MANILA — Embattled Philippine journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa was acquitted of tax evasion charges Wednesday, in a decision welcomed by rights activists who have expressed concern over worsening press freedoms in the Southeast Asian country.
“These charges were politically motivated … a brazen abuse of power meant to stop journalists from doing their jobs,” said Ressa, who held back tears while speaking to reporters outside the court Wednesday morning.
“Today, facts win,” she said. “Truth wins.”
The government launched its legal action in 2018, accusing Rappler of failing to declare investments from foreign investors such as Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar. Ressa, on behalf of Rappler, took to the witness stand to deny these charges, arguing that the transactions in question were not a form of taxable income.
Government lawyers said following the court’s verdict that they would study the decision, but Rappler’s legal counsel Francis Lim told reporters that he was confident the government would not appeal. The court also ruled that there would be no civil liabilities since the alleged tax obligations “have not been factually and legally established and proven.”
While in office, Duterte frequently targeted Rappler for its critical coverage of his administration, which included reporting on his extrajudicial war on drugs that left thousands dead, many of whom were poor Filipinos. Rappler documented the execution-style killings of many drug suspects and criticized the authoritarian leader’s human rights record, prompting Duterte to ban its reporters from covering his office.
Apart from the tax allegations, Duterte’s government filed three other cases against Ressa and Rappler, which are pending in Philippine courts. She is on bail as she appeals her 2020 conviction for cyber-libel. Rights groups have called for that conviction to be quashed.
Born in Manila and raised in New Jersey, Ressa has faced off for decades against Philippine authorities, including during a stint as a CNN correspondent. Time magazine named her one of its persons of the year in 2018, when she faced numerous legal challenges. She shared the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov.
Ressa has also become a champion for women in journalism, and an outspoken critic of social media platforms such as Facebook, which she argues have encouraged the spread of disinformation and hate speech.
Wednesday’s legal victory is the first handed to Ressa and Rappler since President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. took office last year. The son of a late dictator who ruled the Philippines for two decades, Marcos was powered to victory by a campaign that was rife with disinformation and trolling, and included the online harassment of journalists.
Carlos Conde, senior Philippines researcher at Human Rights Watch, called the court’s decision a “repudiation” of Duterte’s legacy, but warned that more work was needed to shore up protections for journalists. The Philippines once had one of Asia’s most independent media industries, but press freedoms have deteriorated precipitously in recent years.
“The Marcos government should heed the lesson of this, which is that no one can muzzle a good independent press,” Conde said.
Rebecca Tan in Singapore contributed to this report.