MANILA, Philippines – As of January 18, 2023, there were at least three cases being tried in court against Rappler, Maria Ressa, and a former researcher.
It was on January 18, 2023 when the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) acquitted Rappler Holdings Corporation (RHC) and its president Ressa of four tax evasion charges filed against them in 2018 by the past Duterte government.
The cases being tried in court are the following:
- Rappler’s pending petition before the Court of Appeals for a temporary restraining order against the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) to stop it from implementing its decision reaffirming its January 2018 closure order against Rappler.
- A petition for review filed with the Supreme Court after the Court of Appeals on October 10, 2022 denied the motion for reconsideration previously filed by Rappler CEO Maria Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr over the court’s affirmation of their June 2020 conviction.
- Tax case against Ressa and RHC at the Pasig Regional Trial Court Branch 157 that is due for promulgation in June 2023.
In 2019, Pasig Regional Trial Court Judge Elma Rafallo-Lingan remanded another case against RHC board directors led by Ressa to the prosecution, saying it was “filed in due haste” and had to be reinvestigated. The judge’s order suspended the trial of the case, which accused Ressa and RHC directors of violating the anti-dummy law. The justice department questioned Lingan’s decision at the Court of Appeals, which has yet to rule on the matter.
Other complaints that have been dismissed
On various dates in January and February 2022, members of Davao City-based preacher Apollo Quiboloy’s Kingdom of Jesus Christ church filed a dozen cyber libel complaints against Rappler Incorporated, its journalists, and four people interviewed for a series of investigative reports and videos published on the news website. The complaints about violation of the Cybercrime Prevention Act of 2012 were filed against Rappler Incorporated and its journalists: regional head Inday Espina-Varona, Mindanao bureau coordinator Herbie Gomez, and former researcher Vernise Tantuco. Also included in the cyber libel complaints were former KOJC members Arlene Caminong-Stone, Faith Killion, Reynita Fernandez, and Ateneo de Manila University professor and sociologist of religion Jayeel Cornelio.
These cyber complaints were dismissed separately, with the last set filed in Davao dismissed in June 2022.
On November 29, 2021, Energy Secretary Alfonso Cusi filed separate libel complaints against 7 media companies including Rappler. Included in his libel suit against Rappler journalists with the Taguig City Prosecutor’s Office are Ressa, executive editor Glenda M. Gloria, managing editor Chay Hofileña, and reporter Aika Rey.
Cusi withdrew the complaints on June 24, 2022.
Also pending is the Bureau of Internal Revenue’s investigation into Rappler Inc and Rappler Holdings Corporation (RHC) for alleged tax violations, though the January 18, 2023 acquittal is likely to have impact on this probe.
Keng’s 2nd cyber libel case over Ressa’s tweets on the same story authored by Santos was dismissed on June 1, 2021. Keng withdrew the case himself, saying he wanted to focus his attention and resources to help respond to the pandemic.
Another libel suit, filed in October 2020 by former Benilde faculty member Ariel Pineda against Ressa and Rappler reporter Rambo Talabong, was dismissed by a Manila court on August 10, 2021, after Pineda dropped the case.
The trial of two other cases involving Ressa and Rappler’s Board members is suspended due to the following:
- In October 2019, a Pasig trial court judge remanded to government prosecutors two previous cases against Ressa and Rappler’s directors, saying they were filed in “due haste.” Trial for these cases – now consolidated into one – was suspended.
- In November 2019, a Quezon City prosecutor dismissed a libel complaint against Ressa and reporter Rambo Talabong for lack of probable cause.
Here’s a list of complaints and cases filed against Rappler that started in January 2018, barely 6 months after President Rodrigo Duterte falsely claimed in his July 2017 State of the Nation Address that Rappler is “fully owned by Americans.”
The string of cases against Rappler and Ressa started with the revocation of Rappler’s license to operate through an order issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) on January 11, 2018.
1. SEC vs Rappler at the Court of Appeals
This is the mother case where Rappler asked the Court of Appeals (CA) to invalidate the SEC’s revocation order. The CA on July 26, 2018 denied Rappler’s plea to reverse the commission’s order. But it also remanded the case to the SEC for review.
