Journalists, allies hopeful for media freedom after Ressa, Rappler tax case acquittal

Journalists, allies hopeful for media freedom after Ressa, Rappler tax case acquittal
An employee (L) of online portal Rappler heads out from their editorial office in Manila on Jan. 15, 2018, while a private security guard stands. The Philippine government has revoked the operating licence of leading news website Rappler, officials said Jan. 15, 2018 in a ruling denounced by President Rodrigo Duterte's critics as another blow to press freedom.
AFP / Ted Aljibe. file

MANILA, Philippines — Journalists on Wednesday welcomed the acquittal of Maria Ressa and of Rappler Holdings Corp. on tax violation charges that have been described as part of a trend of "weaponizing" laws to restrict freedom of the press and of expression.

The Court of Tax Appeals First Division cleared them in three counts of willful failure to supply correct information and one count of tax evasion, saying prosecutors failed to prove guilt or that the news company had failed to pay the proper taxes. The court said "no civil liability may be adjudged against the accused as the alleged unpaid tax obligations have not been factually and legally established and proven."

In a statement, Rappler called the verdict a "triumph of facts over politics" in a case based on "fraudulent, false, and flimsy charges" that it said the Bureau of Internal Revenue and Department of Justice had filed without examining RHC's books financial records.

"This is brazen harassment and abuse of power. How many more companies, businesses, and even private individuals have been subjected to this kind of harassment and unethical conduct of government officials and agencies? How many have been victimized and what recourse do they have?" Rappler also said.

'Weaponization of the law'

The Altermidya Network called the tax cases against Ressa and Rappler "a textbook example of weaponization of the law against independent media," a tactic that it said has also been used against journalists outside Metro Manila.

"[O]n the part of the alternative media, the law has also been brazenly used to file unfounded cases against several community journalists, including Frenchie Mae Cumpio, who has remained in jail for almost three years now for baseless charges," Altermidya also said. 

Cumpio, who has been in detention since 2020, is facing terrorism charges that Altermidya said are trumped up and are based on inconstistent testimony by unreliable witnesses.

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines said in a separate statement said the cases against Ressa and Rappler "illustrate the increasing use of the law for reprisal against and for intimidation of journalists and civil society."

It added that "while colleagues similarly face legal challenges — from libel to made-up terrorism charges — in relation to their work, we take inspiration from this acquittal that if we stand up and hold the line, we can win."

'An important, positive step'

The International Center for Journalists and Committee to Protect Journalists also welcomed the acquittal, with the Hold the Line Coalition Steering Committee saying it "indicates that it is possible for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to hit reset on his predecessors' vast campaign of media repression."

"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. As an immediate next step, we call for all remaining cases against Rappler and Ressa to be closed and their constant persecution to be stopped once and for all," the steering committee also said.

Meanwhile, the embassies of the Netherlands and Canada called the acquittal "an important and positive step towards upholding rule of law and media freedom."

The two are co-chairs of the Media Freedom Coalition in the Philippines and have been engaging journalists, press groups and civil society organizations working on freedom of expression issues.

"Any measure that undermines the independence and freedom of the press must be strictly scrutinized with the highest standards of law and human rights," they said. 

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