Philippine Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and her news site Rappler were acquitted by a court of tax evasion charges on Wednesday, in a ruling that media watchdogs and human rights groups described as a win for press freedom and rule of law.
Ressa, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize alongside a Russian journalist in 2021, is head of Rappler, which earned a reputation for its indepth reporting and tough scrutiny of former president Rodrigo Duterte and his deadly war on drugs.
“This acquittal is not just for Rappler it is for every Filipino who has ever been unjustly accused,” Ressa said after the verdict, describing it as a win for justice and the truth.
“These charges... were politically motivated... A brazen abuse of power,” she said while fighting back tears.
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 licence.
The tax court said in its ruling it acquitted Ressa and Rappler because of the prosecution’s failure to prove their guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.
The Philippine justice department said it respected the decision of the court. Ressa, 59 is currently on bail as she appeals a six-year prison sentence handed down in 2020 for a libel conviction.
She has been fighting a string of government lawsuits since 2018 which she has described as part of a pattern of harassment. Her plight has stoked international concern about media harassment in the Philippines, described as one of Asia’s most dangerous places for journalists.
“Hope is what this provides,” said Ressa when asked if she thought the tide was turning under the watch of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, whose office has said the leader respects press freedom.
Media watchdogs and human rights groups lauded the court’s decision, which they said was a win for journalists and the rule of law.
“It is a victory for press freedom in the Philippines,” Carlos Conde, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement. The challenge for the Marcos administration is “to take stock of this and ensure that journalists did their jobs without fear”, Conde said.
In October, a radio journalist was shot dead, among scores killed in the past decade.
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 2021 impunity index.