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Philippines 'Open for Business': Nobel Laureate Ressa, Rappler Acquitted

While a clear win for press freedom, dismissal of the politically motivated tax cases clears "the way of doing business in the Philippines," says Maria Ressa. 



Philippines Nobel laureate Maria Ressa speaks to the media after she and her news site Rappler were acquitted of tax fraud by a trial court in Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines, September 12, 2023. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez .

A local court in the Philippines on Tuesday, September 12, threw out the last of tax evasion cases filed against investigative news site Rappler and its founder Nobel Peace Laureate Maria Ressa by the former government of president Rodrigo Duterte.

The acquittal, handed down after nearly five years of trial, is the second legal victory for Rappler and Ressa in 2023. In January, the Court of Tax Appeals acquitted them of four other cases. The fifth case was filed with a lower court because it involved an amount lower than ₱1 million pesos (around ¥ 2.17 million JPY or $9,000 USD at the time of filing).

While clearly a win for press freedom in the Philippines, the dismissal of the politically motivated tax cases should also be seen for its "impact on business," Ressa told journalists on September 12. 

Strong Signal to International Investors

"As we've seen in other cases that have been resolved, the rule of law is stronger…. Facts win, truth wins, justice wins. But I think, more importantly, you have to really look at the impact on business because the tax evasion charges threatened the way of doing business in the Philippines. And this is a cornerstone of the [new] Marcos administration, to bring the economy back up, and to bring international investors in. This is a good sign," Ressa said. 

All five tax evasion cases filed by the Duterte government were falsely premised on the same convoluted logic. Duterte's government argued that when Rappler issued Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) in 2015, it wasn't raising capital. Instead, they said, it was "selling" securities, which should have been taxable and which Rappler supposedly didn't declare.

Both the tax court and the lower trial court said these charges were baseless, especially after revenue officers presented as prosecution witnesses acknowledged that documents they got hold of clearly showed the issuance of the financial instruments was an investment transaction and not a form of dealing in securities. 

A Favorable Message for Business in the Philippines

Rappler and Ressa's chief counsel, Francis Lim, who used to head two major business groups in the Philippines, said the acquittal sends a message that "the Philippines is open for business." Moreover, it has a judicial system that would not let the government's harassment suits against companies prosper.  

"I hope that not only the Philippine business community but, more importantly, the foreign investors take note of this case. Because this is really not only for Maria and Rappler Holdings, but a win for the Philippines," Lim told journalists outside the courtroom. 

Philippines Nobel laureate Maria Ressa faces the media after she and her news site Rappler were acquitted of tax fraud by a trial court in Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines, September 12, 2023. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

Positive Signs Amid Continuing Lawsuits

"Among the Asian countries, we are lagging behind in terms of attracting foreign investments," said Lim, adding:

So let's hope…that this acquittal, together with the earlier acquittal by the Court of Tax Appeals, will send a very strong signal to the international business community. I hope that foreign business will really take a second, third look at the Philippines, because it's open for business, really.


The lawyer continued: "We have been working hard…trying to liberalize our business environment. But, as Maria said, the rule of law underpins everything. No matter how many laws Congress enacts to entice business, if there's something basically or fundamentally wrong with the rule of law, then no one will come here in the Philippines to do business."

In a statement, Rappler said of the court victory, "We share this with Filipinos doing business for social good but who, like us, have suffered at the hands of oppressive governments." 

The Spark of Press Freedom and Human Rights

From about a dozen cases all filed following Rappler's investigation into the extrajudicial killings, human rights violations, and corruption under the Duterte government, there are now only two live cases against Rappler. 

One, pending with the Supreme Court, is the conviction of Ressa and former researcher Reynaldo Santos Jr for cyber libel — involving an article published way before the cyber libel law was passed. The other, pending with the appellate court, seeks the revocation of Rappler's permit to operate, based again on the argument that the PDRs it issued to foreign investors meant that it's not 100% Filipino-owned, a constitutional requirement.

"The acquittal now strengthens our resolve to continue with the justice system, to submit ourselves to the court. Despite the political harassment, and despite the attacks on press freedom, it shows that the court system works. And we hope to see the remaining charges dismissed," Ressa said.  

Philippines Nobel laureate Maria Ressa speaks tp the media after she and her news site Rappler were acquitted of tax fraud by a trial court in Pasig City, Metro Manila, Philippines, September 12, 2023. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez.

Media Still Under Attack Globally

In the fight for a free press, however, Ressa cautioned: "We're not out of the woods yet. Both journalism and democracy are under attack globally." 

"The cameras that are here are threatened by information operations on social media. We've seen this not just in the Philippines, but all around the world. Social media has been used to water down facts, to change lies into facts, and now you have generative AI, so it's going to get harder as we move forward," Ressa said.

"I closed the Nobel summit last May in [Washington] DC, and I pointed out that generative AI…is going to make elections significantly harder because information operations are much easier, much cheaper, lies are cheaper, and we know that lies spread faster than what we do as journalists on social media," the Nobel laureate added. 

'Press Freedom: It's Up to Us'

As she did in the first tax evasion acquittal last January, the Rappler founder made references to other Filipino journalists unjustly detained since the Duterte era, saying it will be up to fellow journalists and supportive sectors to keep the press free. 

"The answer on press freedom — guys, it's up to us. We hold the line, and this [acquittal] proved that we can hold the line. It can take a long time, but to my colleagues — Frenchie Mae Cumpio, who has been in jail — we continue to fight for them. You have a Hold the Line coalition that is comprised of more than 80 press freedom groups around the world, looking at what is happening in the Philippines," she said. 

Rappler said It shared the victory "with our colleagues in the industry who have been besieged by relentless online attacks, unjust arrests and detentions, and red-tagging that have resulted in physical harm." 

"This 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," it said. 



Author: JAPAN Forward

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