Bangkok, November 12, 2018--The Philippine authorities said on Friday they had grounds to indict news site Rappler, known for its critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte, and its founder Maria Ressa for tax evasion and failure to file tax returns, news reports said. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemned the threat and called on authorities to cease its campaign of legal harassment targeting Rappler.
According to the reports, the Philippine Department of Justice accuses Rappler and Ressa of failure to pay taxes on bond sales in 2015, which reportedly resulted in 162.5 million pesos ($3 million) in financial gains. The government's statement on the charges did not indicate how much was allegedly owed, reports said.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told Agence France-Presse that the tax evasion charges would be filed in court this week. Tax evasion penalties under Philippine law carry maximum 10-year prison sentences and fines.
"These charges show that Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's government will stop at nothing to silence Rappler's critical news reporting," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "Authorities should drop this spurious accusation and desist from harassing Maria Ressa and Rappler's brave reporters."
Rappler denied the accusation, saying in a statement that the legal threat was a "clear form of continuing intimidation and harassment against us, and an attempt to silence journalists." The statement said the case "has no legal leg to stand on."
Rappler has already faced legal threats before the tax evasion accusations. In January, the Philippines' Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ruled that the online news group violated laws barring foreign ownership and control of local media, and moved to revoke its registration.
The ruling was based on accusations that Rappler received funds from the Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder and entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar to promote open societies. In July, the Court of Appeals ruled that the SEC erred in its move to revoke Rappler's certificate of incorporation, which it said should only be done as a "last resort" for non-compliance issues. In August, Rappler filed a motion with the court to fully annul the SEC's revocation order; the motion is still pending.
CPJ earlier this year chronicled the Duterte government's tri-pronged approach to intimidate the press via verbal assaults, social media attacks, and threats to withdraw media groups' licenses or hit their commercial interests to encourage self-censorship when reporting on sensitive issues.