Maria Ressa, founder and editor of the Philippine news site Rappler, accepting CPJ's International Press Freedom Award on November 20, 2018. Ressa and Rappler are facing increasing legal harassment by the Philippine government. (Getty Images/Dia Dipasupil)

Philippines piles on legal threats against critical news site Rappler

November 29, 2018 9:19 AM ET

Bangkok, November 29, 2018--Philippine prosecutors have in recent days filed five separate tax cases against critical news site Rappler, including criminal charges that may allow for the arrest of the site's founder and editor Maria Ressa, according to news reports. The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the escalated campaign of legal harassment and calls on authorities to immediately drop all pending charges against Rappler.

According to news reports, the Department of Justice filed four tax-related cases with the Court of Tax Appeals between November 26 and 28, including three counts of failing to file returns and one for tax evasion against Rappler and Ressa.

The cases were filed despite the respondents' request for a motion of reconsideration, the reports said. A separate tax evasion case was filed against Rappler and Ressa at the Pasig Regional Trial Court on November 14, a charge that Rappler only learned about today, news reports said.

"The mounting tax charges against Rappler are a blatant form of legal harassment and underline President Rodrigo Duterte's desperate attempt to stifle its critical reporting on his government," said Shawn Crispin, CPJ's senior Southeast Asia representative. "The spurious charges should be dropped before any more damage is done to his administration's already threadbare credibility."

Reports said the two courts would assess whether there is probable cause to issue warrants of arrest for the charges. Ressa told CPJ that the charges were "ridiculous" and "false," and aimed ultimately to bog down her media group in time-consuming and resource-depleting lawsuits. She said Rappler has complied with all laws and requests from tax authorities, who frequently visit her office for relevant documents.

Tax evasion penalties under Philippine law carry maximum 10-year prison sentences and fines.

The Department of Justice earlier this month accused Rappler and Ressa of failure to pay taxes on depository receipts in 2015, which reportedly resulted in 162.5 million pesos ($3 million) in financial gains. The new charge filed at the Pasig Regional Trial Court claims Rappler failed to supply accurate information in its Value Added Tax return in 2015.

The new charges mark an escalation of the government's legal harassment of the news site. The Philippines' Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) ruled in January that Rappler violated constitutional provisions that bar foreign ownership and control of local media, and moved to revoke its registration.

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.

On November 26, CPJ and Reporters Without Borders sent an open letter to Philippine Prosecutor General Richard Anthony Fadullon calling on him to stop his department's persecution of Rappler and Ressa.

On November 20, CPJ bestowed its 2018 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award on Ressa, a former CNN reporter, at its annual International Press Freedom Award ceremony held in New York City.

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