While the court said that a clause in the Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDR) issued by Rappler Holdings to one investor “would appear tantamount to some foreign control,” it stressed that the revocation of Rappler’s certificate of registration as a penalty should have been the “last resort.” (READ: What you should know about the Court of Appeals’ decision on Rappler)
The CA noted that the parties to the PDRs appeared to have acted in good faith and that the clause in question was “never exercised.” The court told the SEC that the donation of the PDRs to Rappler’s Filipino managers seems to have permanently removed the alleged “negative foreign control” which the SEC found objectionable.
Thus, the CA directed the SEC to review the revocation order and evaluate it given the donation of the PDRs to Rappler’s Filipino managers. In February 2021, the SEC upheld its revocation order against Rappler, prompting the company to file a motion for reconsideration before the commission. On June 28, 2022, the SEC rejected Rappler’s appeal and reaffirmed its closure order. Rappler will appeal the decision before the courts.
Status as of October 11, 2022: On July 29, 2022, Rappler filed with the Court of Appeals a petition for a temporary restraining order against the SEC.
2-5. Tax cases vs Maria Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corporation at tax court
In its decision on January 18, 2023, the Court of Tax Appeals acquitted RHC and Ressa. (READ: Explainer: How CTA ruled in favor of RHC and Maria Ressa)
They were charged with tax evasion by the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) on the theory that the PDRs that the SEC had questioned generated taxable income that Rappler Holdings Corporation did not declare. The Department of Justice (DOJ) approved the charges.
The 3 counts were for violation of Section 255 of the Tax Code or failure to supply correct information in the Income Tax Return (ITR) for 2015, and Value Added Tax (VAT) returns for the 3rd and 4th quarters of 2015, and the 4th count is for tax evasion.
Ressa on December 11, 2018 was allowed to post bail for P204,000 for the 4 counts.
The CTA denied on February 7, 2019 the motion of RHC to quash the case. On April 3, 2019, Ressa was arraigned in the 4 cases and pleaded not guilty.
During the May 29, 2019 hearing, CTA Presiding Judge Roman del Rosario recused himself from the cases after he expressed his view that RHC as an entity should be arraigned, a stand that the two other justices disagreed with. Justice Catherine Manahan was asked to preside over these cases.
In October 2022, the CTA dismissed the motion of Ressa and Rappler to file a demurrer of evidence, or to quash the case outright.
Status as of January 18, 2023. The CTA acquitted RHC and Ressa and absolved them also of any civil liability.
6. Tax case vs Maria Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corporation at Pasig court
The 5th count of tax violation was part of the set that the DOJ approved for charging with the CTA, similar to the cases where RHC and Ressa were acquitted. But this was filed by the prosecutors at the Pasig Regional Trial Court (RTC). The DOJ argued that because the 5th count – related to the VAT return for the 2nd quarter of 2015 – amounted to P294,258.58, it does not meet the minimum amount required for CTA cases.
A provision in the CTA’s law says that the tax court must have original jurisdiction over all cases under the tax code “provided however that..the principal amount of tax involved exclusive of charges and penalties claimed is one million pesos or more.”
Ressa filed for a motion to quash the case on December 4, 2018, but this was dismissed on March 16, 2020.
Status as of January 2023. Promulgation is scheduled in June 2023.
Ressa was arraigned and pleaded not guilty on July 22, 2020 before Pasig RTC Branch 157, now presided over by Judge Ana Teresa Cornejo-Tomacruz. On October 20, 2020, RHC was also arraigned through RHC chairperson Glenda M. Gloria.
7. Cyber libel vs Maria Ressa, Reynaldo Santos Jr at Manila court
Ressa, Rappler, and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr were charged with cyber libel at the Manila Regional Trial Court Branch 46 headed by Judge Rainelda Estacio-Montesa. The judge convicted Ressa and Santos on June 15, 2020.
The DOJ approved the charges even though the article in question was published in May 2012, or 4 months before the Cybercrime Prevention Act was enacted into law. The article written by Santos said that the late former chief justice Renato Corona was using certain SUVs, one of which was traced to businessman Wilfredo Keng, the complainant. Ressa had no editorial involvement in the story.
Keng filed the complaint only in October 2017. This complaint was dismissed by the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) in February 2018 due to the lapse of the one-year prescriptive period for libel, only for it to be revived in March of the same year. (WATCH: Rappler’s cyber libel case in a nutshell)
In their complaint with the DOJ, the NBI included, aside from Ressa and Santos, members of Rappler Inc’s Board of Directors (Manuel Ayala, Nico Jose Nolledo, Glenda Gloria, James Bitanga, Felicia Atienza, James Velasquez) as well as its corporate secretary, Jose Maria Hofileña.
