tax Fraud

The Nobel Prize-winning journalist Maria Ressa on Tuesday was acquitted by a Philippine court of tax fraud, the latest legal victory in her fight for the survival of her news site Rappler, which has come to represent the precariousness of the nation’s press freedoms.

A regional trial court in Pasig City, near Manila, found that Ms. Ressa did not violate the country’s tax code, according to the ruling. It was the fifth and final tax-related charge against Ms. Ressa, who faced a fine and up to 10 years in prison, and her publication, according to a statement from Rappler. Both were acquitted of four similar charges in January.

Ms. Ressa, the Philippines’ most prominent journalist, has been the target of harassment and intimidation since she founded the news site in 2012. She has faced a series of civil and criminal cases, including charges of tax evasion and violations of foreign ownership rules. She is out on bail in connection with a charge of cyber libel.

Speaking to reporters after Tuesday’s ruling, she said the verdict “now strengthens our resolve to continue with the justice system, to submit ourselves to the court despite the political harassment, despite the attacks on press freedom.”

The tax fraud case was one of many brought by the administration of Rodrigo Duterte, the country’s authoritarian but popular former leader, when the news site was covering his violent antidrug campaign. That coverage helped Ms. Ressa win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.

“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,” a statement from Rappler read. “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 Rappler newsroom in 2018.Credit…Jes Aznar for The New York Times

Francis Lim, a lawyer representing Ms. Ressa, said he was hopeful that Tuesday’s acquittal would be “the start of the winding but long series of victories” for the journalist.

The tax charges were among the first high-profile tests of whether Rappler’s legal troubles would continue under the current president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr. After taking office in June 2022, he has benefited from disinformation online and tried to play down the brutality of his father’s rule decades ago. Advocates for press freedom have urged him to demonstrate his stated commitment to a free press by intervening in Ms. Ressa’s favor.

The tax fraud charges were centered on financial investments in Rappler by North Base Media and Omidyar Network, two American firms. The Philippine government accused Rappler of violating restrictions on foreign ownership of domestic media. Rappler argued that the funding was legal and that neither investor had ownership shares or any role in the operation of the company.

Rappler has continued to publish amid its legal battles. The Omidyar Network donated its investment to Rappler employees in 2018, which the news site argued should have ended the government’s complaint. But the authorities then accused Rappler of evading taxes on that transaction.

The charges treated Rappler as though it were a “dealer in securities,” not a news organization, Ms. Ressa said at the time. She added that Rappler had paid the proper taxes required of a news organization in the Philippines.

There are several other cases pending against Ms. Ressa and Rappler. She is appealing her June 2020 conviction for cyber libel, for which she could be sentenced to six years in prison. She is also appealing the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission’s decision to revoke the site’s operating license after finding it liable for violating restrictions on foreign ownership of domestic media.

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