Journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa was acquitted of tax evasion on Wednesday, a rare victory after numerous setbacks in her fight to keep publishing her news site Rappler, whose run-ins with authorities have become emblematic of the Philippines’ declining press freedoms.
A Philippine court acquitted Ressa on all four charges against her. She would have faced a maximum sentence of 34 years if convicted.
Outside the courthouse in Manila, the capital, Ressa looked visibly relieved after the verdict. Asked what it meant to her, she replied: “Hope. That is what it provides. “We need independent media to hold power to account,” she added.
The case was the first high-profile test of whether the legal troubles facing Ressa and Rappler would continue under the Philippines’ new President, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who has benefited from online disinformation and tried to downplay the brutality of his father’s dictatorship decades ago. Advocates had urged Marcos to demonstrate his stated commitment to a free press by intervening in Ressa’s favour.
There are several other cases pending against Ressa and Rappler. She is appealing her June 2020 conviction on a cyber libel charge, under which she could face six years in prison. The Philippines’ top court is expected to rule on that case soon.
Authorities began taking action against Ressa and Rappler during the administration of Marcos’ predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, as the news organisation was aggressively covering Duterte’s bloody campaign against drugs.
That coverage helped Ressa win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.
Marcos, who took office in June with Duterte’s daughter Sara as vice president, recently rejected a request from the International Criminal Court to resume its inquiry into Duterte’s anti-drug campaign, which left thousands dead.
Marcos is in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, where a conviction of Ressa in the Philippines would likely have exposed him to unwanted scrutiny.
New York Times News Service