A Philippine court on Tuesday acquitted Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa and her news website Rappler of tax evasion charges.
The court decision is the latest victory for the award-winning journalist who has been fighting several legal cases widely seen by analysts as retaliation for the investigative reporting by Ressa’s news website Rappler.
Ressa originally had been fighting five tax-related charges filed during the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte. A court in January acquitted her and Rappler of four other counts.
If convicted, Ressa could have faced up to 10 years in prison, and Rappler could have been fined.
“Facts wins, truth wins, justice wins,” Ressa told reporters outside the Pasig city courthouse.
In a statement, Rappler said the decision “is a victory not just for Rappler but for everyone who has kept the faith that a free and responsible press empowers communities and strengthens democracy.”
The win is shared by others in the media “besieged by relentless online attacks, unjust arrests and detentions, and red-tagging that have resulted in physical harm,” the statement said, referring to a decades-old practice where the government accuses critics of being fighters or supporters of a communist insurgency, which can lead to harassment and even killings.
At the height of the legal challenges, Ressa faced a potential combined sentence of more than 100 years in prison.
Now, two legal cases remain. Ressa is appealing a cyber libel conviction at the Philippine Supreme Court, and Rappler is challenging a closure order issued by the Securities and Exchange Commission.
In the cyber case, a businessman filed a complaint about an article published before the Philippines enacted its cyber libel law in 2012. A court ruled the complaint was valid because a typographical correction was made to the article in 2014.
Ressa is free on bail while she appeals the six-year prison sentence handed down in 2020 for cyber libel. The Philippine Supreme Court has to approve her travel outside the country.
The Associated Press cited Ressa as saying she will continue to fight.
“The acquittal now strengthens our resolve to continue with the justice system, to submit ourselves to the court despite the political harassment, despite the attacks on press freedom. It shows that the court system works, and we hope to see the remaining charges dismissed.”
Press freedom groups welcomed Tuesday’s court decision.
“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 in a statement.
“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 statement continued.
The press freedom coalition, made up of more than 80 groups in support of Ressa, called on Manila to drop all remaining cases against the journalist and her outlet.