Court acquits Rappler’s Maria Ressa of tax evasion

CMFR/PHILIPPINES – The Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) on 18 January 2023  cleared Nobel Peace Prize laureate and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa of all four tax evasion charges filed against her and her news organization. 

In an 80-page decision, the CTA’s First Division cleared Ressa and Rappler Holdings Corp. (RHC) of “three counts of willful failure to supply correct information and one count of tax evasion” after the prosecution failed “to prove their guilt beyond reasonable doubt.” The same decision also freed the accused from “civil liability” as the alleged “unpaid tax obligations have not been factually and legally established and proven.” 

In March 2018, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR), during the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte, filed these charges against Ressa and RHC over the sale of their Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) to two foreign entities — North Base Media and Omidyar Network — in 2015. PDR is a financial document that gives its holder the right to own stocks in and receive interest and dividends from a Filipino company. According to the BIR, RHC allegedly earned roughly PHP162.5-million from the transaction but failed to declare it in its tax return.

Earlier in 2018, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) issued a closure order against Rappler for violating a constitutional provision limiting ownership and control of mass media to Filipinos after the media organization received funds from the abovementioned foreign entities. Rappler  appealed the case to the Court of Appeals. 

CMFR notes that these cases were filed a few months after Duterte threatened to investigate the ownership of Rappler. Rappler was among the three news organizations critical of the former administration’s policies. Duterte also threatened to file cases against the Philippine Daily Inquirer and to shut down ABS-CBN. In 2020, the House of Representatives denied ABS-CBN’s franchise renewal application.

CMFR welcomes this development in Rappler’s case and maintains its stand against the weaponization of  Philippine law to silence  journalists and media organizations, and to suppress the Constitutionally-guaranteed freedoms of speech and of the press.