A Philippine court on Wednesday acquitted Nobel laureate Maria Ressa of tax evasion, ending a raft of legal hearings against the veteran Filipino-American journalist that she said were “politically motivated.”
Ressa, CEO and founder of news site Rappler and a former CNN bureau chief, was cleared of four counts of tax violations filed in 2018 by former President Rodrigo Duterte’s government, an official from the Court of Tax Appeals confirmed to CNN. She pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Speaking with CNN following the verdict, Ressa said, “it feels like the world is slowly turning right side up.”
“I was hoping for an acquittal and I was thrilled to get it … having said that, I think our victory is not just Rappler’s. It is for every single person who’s been unjustly accused with politically motivated charges,” she said.
The tax evasion case stemmed from accusations by the state revenue agency that Rappler had omitted from its tax returns the proceeds of a 2015 sale of depositary receipts to foreign investors, which later became the securities regulator’s basis to revoke its license.
The Philippine Justice Department said it respected the decision of the court.
She won the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov, for her efforts to safeguard freedom of expression in the Philippines.
Ressa founded Rappler in 2012 and it gained prominence for its unflinching coverage of Duterte and his brutal “war on drugs.” She has been engulfed in legal battles in recent years and previously claimed she had been targeted because of her news site’s critical reports on Duterte.
And her legal battles are not over.
She still faces one outstanding tax case against her and has also lodged an appeal with the Philippine Supreme Court in a bid to overturn her 2020 libel conviction.
Meanwhile, Rappler is still fighting a 2018 government order to shut down after the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission in June last year upheld its earlier ruling to revoke the news site’s operating license.
Hold The Line, an advocacy group formed to support Ressa, welcomed the verdict Wednesday and called for all pending cases against her to to be closed.
“Rappler and Ressa have maintained their innocence and will continue to hold the line in defense of press freedom in the Philippines as they fight a barrage of pending cases designed to silence their reporting,” the group said in a statement.
“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.”
The Philippines ranked 147 out of 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, and the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines seventh in the world in its 2022 impunity index, which tracks deaths of media members whose killers go free.
Additional reporting by Reuters.