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‘I’m not a criminal’: Philippine journalist and Duterte critic turns herself in over tax charges

Journalist Maria Ressa shows her arrest warrant after posting bail at a court in Manila on Dec. 3. (Ted Aljibe/AFP/Getty Images)

MANILA — Faced with arrest on charges of tax evasion, the acclaimed founder of an online news site in the Philippines turned herself in to authorities Monday in what is being seen as the latest episode in President Rodrigo Duterte’s crackdown on critics.

Maria Ressa, chief executive of start-up news agency Rappler, posted bail of about $1,150 at a regional court Monday after a warrant for her arrest was issued over the weekend.

Ressa and Rappler were indicted last week on multiple counts of tax evasion in what her supporters say is a politically motivated attempt to persecute the news website that has been instrumental in exposing the brutality of Duterte’s war on drugs. 

The charges, which Ressa and Rappler’s attorneys have denied, were filed while she was overseas on trips that included a stop in New York, where she was given a press freedom award by the Committee to Protect Journalists. She faces a maximum of 10 years in jail under Philippine tax law. 

Landing in Manila from Paris on Sunday night, she told journalists gathered at the airport that she will fight the charges.

“I’m going to hold my government accountable for publicly calling me a criminal,” she said. “I am not a criminal. I have been a journalist my entire life.” 

In a telephone interview with The Washington Post after she posted bail, Ressa added that the charges were “overkill.” 

Duterte’s administration has denied the president’s involvement in the case or that it is targeting Rappler for its coverage. 

“It’s a question of tax evasion,” presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said Monday. “You violate tax laws, then you will be prosecuted.”

But Ressa and Rappler’s lawyers say the charges against them hinge on the news agency being classified as a “dealer in securities.” The accusations relate to a 2015 bond sale that resulted in about $3 million in gains for Rappler. The government says Rappler failed to pay tax on that sale but has not specified how much it owes.

“What the tax evasion charges did is to treat an investment like it was income,” Ressa told The Post. “We’re not a dealer in securities. We’re not a stock broker.” 

This is not the first swipe against Rappler. Duterte has banned one of its reporters, Pia Ranada, from covering his activities. The Philippine government also sought to revoke Rappler’s license to operate earlier this year. 

Duterte takes aim at the press, testing Philippine democracy

Duterte rode a wave of populism to become president in 2016 and since then has become known for his fierce attacks on his critics. Earlier this year, he branded Rappler a “fake news” outlet. 

He has attempted to muzzle other media outlets, too, including Philippine broadcasting giant ABS-CBN, whose reporters have been similarly critical of him and his policies. In November, he reiterated a claim that he would block the broadcaster’s franchise renewal, which will expire in 2020. 

Duterte has also attacked the Philippine Daily Inquirer and accused its previous owners of tax evasion. The newspaper is in the process of being sold to billionaire and Duterte campaign donor Ramon Ang.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said Duterte’s moves against the media, including the action against Ressa, seem to be “part of the increasingly authoritarian direction his presidency has taken.”

“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,” the union said. 

A lot of the negative domestic coverage of Duterte has focused on his war on drugs and allegations of the extrajudicial killings of thousands of Filipinos, many of them poor, at the hands of police and vigilantes. 

“We have never been anti-Duterte,” the union said. “We do, however, hold government to account for its actions. The levels of impunity in the drug war and the propaganda war — these things are off the scale, and we continue to do those stories.”

Rappler has been at the forefront of documenting the human cost of Duterte’s war. A recent investigative report by the site featured self-confessed vigilantes who admitted that police hired them for assassinations. Government records show about 5,000 deaths during police operations, but more than 23,000 additional homicides have been investigated since Duterte’s term began.

Ressa, a 55-year-old veteran journalist, previously served as CNN bureau chief in Manila. Since founding Rappler in 2012, Ressa has spoken widely about the spread of disinformation online. 

She wrote about the proliferation of paid trolls in the 2016 Philippine elections and how Facebook algorithms influenced local politics. She has earned multiple awards, including the World Association of Newspapers’ Golden Pen of Freedom Award this year, the 2018 Knight International Journalism Award and the National Democratic Institute’s Democracy Award in 2017.

Ressa vowed she would not yield to pressure. 

“That’s why I came home,” she said in the interview. “I’m going to face these charges. I will show how ridiculous they are.” 

An earlier version of this story described the sale of the Philippines Daily Inquirer as completed. It is in the processs of being completed.

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