Hold The Line Coalition welcomes acquittal of Maria Ressa and Rappler, calls for all remaining cases to be closed
The Hold the Line Coalition (HTL) welcomes Philippine Court of Tax Appeals verdict, which has acquitted on Wednesday 18 January Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and Rappler, the news organization she founded, of tax evasion in four of seven cases brought by the government.
If they had failed to defend the charges, Maria Ressa could have gone to jail for up to 34 years and Rappler would have faced a substantial fine.
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.
“This verdict 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.”
“Maria Ressa and Rappler will continue to fight the broader wave of multipronged attacks because they will not have their reporting stymied or their voices silenced.”
The decision by the Philippines Court of Tax Appeals applies to three cases on alleged failure to provide accurate information regarding investments, and the fourth is an accusation of knowingly avoiding paying taxes. While this judgment represents a reprieve, there is no doubt that being forced to maintain continuous legal defenses in the face of 23 cases leveled by the government since 2018 is meant to debilitate the news organization and Ressa, as well as making investors in the media sector wary of the ramifications of supporting independent local news outlets.
Ressa, her colleagues and Rappler face a sustained campaign of legal persecution and online violence, with 23 individual cases opened by the State against them since 2018. Ressa could face close to seven years in prison on a previous conviction for criminal cyber libel, which is currently in its last cycle of appeal before the Philippine Supreme Court – meaning she could still face a possible imminent prison sentence.
In an historic precedent, Rappler was officially issued a shutdown order in June 2022, reinforcing an earlier decision to revoke the outlet’s license to operate. The order was the first of its kind for the issuing agency and for Philippine media.
The Marcos administration still has an opportunity to turn the page on the Duterte government’s approach to intimidating independent news media, which has included threats to withdraw media groups’ licenses or hurt their commercial interests to encourage self-censorship when reporting on sensitive issues.
The Philippines was one of the governments participating in the U.S.-hosted Summit for Democracy in 2021, when President Rodrigo Duterte addressed other leaders as part of the event. The summit will reconvene governments and civil society in March 2023.
The HTL Coalition calls on states committed to freedom of the press and democracy, on intergovernmental organizations, on international development investors, and on international civil society groups to defend press freedom in the Philippines and urge President Marcos to revitalize the country’s commitment to a free press.
Note: The #HTL Coalition comprises more than 80 organizations around the world. This statement is issued by the #HoldTheLine Steering Committee, but it does not necessarily reflect the position of all or any individual Coalition members or organizations.