Maria Ressa acquitted on spurious charges: A Q&A with Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn W. Crispin
A Philippine Court of Tax Appeals in January acquitted Nobel laureate and CPJ’s 2018 Gwen Ifill Award winner Maria Ressa of tax evasion in four of seven cases brought by the government against her and the news organization she founded, Rappler. Ressa was facing up to 34 years in jail and Rappler would have been fined substantially had the court not acquitted her of the charges. CPJ and its partners have called on the Philippines to close the remaining cases.
For this issue of Insider, we spoke with CPJ’s Bangkok-based Senior Southeast Asia Representative Shawn W. Crispin about Maria’s case–and how CPJ has helped.
Maria Ressa called this verdict a victory for truth, saying, “Facts win. Truth wins. Justice wins.” Can you talk a little more about what went into ensuring that victory?
Ressa and Rappler’s acquittal was indeed a landmark victory for facts, truth, and justice in the Philippines. But it was also a crucial win for the power of collective action and dogged advocacy.
CPJ co-leads and works hand-in-hand with the Hold the Line Coalition (#HTL Coalition), a grouping of 80 organizations worldwide that have joined forces to advocate for Ressa, Rappler and all threatened media in the Philippines.
The coalition was launched on July 9, 2020, weeks after Ressa and her former Rappler colleague Reynaldo Santos Jr. were convicted of “cyber-libel” over a news article on corruption that was published in 2012–outrageously before the law used to convict them was even enacted.
The coalition has worked behind the scenes with Ressa’s legal team and in public through various reporting initiatives and social media campaigns that helped to keep the charges and cases in a global spotlight.
Those included a widely circulated and signed online petition calling on the government to drop all cases against Ressa and Rappler. As ever, it’s unclear how much this collective pressure actually contributed to the acquittals, but it’s notable and heartening the court finally ruled as our coalition advocated.
The three remaining cases facing Maria Ressa bring with them many years in jail. What exactly is she facing now, and does the acquittal in the tax evasion cases help in her pursuit of justice overall?
Ressa and Rappler aren’t out of the woods yet – far from it. While we welcomed the Court of Tax Appeals acquittal, the ruling will have no legal bearing on the remaining three cases pending against Ressa and Rappler.
Most crucially, the Supreme Court is expected to rule soon on Ressa’s and Santos Jr.’s appeal of their cyber-libel conviction. Their previous appeals in lower courts have been rejected, so there is grave cause for concern.
Both Ressa and Santos Jr. have been free on bail since their original conviction, but if the Supreme Court rules against them they will be forced to serve jail sentences of close to seven years.
It’s another crucial decision for the future of Philippine press freedom, one CPJ and the Hold the Line Coalition are actively monitoring and working both privately and publicly to achieve, hopefully, another favorable verdict.
Are there other cases in the Philippines we should be concerned about? Does the victory for Maria have any bearing on them?
CPJ and the Hold the Line Coalition have worked hard to help keep Ressa out of prison and Rappler free to report.
But another Philippine journalist, Frenchie Mae Cumpio, has been held in pretrial detention for nearly three years on politically motivated charges of arms possession and terrorism financing.
Cumpio, executive director of the Eastern Vista news website, faces a possible 52 years in prison if convicted and given the maximum penalties allowed under relevant laws.
Her lawyers have alleged authorities planted the weapons at her home while arresting her and colleagues in March 2020, likely in retaliation for her news outlet’s courageous reporting on alleged military and police abuses.
CPJ raised her unjust incarceration in a letter addressed to new President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., and we continue to advocate for the restoration of press freedom in the Philippines during his tenure.
While we are hopeful Ressa’s acquittal on tax-related charges heralds a new era of press freedom-protecting court decisions and government policies, CPJ won’t rest until that’s clearly the case.
2022: A deadly year for journalists
With the highest number of journalists killed since 2018 and a nearly 50% increase from 2021, last year was particularly deadly for journalists all over the world. In a report published recently, CPJ found that at least 67 journalists and media workers were killed in 2022. Of that number, 41 were found to have been killed in direct connection with their work, and CPJ continues to investigate the circumstances of 26 others who were killed last year.
The war in Ukraine, as well as increased targeting of journalists in Latin America, contributed to the sharp rise in journalist killings. Our report details the need for greater protection mechanisms for journalists and spotlights the importance of ending impunity in the murders of journalists.
CPJ’s interactive map allows you to explore our data on journalists killed and imprisoned around the world in more detail:
CPJ’s Director of Special Projects and former Executive Director Robert Mahoney penned an opinion piece in response to former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s memoir, which referred to Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi as a partisan “activist” and not a journalist. “Pompeo must know that dictators like to blur the distinction between journalism and activism,” Mahoney writes, “In many countries, merely asking a probing question of a powerful political leader or businessperson can be viewed as hostile.”
CPJ sent a letter sharing concern over the changes in policy at Twitter to the platform’s executive team. The letter, jointly issued with Reporters Without Borders, refers to a deterioration of human rights standards and the dissolution of Twitter’s Trust and Safety Council, the letter notes that “No one wants to be on a social media platform that endangers or censors them. […] Twitter must play a constructive role in ensuring that journalists and the public at large are able to receive and impart information without fear of reprisal.”
In a briefing on a proposed UK online safety bill, CPJ’s Consultant Technology Editor Madeline Earp writes that the proposed legislation could censor immigration reporting. The bill would force social platforms to remove content that doesn’t depict immigration in “a positive light” and, some worry, “exclude legitimate reporting or boost disinformation.” Worse, “the law could open the door to surveillance of journalists and their confidential source communications, not just in the U.K., but worldwide.”
CPJ in the news
“Critics say a new media law signed by Zelensky could restrict press freedom in Ukraine,” The New York Times
“‘I will be a journalist until the end,’” Bangkok Post
“Authorities in Tigray release 3 journalists, 2 others remain in detention,” Journal du Cameroun
“The Arab world’s rulers have turned journalists into courtiers,” The Economist
“Journalist deaths jumped 50% in 2022, led by Ukraine, Mexico,” The Associated Press