MANILA, Philippines – Amid concern from fellow journalists that she would be arrested upon her arrival at the Ninoy Aquino International Airport (NAIA) Sunday night, December 2, Rappler chief executive officer and executive editor Maria Ressa said she came back to "do what I need to do to face all this," referring to tax evasion charges filed by the Duterte administration.
The Department of Justice (DOJ) has filed 5 cases of violation of the Tax Code agaist Rappler Holdings Corporation and Ressa in relation to the funds it raised through Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) in 2015.
PDRs are financial instruments that allow foreigners to invest in a Filipino company without owning any part of it or being involved in its day-to-day management.
Four of the cases have been filed with the Court of Tax Appeals – right after Rappler had filed its motion for reconsideration – and one with the Pasig City Regional Trial Court (RTC). All the cases are bailable.
Pasig RTC Branch 265 Judge Danilo Buemio has issued an arrest warrant.
“Our lawyers have verified a warrant of arrest was issued, and that’s part of the reason why they (lawyers) have come here. I’m ready to post bail. I will do what our lawyers advise,” Ressa told reporters at the NAIA.
The veteran journalist could not post bail immediately because her arrival came at a day and time when no night courts were open.
"I’m going to challenge the process and I’m going to challenge the charges," Ressa said. "I will continue to hold the government accountable."
Ressa reiterated the statements of journalists and human rights groups that the cases against Rappler Holdings and her are "politically motivated" and examples of "legal harassment" against independent journalism in the Philippines. (READ: Journalist, human rights groups slam latest tax cases vs Rappler)
Since the DOJ made the indictment public on November 9, Ressa had been mostly out of the country to receive several awards for Rappler’s work.
Among them were the 2018 Knight International Journalism Award given in Washington, DC, for Rappler's innovation and exposés on corruption despite the obstacles thrown its way, and the Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award, which the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists gives "to an individual who has shown extraordinary and sustained achievement in the cause of press freedom."
Upon her arrival, airport policemen approached Ressa, but clarified they only wanted to escort her to waiting journalists from various news outlets who had heard about the arrest warrant. A group of supporters also came to make sure she was safe amid earlier fears that she would get arrested at the airport.
Earlier in the day, her lawyer, Francis Lim, issued a statement, "fervently hoping that Maria Ressa will not get arrested upon her arrival in Manila tonight."
He said: "It is not common for warrants of arrest to be served on Sunday nights. Doing so will just give more weight to the well-founded perception that our government has been unduly rushing cases against the officers of Rappler because of its fearless reporting on the true situation in the Philippines."
The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines also warned the government against plans to arrest Ressa upon her return to the country.
"Arresting Maria will send a clear signal that the country's democracy is fast receding under a feckless administration that cannot abide criticism and free expression and will go to ridiculous lengths to muzzle all those it does not agree with. Government can surely pursue its case without needing to arrest Maria and haul her off to jail – unless, of course, the intention is really to humiliate and intimidate her," the group of journalists said.
Ressa told reporters: "The people who know me know that I am not radical, but government actions like this, it forces me to speak. I think all have to speak.... This is the time to fight. This is the time to tell people here's the line and you have to make sure that our government doesn't cross it, 'cause when it does, we're no longer a democracy." – Rappler.com
Rambo Talabong covers the House of Representatives and local governments for Rappler. Prior to this, he covered security and crime. He was named Jaime V. Ongpin Fellow in 2019 for his reporting on President Rodrigo Duterte’s war on drugs. In 2021, he was selected as a journalism fellow by the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics.