September 12, 2023, Manila—The Hold the Line Coalition (HTL) welcomes Tuesday’s Regional Trial Court verdict acquitting Nobel laureate Maria Ressa and her news outlet Rappler on the final criminal tax charge leveled against them by the regime of former President Rodrigo Duterte.
The judgment comes after a legal battle lasting nearly five years. If they had lost the case, Ressa could have been jailed for up to 10 years, while Rappler would have faced a fine.
“This verdict underlines that it is possible for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to chart a different course to his predecessor Rodrigo Duterte, who waged a relentless campaign of media repression,” said the Hold The Line Coalition Steering Committee. “We hope this judgment signals a revival of judicial independence in the Philippines after the previous administration’s instrumentalization of the courts as a means to erode press freedom and discredit independent reporting,” the Hold the Line Coalition said.
Ressa and Rappler were charged in connection with an alleged failure to accurately report financial details on their tax return pertaining to an amount of approximately US$ 11,000. But they have already paid twice that amount in bail and travel bonds associated with the charge.
“As an immediate next step, we call on the government to abandon all remaining cases against Rappler and Ressa, and in doing so, put a long-overdue end to their persecution.”
In January, Ressa and Rappler were acquitted of four tax evasion cases before the Court of Tax Appeals in Manila in an emphatic victory.
While today’s judgment represents another reprieve, there is no doubt that being forced to maintain continuous legal defenses has been designed to debilitate Rappler and Ressa, who have faced a sustained campaign of legal persecution and online violence, with 23 individual cases against them opened by the government since 2018.
Rappler and Ressa have maintained their innocence and continue to fight three other cases, including Ressa’s 2020 conviction on a trumped-up charge of criminal cyber libel, currently in the final phase of appeal before the Supreme Court. In that case alone, Ressa faces a seven-year jail sentence.
In an historic precedent, Rappler was officially issued a shutdown order in June 2022, reinforcing an earlier decision to revoke the outlet’s license to operate. The order was the first of its kind for the issuing agency and for Philippine media. The threat of shutdown lingers.
The HTL Coalition calls on states committed to freedom of the press and democracy, on intergovernmental organizations, on international development agencies and media investors, and on international civil society groups to continue their defense of press freedom in the Philippines and urge President Marcos to revitalize the country’s commitment to a free press.
Note: The #HTL Coalition comprises more than 80 organizations around the world. This statement is issued by the #HoldTheLine Steering Committee, but it does not necessarily reflect the position of all or any individual Coalition members or organizations.