Nobel laureate Ressa acquitted in Philippine tax case

By Mikhail Flores

MANILA (Reuters) – Philippines Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and her news site Rappler were acquitted of tax fraud by a trial court on Tuesday, in another legal victory for the embattled journalist and for press freedom in the Southeast Asian country.

Ressa, who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 alongside a Russian journalist, is head of Rappler, which earned a reputation for its intense scrutiny of former President Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly war on drugs.

After the verdict was announced, Ressa told reporters her acquittal sends a “good signal” to the business community, as her tax charges “have a lot to do with the rule of law”.

“The acquittal now strengthens our resolve to continue with the justice system, to submit ourselves to the court despite the political harassment, despite the attack on press freedom,” Ressa said.

“It shows that the court system works. We hope to see the remaining charges dismissed,” she added.

Ressa’s acquittal was expected after she was cleared of similar tax charges nine months ago.

Those charges stem from a 2018 government indictment that accuses Ressa and Rappler of dodging tax payments after failing to declare proceeds of a 2015 sale of depositary receipts to foreign investors.

Ressa, 59, is currently on bail and was convicted in 2020 for cyber libel in one of several cases against the website filed by government agencies. She maintained those cases were politically motivated.

President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who has been in office for 14 months, has said he would not interfere in the court cases against Rappler.

Rappler is still operating unhindered pending its appeal against a closure order from the securities regulator.

Francis Lim, one of Ressa’s lawyers, said the team hoped the latest acquittal would lead to the dismissal of the other cases, including the closure order.

The Philippines is ranked 132 out of 180 countries in the World Press Freedom Index, describing its media as “extremely vibrant despite the government’s targeted attacks and constant harassment” against journalists that are “too critical”.

(Reporting by Mikhail Flores; Editing by Martin Petty and Kanupriya Kapoor)