The DOJ eventually decided to bring to court only Ressa and Santos.
DOJ prosecutors said that due to the multiple publication rule, typographical edits made in 2014 put the article under the coverage of the law. The DOJ also said that the prescriptive period for cyber libel is 12 years and not one year.
Ressa and Santos were arraigned on May 14, 2019. On May 28, 2019, Ressa and Santos attended mediation proceedings with Keng’s lawyer, as mandated by the court.
On July 23, 2019, the prosecution presented its first two witnesses. Read the story about that hearing here.
Judge Montesa on June 15, 2020 convicted Ressa and Santos of cyber libel. Both filed a partial motion for reconsideration on June 29, which Montesa rejected. An appeal is set to be filed with the Court of Appeals.
In the trial’s last hearing prior to the verdict, Rappler presented on the witness stand investigative head Chay Hofileña who edited the story in question. Keng’s lawyers still tried to pin down Ressa, who was not at all involved in the story. Keng’s lawyers asked Hofileña for the source of the intelligence on their client, but lawyer Ted Te invoked the Sotto law, which allows journalists to keep the identity of their sources.
Status as of January 2023. Ressa and Santos have filed their petition for review with the Supreme Court.
8-9. Alleged violation of the Anti-Dummy Law and the Securities Code
This stems from the original complaint filed by the NBI that’s still related to the issuance of PDRs by Rappler. Before he resigned, former justice secretary Vitaliano Aguirre II ordered the NBI to investigate Rappler for any possible violation of “other laws.” On the basis of this order, the NBI conducted an investigation and found that Rappler purportedly violated the nationality requirement on mass media. Based on this finding, the NBI filed a criminal complaint with the Pasig prosecutor.
In September 2018, the Pasig City prosecutor subpoeanaed Rappler Inc’s board of directors at the time of the issuance of the PDRs – Manuel Ayala, Nico Jose Nolledo, Glenda Gloria, James Bitanga, Felicia Atienza, James Velasquez – as well as then-corporate secretary, Jose Maria Hofileña. (READ: Rappler’s 2020 Board of Directors)
On March 26, 2019, the Pasig Prosecutor’s Office charged the directors with violation of the Anti Dummy Law and the Securites Regulation Code. The complaint against Hofileña was dropped. Both cases were raffled off to Pasig Branch 265 Judge Acerey Pacheco, who later on decided to re-raffle the securities case to a commercial court, also in Pasig. For both cases, the board directors posted bail amounting to P216,000 each.
On April 10, 2019, Ayala, Nolledo Gloria, Atienza, and Velasquez were arraigned and pleaded not guilty to the anti-dummy charge filed at Branch 265. Ressa was arraigned on May 2, 2019 in the same court, and pleaded not guilty to the same charge.
A separate case stemming from the anti-dummy complaint was raffled to Pasig Branch 158 under Judge Rowena San Pedro. On April 1, 2019, San Pedro found probable cause to charge the directors with alleged violation of the Securities Regulation Code. Each director posted bail of P128,000.
Ressa and the rest asked for a deferment of arraignment and for the court to remand the case to the office of the prosecutor.
In May 2019, Judge San Pedro on May 28 inhibited herself from the Securities Code case due to her friendship with Ressa. The case has been transferred to Judge Elma Rafallo-Lingan of RTC Branch 159.
Status as of October 10, 2022. Judge Lingan consolidated the two cases into one and remanded to the Pasig City prosecutor the case alleging violations of the securities code, saying it was filed in “undue haste.” Pending the prosecution’s review, the trial on the anti-dummy case was also suspended.
10. BIR administrative proceedings
The Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) is determining whether Rappler should be assessed for tax deficiencies, following allegations in the criminal cases filed at the CTA and Pasig RTC.
Status as of February 4, 2021. It’s pending at the BIR.
11. Libel complaint vs Ressa and reporter Rambo Talabong
Former interior undersecretary, now agrarian secretary, John Castriciones filed a libel complaint with the Quezon City Prosecutor’s Office against reporter Rambo Talabong over a series of reports on conflicts among officials and employees at the Department of the Interior and Local Government (DILG) in 2017.
Castriciones also filed a libel complaint against Ressa, who, again, did not have editorial involvement in Talabong’s reports.
