Collectively representing over 30 years in jail and a substantial fine, the four charges showed the lengths to which the administration of former President Rodrigo Duterte was willing to go to use the legal system to silence critical independent media. Rappler has been forced to defend 23 cases against it since 2018, seen by supporters as a deliberate tactic to stifle the news organisation’s operational capacity and deplete it financially.
It has been feared that the new administration of President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. would pursue the same tactics as his predecessor.
“WAN-IFRA and the World Editors Forum welcome this verdict and stand firmly behind Rappler and Maria Ressa and call on the government to dismiss all remaining charges – once and for all putting an end to the years of legal harassment.”
The tax evasion charges related to the issuing of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) to North Base Media and Omidyar Network in 2015. The prosecution argued that Rappler had acquired taxable income and incurred obligations that they failed to fulfil. Rappler’s defence maintained throughout that the company had not received taxable income from the issuing of the PDRs.
Furthermore, the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) and Department of Justice (DOJ) asserted Rappler was dealing in securities, an accusation that critics say was politically motivated. The typical PDR is a security that grants the holder the right to the delivery or sale of underlying shares of stock and is usually not considered as evidence of ownership of a corporation – rather a vehicle for raising capital and investment as opposed to profit.
Nevertheless, the BIR filed criminal complaints with the Department of Justice against Rappler Holdings Corporation and Maria Ressa in March 2018, under the then government of former President Rodrigo Duterte – two months after the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) had issued a closure order against the company.
Welcoming the acquittals, WAN-IFRA challenged the Marcos government to go further by withdrawing the remaining cases against Rappler and Maria Ressa and to reaffirm its commitment to a free and independent press in the Philippines:
“We are hugely relieved for Rappler and Maria, who should never have been confronted by these charges in the first place,” said a statement from WAN-IFRA. “The legal harassment, false accusations, intimidation, and intense pressure must now completely stop. The tactics pursued by the former administration – against Rappler and other independent media – have eroded trust in the government’s commitment to a free press. It is time to rebuild this, and while these acquittals are a positive step, President Marcos Jr. can do significantly more to ensure the persecution ends and Rappler, Maria Ressa, and independent media across the Philippines can once again have confidence in a system that has been against them for so long.”
Significantly, Maria Ressa faces up to seven years in jail after the Philippines’ Court of Appeals upheld a previous decision to convict her and former Rappler journalist, Reynaldo Santos Jr., of cyber libel. A final appeal to the Supreme Court is the only option to keep the pair out of jail, while Rappler remains shuttered by an SEC decision from June 2022.
The cyber libel charges relate to an article the news site published in 2012 that revealed a prominent businessman’s alleged ties to drug smuggling and trafficking, as well as his relationship to a senior judge. The original complaint was filed in October 2017, more than five years after the story appeared.
Despite the elapsed time, and the fact that the law the pair have been found guilty of violating was passed four months after the original article was published, the Justice Department has argued that the article was effectively republished in 2014 when a Rappler employee edited a spelling mistake, bringing it under the new law’s jurisdiction.
“Journalism is not a crime, and the media must be free to conduct business and produce independent reporting without fear of imprisonment, enforced closure, or criminal prosecution,” continued the statement from WAN-IFRA.
“Rappler should be allowed to resume its work unhindered, and the legal jeopardy must end for Maria Ressa. The Philippines needs to show it is enabling an environment conducive to press freedom and respect for the rule of law. Until then, we stand firmly behind Maria and Rappler and continue to #HoldTheLine.”