Maria Ressa, Rappler acquitted of last tax evasion case

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Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, September 12) — Journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa and her news outlet Rappler Holdings Corporation gained victory in their final tax violation charge filed during the Duterte administration.

The Pasig Regional Trial Court (RTC) Branch 157 announced the acquittal of Ressa and Rappler Tuesday morning, with the last case linked to the company's value-added tax return for the second quarter of 2015 amounting to about ₱300,000.

They are now cleared of all five tax violation charges, nearly five years after facing this bout under the Duterte regime. A veteran journalist, Ressa is known for being critical of then-President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration.

Last January, the Court of Tax Appeals also acquitted Ressa and Rappler of the other four tax violations stemming from allegations the company acquired taxable income that it did not declare, and thus incurred obligations when it issued Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) to foreign investors North Base Media and Omidyar Network in 2015.

READ: Court of Tax Appeals acquits Ressa, Rappler of tax violations

The government also accused them of willfully failing to supply correct information in their income tax and value-added tax returns for 2015.

Rappler, however, has long insisted that the issuance of PDRs was meant to raise capital and not for profit.

It also maintained that it is 100% Filipino-owned.

The Pasig court dismissed the PDR transactions as “investment activities that were in line with RHC’s primary purpose as a holding company of RI (Rappler Inc.).” It added that since Rappler did not sell the PDRs to gain profit, but to raise funds, the firm was “not liable to pay VAT on these transactions.”

“It must be inevitably concluded that RHC and Ms. Ressa did not violate Section 255 of the Tax Code… RHC and Ms. Ressa are thus absolved from any criminal or civil liability in this case,” the document read.

The order was signed by Presiding Judge Ana Teresa T. Cornejo-Tomacruz.

In a statement on Tuesday, Rappler said the tax cases filed against the company were merely based “on false and flimsy premise.”

Reacting to the ruling, it said the acquittal was not only a win for the company “but for everyone who has kept the faith that a free and responsible press empowers communities and strengthens democracy.”

“We share this with our colleagues in the industry who have been besieged by relentless online attacks, unjust arrests and detentions, and red-tagging that have resulted in physical harm,” Rappler said.

“We share this with Filipinos doing business for social good but who, like us, have suffered at the hands of oppressive governments,” it added.

The media company urged Filipinos to “continue to #HoldTheLine together.”

In an interview with CNN Philippines’ Balitaan, Ressa said all the cases filed against them were “meant to stop us from doing our work.”

“The government tried to shut us down. It felt like the world was upside down. It was weaponizing the law,” she said.

She also said that if the prosecution tries to re-appeal, it would be double jeopardy.

'Victory for media freedom'

Human rights lawyer Amal Clooney and UK lawyer Caoilfhionn Gallagher, on behalf of the international legal team, also welcomed Pasig RTC decision to acquit the internatIonally-renowned journalist on tax evasion charges that carried a potential 10-year sentence.

In a statement, Clooney said Ressa's acquittal is a victory not only for Ressa but for all journalists in the Philippines who were targeted by the government through the courts.

She then called for the dismissal of Ressa's outstanding charges if press freedom and the rule of law are to prevail in the country.

READ: CA junks appeal to reverse cyber libel conviction of Ressa, former Rappler writer

Gallagher, meanwhile, said Ressa has been a victim of "lawfare" for doing her job as a journalist.

"The law has been wielded as a weapon against her in multiple ways, as the authorities have attempted to criminalize her and Rappler for years of hard-hitting reporting holding the powerful to account," she said.

"Ressa still faces decades behind bars for her journalism," she added. "The authorities must end this for once and for all, drop all remaining charges and concede Ms Ressa's cyberlibel appeal."

Ressa and former researcher-writer Reynaldo Santos were found guilty of cyber libel in 2020. The case stemmed from a 2012 Rappler article which reported on businessman Wilfredo Keng's alleged connection to illegal activities.

Keng filed the complaint in October 2017, or nearly five years after the article was posted.