Rappler legal cases

Press freedom advocates: Rappler tax case victory ‘a win for journalists’

Ryan Macasero

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Press freedom advocates: Rappler tax case victory ‘a win for journalists’

ACQUITTED. Nobel laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa speaks to media after the Court of Tax Appeals acquitted her and Rappler Holdings Corporation of tax evasion, on January 18, 2023.

Jire Carreon/Rappler

(1st UPDATE) The International Center for Journalists says the tax evasion case acquittal shows it's possible for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to 'hit reset' on media repression

MANILA, Philippines – Press freedom advocates from the Philippines and around the world celebrated the acquittal of Nobel laureate Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of Rappler, and Rappler Holdings Corporation by the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) on Wednesday, January 18.

“The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines welcomes the acquittal of Maria Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corporation at the Court of Tax Appeals,” the NUJP said in a statement on Wednesday morning, following news of the acquittal.

The NUJP called the verdict “a win for journalists and the rule of law.”

“The cases against Maria and Rappler illustrate the increasing use of the law for reprisal against and for intimidation against journalists and civil society,” the group said.

“We congratulate Maria and Rappler for this legal victory and for their resoluteness and perseverance in the face of the cases. While colleagues similarly face legal challenges – from libel to made-up terrorism charges – in relation to their work, we take inspiration from this acquittal that if we stand up and hold the line, we can win.”

The NUJP echoed the earlier statement of Ressa, who said her victory was “not just for Rappler” but for every Filipino “who has been unjustly accused.”

Ressa mentioned others who are still waiting for verdicts in their cases such as community journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio, who was 21 when she was arrested in Tacloban City, Leyte, in February 2020, and former senator and justice secretary Leila de Lima, who was arrested under the presidency of Rodrigo Duterte.

“It’s a ray of sunshine, hope – for those like journalist Frenchie Mae Cumpio, who begins her fourth year in prison in February and Leila de Lima, who begins her seventh year in prison in February as well,” Ressa said.

The acquittal comes four years after the previous Duterte government filed the cases against Ressa and Rappler. (READ: LIST: Cases vs Maria Ressa, Rappler directors, staff since 2018)

The International Center for Journalists (ICFJ), which is part of the Hold The Line Coalition steering committee, said the verdict shows “it is possible for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to hit reset on his predecessor’s vast campaign of media repression.”

“We hope we are seeing the beginning of an end to the previous administration’s strategy to instrumentalize the courts as a means to undermine independent news organizations and damage journalists’ credibility. As an immediate next step, we call for all remaining cases against Rappler and Ressa to be closed and their constant persecution to be stopped once and for all,” ICFJ and the Hold The Line Coalition steering committee said.

Press freedom advocates: Rappler tax case victory ‘a win for journalists’

Meanwhile, Philippine environmental organization Kalikasan PNE said: “We join human rights advocates in celebrating the acquittal of our partners from Rappler! The fight continues against disinformation and attacks against the critical journalism crucial in our era of economic and ecological crisis.”

Human Rights Watch senior researcher Carlos Conde said the acquittal of Ressa and Rappler was “very welcome news.”

“It is a victory for press freedom in the Philippines. We’re happy that the Court of Tax Appeals saw no basis for the charges. We have always maintained that these were bogus and politically motivated. We hope the courts rule similarly in the other questionable cases Maria and her colleagues at Rappler have been forced to face,” Conde said.

The CTA voted 3-0 to decide the “non-taxability of the issuance of PDRs to North Base Media and Omidyar Network.” The court added, “No gain or income was realized by accused in the subject transactions.” (READ: FAST FACTS: Who are the PH tax court justices who cleared Maria Ressa, Rappler Holdings?)

The junking of the four tax cases at the CTA leaves three active court cases against Rappler and Ressa: the appeal of Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr. in their conviction for cyber libel pending at the Supreme Court, the lone tax case at the Pasig City Regional Trial Court, and the appeal on the closure of Rappler pending at the Court of Appeals.

Drop cyber libel, other cases

Global human rights watchdog Amnesty International lauded the CTA’s verdict, adding that it is also time for other cases against Ressa and Rappler to be dropped.

“Amnesty International welcomes the decision to drop charges of tax evasion against prominent journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa. We call on authorities to now drop cyber libel and other additional charges looming over Ressa so she can continue doing her job,” Butch Olano, Amnesty International Philippines section director, said in a statement.

“The cyber libel provision of the Cybercrime Prevention Act continues to be misused and abused by the authorities to intimidate journalists and harass human rights defenders speaking truth to power. This practice threatens the right to freedom of expression and the press, and further drives impunity in the government,” he added.

Women’s rights group LILAK said in a statement it would stand and hold the line “to defend press freedom and uphold our freedom to speak truth and battle lies.”

“We hope that other cases filed against journalists and the media, including the case of journalist Frank Cimatu, will be dropped, the perpetrators of the killings of journalists will be prosecuted. Justice delayed is justice denied,” LILAK added. A Quezon City court convicted Baguio City journalist and Rappler contributor Frank Cimatu of cyber libel in December 2022 over a Facebook post.

Meanwhile, the Movement Against Disinformation (MAD) challenged the Marcos administration to “reverse repressive actions of his predecessor, particularly those that impede freedom of the press.”

“Truth is one of the most fundamental pillars of democracy, and the ability of journalists to report freely on matters of public interest is crucial. MAD will continue to stand with journalists in their struggle for press freedom,” MAD said. – Rappler.com

As we celebrate the triumph of facts over politics, we want to thank you, our readers, for holding the line with us through the years. If you want to stay updated with Rappler’s other cases and be part of a community that supports press freedom, we invite you to join Rappler+, our membership program, here.

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Ryan Macasero

Ryan covers social welfare for Rappler. He started at Rappler as social media producer in 2013, and later took on various roles for the company: editor for the #BalikBayan section, correspondent in Cebu, and general assignments reporter in the Visayas region. He graduated from California State University, East Bay, with a degree in international studies and a minor in political science. Outside of work, Ryan performs spoken word poetry and loves attending local music gigs. Follow him on Twitter @ryanmacasero or drop him leads for stories at ryan.macasero@rappler.com