By Karen Lema
MANILA (RockedBuzz via Reuters) – Philippine Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and her news site Rappler were acquitted by a tax evasion court on Wednesday, in a ruling that media observers and human rights groups described as a victory for the freedom of the press and the rule of law.
Ressa, who was jointly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize with a Russian journalist in 2021, heads Rappler, which has earned a reputation for its in-depth reporting and stern scrutiny of former President Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly drug war.
“This acquittal is not just for Rappler, but for every Filipino ever to be falsely accused,” Ressa said after the verdict, describing it as a victory for justice and truth.
“These allegations… were politically motivated… A blatant abuse of power,” she said, holding back tears.
The tax evasion case stemmed from allegations by the state IRS that Rappler withheld from his tax returns the proceeds of a 2015 sale of depository receipts to foreign investors, which later became the basis of the regulator securities to revoke its license.
The tax court said in its ruling that it acquitted Ressa and Rappler due to the prosecution’s failure to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Philippine Justice Department said it respected the court’s decision.
Ressa, 59, is currently on bail as he appeals a six-year prison sentence handed down in 2020 for a defamation conviction.
Since 2018, he has battled a series of government lawsuits which he described as part of a harassment pattern.
His plight has fueled international concern over media harassment in the Philippines, described as one of Asia’s most dangerous places for journalists.
“Hope is what this provides,” Ressa said when asked if she thought the tide was turning under the watch of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, whose office said the leader respects press freedom.
Media observers and human rights groups praised the court’s decision, which they called a victory for journalists and the rule of law.
“It’s a victory for press freedom in the Philippines,” Carlos Conde, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.
The challenge for the Marcos administration is “to take stock of this and ensure that journalists do their job without fear,” Condé said.
In October, a radio journalist was shot and killed, among many killed in the past decade.
The Philippines ranked 147th 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 the deaths of members of the media whose killers have been freed.
(Reporting by Karen Lema; additional reporting by Enrico Dela Cruz; editing by Ed Davies, Jacqueline Wong, Michael Perry, and Shri Navaratnam)