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Nobel winner Maria Ressa, Rappler, cleared of tax evasion charges: ‘Truth wins’

Philippine Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa and her news organisation Rappler Holdings Corporation have been acquitted by a court of tax evasion charges, in a victory for human rights and freedom of the press in the South Asian country.

Ressa, 59, who was awarded the Nobel Prize alongside Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov in 2021, heads Rappler, which gained prominence for its critical reporting of former president Rodrigo Duterte and its draconian war on drugs.

The slew of legal cases against her is touted to be the former president's bid to muzzle critical reporting.

The state revenue agency had accused Rappler, founded in 2012, of omitting from its tax returns the proceeds of a 2015 sale of depositary receipts to foreign investors. The case was used by the securities regulator to revoke the company's license.

The Court of Tax Appeals on Wednesday ruled that prosecutors failed to prove "beyond reasonable doubt" that Ressa and the organisation evaded tax payments in four instances after raising capital through partnerships with two foreign investors.

"The acquittal of the accused is based on the findings of the court... that respondents did not commit the crime charge," the court said.

The court ruled that the Philippine Depositary Receipts issued by Rappler were non-taxable, removing the basis of the tax evasion charges filed by the justice department prosecutors.

Ressa said the verdict was a win for truth and justice, adding: "This acquittal is not just for Rappler, it is for every Filipino who has ever been unjustly accused."

"These charges... were politically motivated... A brazen abuse of power," the visibly emotional journalist said.

She is currently on bail as she appeals a six-year prison sentence handed down in 2020 for a libel conviction.

Rappler welcomed the court decision as "the triumph of facts over politics". "We thank the court for this just decision and for recognising that the fraudulent, false, and flimsy charges made by the Bureau of Internal Revenue do not have any basis in fact," the organisation said in a statement.

"An adverse decision would have had far-reaching repercussions on both the press and the capital markets."

Rappler and Ressa face three more legal cases, a separate tax case filed by prosecutors in another court, her Supreme Court appeal on an online libel conviction, and Rappler’s appeal against the closure order issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Rights groups and media watchdogs welcomed Wednesday’s court ruling, which they called was a win for journalists.

“It is a victory for press freedom in the Philippines,” Carlos Conde, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.

“This is also a repudiation of Duterte’s vindictive and cynical politics,” the researcher added.

The Philippines ranks 147 out of 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index.