Filipino journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa was acquitted Tuesday in Manila of the last charge of tax evasion for which she was prosecuted, but still faces a long prison sentence in other proceedings.
Maria Ressa, 59, co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021 with Russian Dmitri Mouratov, smiled as the judge read the verdict, which also acquitted Rappler, the online media of which she is the co-founder, observed an AFP journalist, present in the courtroom.
“You have to have faith,” Ms. Ressa told the press as she left the court.
It's up to us," she said. "We're staying the course, and (this acquittal) proved that we can do it."
The journalist faced numerous legal harassments under former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte (2016-2022), whose bloody anti-drug policy she virulently criticized.
Maria Ressa and Rappler faced five tax evasion charges after the 2015 sale of certificates of deposit, a way for companies to raise money from foreign investors.
Last January, a court acquitted Rappler and the journalist of the first four charges, and another court cleared them of the fifth on Tuesday.
“Today we celebrate the triumph of facts over politics,” Rappler said in a statement.
“We thank the court for this fair decision and for recognizing that the fraudulent, false and unconvincing accusations made by the tax authorities have no factual basis.”
Despite these legal victories, Ms. Ressa and Rappler's future remains uncertain, as they still face two more trials.
Carlos Conde, researcher at the NGO Human Rights Watch, considered that these acquittals were "long overdue" and urged President Ferdinand Marcos Junior, elected in 2022, to "ensure that the judicial harassment including Maria Ressa and "other journalists are the subject of an end."
Ms. Ressa and a former colleague, Rey Santos Jr., were convicted in 2020 of “cyber libel.” The case, for which they face nearly seven years in prison, is currently being examined by the Supreme Court of the Philippines.
As for the media outlet Rappler, it is challenging a closure order from the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission for allegedly violating the ban on foreign ownership in media outlets.
Under the Constitution, investments in media are restricted to Filipino citizens or entities controlled by them. The lawsuits stem from a 2015 investment in Rappler by the philanthropic company Omidyar Network, created by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
Omidyar Network then transferred its investment in Rappler to local managers of the site, in order to prevent any attempt at closure by the government.
The legal troubles of Ms. Ressa and Rappler began in 2016 with the election to the presidency of Mr. Duterte, accustomed to nauseating attacks against his opponents.
The media outlet and its founder have faced what press freedom advocates describe as a series of criminal prosecutions and arbitrary arrests and online harassment campaigns.
Mr. Duterte's government has maintained that it had nothing to do with the initiation of these legal proceedings.
Another fierce critic of Mr. Duterte, human rights activist Leila de Lima, spent more than six years in prison on drug trafficking charges she said were fabricated to silence her.
Throughout the campaign against her, Ms. Ressa, who also has American citizenship, remained in the Philippines.
She is on bail while the Supreme Court reviews her cyberdefamation conviction, and must seek court permission when she wishes to travel abroad.
This was the case when she traveled to Norway in December 2021 to receive her Nobel Peace Prize with Mr. Muratov, for their efforts to “safeguard freedom of expression.”
Ms. Ressa was optimistic on Tuesday, saying that this latest acquittal “strengthens our resolve to trust the justice system.”
“This shows that the justice system is working and we hope that the other charges will be dismissed,” she said.
Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr, who succeeded Mr. Duterte in June 2022, said he did not want to interfere in Ms. Ressa's case, citing the separation of powers.
09/12/2023 11:48:36 - Manila (AFP) - ©2023 AFP