Status as of December 2019. The complaint was dismissed in November 2019 by the Quezon City Prosecutor’s Office.
12. Cyber libel case vs Ressa at Makati court
On November 23, 2020, Ressa was charged a 2nd time with cyber libel over similar circumstances as the Manila case and filed by the same complainant, Wilfredo Keng.
The complaint stemmed from a tweet that Ressa made on February 16, 2019, where she posted screenshots of a 2002 Philstar.com story that linked Keng to a murder of a Manila councilor. That same Philstar.com story was cited in the 2012 Rappler story that got Ressa and Santos convicted by a Manila court in June 2020.
Makati prosecutors charged Ressa despite a Supreme Court decision saying that aiding and abetting a cyber crime – in this case sharing a supposedly libelous post – is not a crime. Makati prosecutors said the act of taking a screenshot and then posting them on Twitter are not knee-jerk reactions but a malicious act.
Ressa called this indictment a wrong test case that would serve as a bad precedent in the social media era.
On November 27, 2020, Ressa posted a P24,000 bail before Judge Amifaith Fider-Reyes and filed a motion to quash the case on December 2. On December 15, 2020, Ressa went through a conditional arraignment (the court entered a not guilty plea on her behalf). It was conditional because Ressa waited for the judge’s decision on her motion to quash. On December 15, 2020, Judge Fider-Reyes dismissed the motion to quash.
On January 5, 2021, Judge Fider-Reyes inhibited herself from the case, citing a threatening email she received.
Status as of June 1, 2021: The case was dismissed by Makati RTC Branch 148 Judge Andres Soriano after Keng withdrew.
Ressa and Rappler have said these cases constitute a clear pattern of harassment against independent media and are meant to intimidate the organization.
13. Cyber libel case vs Ressa and Rambo Talabong at Manila court
In October 2020, Benilde faculty member Ariel Pineda filed in Manila a libel complaint vs Ressa and reporter Rambo Talabong over Talabong’s January 2020 story that accused Pineda of collecting money from students in exchange for a passing grade in their thesis.
On December 7, 2020, Manila Senior Assistant City Prosecutor John Allen Farinas found probable cause to charge Ressa and Talabong with libel and filed the case before Manila RTC Branch 24 under Maria Victoria Soriano-Villadolid.
On January 11, 2021, the judge issued the arrest warrants vs Ressa and Talabong. They were able to post bail.
Status as of August 10, 2021. The Manila court dismissed the case on August 10, 2021 after the complainant withdrew his complaint. – Rappler.com
More on Rappler’s cyber libel case that led to the conviction of Ressa and Santos:
- TIMELINE: Rappler’s cyber libel case
- FAQs: What you need to know about Rappler’s cyber libel case
- Rappler CEO Maria Ressa arrested for cyber libel
- NBI detains journalist Maria Ressa for the night
- Maria Ressa posts P100,000 bail for cyber libel
- Rappler statement on Maria Ressa’s arrest: ‘We will continue to tell the truth’
- Maria Ressa charges DOJ with ‘selective justice’
- Maria Ressa arrest tests the bounds of Philippine cyber libel law
- ‘Persecution by a bully government’: Journalists, advocates slam arrest of Maria Ressa
- Robredo slams Maria Ressa’s arrest as ‘political harassment’
- Duterte denies involvement in Maria Ressa cyber libel case
- Senators question use of PCOO caravan in Europe to explain Maria Ressa arrest
- U.N. rights office: Maria Ressa arrest latest in ‘pattern of intimidation’ vs Rappler
- U.N. special rapporteur condemns detention of Maria Ressa
- Maria Ressa’s arrest part of broader gov’t campaign, say rights groups
- ‘Truth will set you free’: Schools hit arrest of Rappler CEO Maria Ressa
- In rare move, U.S. stresses need for due process in Maria Ressa case
- Canada ‘deeply troubled’ by Maria Ressa arrest
- U.K. ‘deeply concerned’ by Maria Ressa arrest
- After Maria Ressa’s arrest, netizens decry ‘desperate move to silence’ press
- Amid Maria Ressa’s arrest, UP Fair 2019 urges: ‘Defend press freedom’
- [ANALYSIS | Deep Dive] Maria Ressa case and the big chill
- [OPINION | NEWSPOINT] The ambush of Maria Ressa