Filipino journalist Maria Ressa pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to tax evasion charges, saying the case was politically motivated to harass and intimidate the free press in the Philippines.
Named in 2018 as Time Magazine Person of the Year for fighting media intimidation, Ressa is facing several government lawsuits that have caused international concern about the state of journalism in the Southeast Asian country.
Ressa, who is chief executive of the news site Rappler, was earlier convicted of libel and sentenced to up to six years in prison. She is currently free on bail to appeal against the verdict.
The ruling is widely seen as a blow to democratic freedoms under President Rodrigo Duterte’s increasingly popular authoritarianism.
Rappler has been critical of the administration of Duterte, exposing bot armies and allegations of corruption and documenting his brutal anti-drugs campaign, which has led, by some estimations, to tens of thousands of extrajudicial killings.
Duterte has publicly lashed out at Rappler, calling it a “fake news outlet” sponsored by American spies.
Ressa’s court appearance on Wednesday related to accusations Rappler falsified tax returns by omitting the proceeds of a sale of depositary receipts to foreign investors, which later became the securities regulator’s basis to revoke its licence.
The securities regulator alleged it was a scheme by Rappler to allow foreigners to illegally own shares in a domestic media firm.
Ressa, a dual US-Filipino citizen, said in a tweet: “pleaded NOT GUILTY”. A verdict is expected at a later date.
Rappler, a startup, has maintained foreigners never owned shares, but were allowed to invest without voting rights or involvement in operations. Rappler is still operating pending its appeal against its licence being revoked.
Media watchdogs and human rights activists say the charges against Ressa are part of a broader strategy to silence or humiliate opponents of Duterte.
Earlier this month, his allies in Congress voted overwhelmingly in favour of denying top broadcaster ABS-CBN’s bid to renew its 25-year licence, an outcome that Duterte had repeatedly promised would happen because of its refusal to air some of his election campaign commercials.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque said Duterte supports freedom of speech and any media facing legal cases are for breaking the law, not for their reporting. (Source: The Guardian)