Manila, Jul 22 (epa-epa).- Well-known Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, who is one of the fiercest critics of the country’s controversial president, pleaded not guilty on Wednesday to tax evasion, a case she describes as a form of harassment.
“These political charges make me laugh. That’s all you can do when law is weaponized against journalists.,” Ressa said on her way to the court in Pasig in Manila to enter her not guilty plea.
Ressa, named 2018 Person of the Year by TIME magazine for her fight against media intimidation, faces several government lawsuits that have raised international concern about the harassment of journalists in the Philippines, a country long regarded as a flag-bearer of press freedom in Asia.
Ressa, CEO and founder of the Rappler news website, was found guilty in a cyber libel case last month, for which she could serve up to six years in prison, a ruling that several rights organizations considered a blow to democratic freedoms during the current administration, led by President Rodrigo Duterte.
The 56-year-old journalist, who is out on bail as the conviction can be appealed, also has at least another dozen cases pending against her related to tax evasion and violating media nationalization laws.
The head of Rappler – a website established in 2012 that has since gone on to become one of the most influential news sites of the Philippines – claims that all the charges against her are an attempt to silence her and in retaliation for her critical reporting on Duterte, especially the abuses committed in the anti-drugs campaign he launched after coming to power in 2016 and his disinformation campaigns.
Duterte has repeatedly publicly lashed out at Rappler, accusing it of publishing fake news and being funded by the CIA, and has even banned its journalists from the presidential palace.
Ressa’s appearance in court on Wednesday was due to accusations that Rappler’s management team falsified tax returns by omitting a sale of depositary receipts to foreign investors, which would violate Philippine media law that requires 100 percent Filipino control of mass media.
Rappler argues that foreigners never owned shares in the company but were allowed to invest without voting rights, a practice generally accepted in other Filipino media.
A total of 78 press and civil society organizations have formed the #HoldTheLine Coalition to express solidarity with Ressa and call for the withdrawal of the “barrage of bogus tax and foreign ownership cases” against her.
““The prosecution of baseless financial charges and cases represents an attempt to use tax law and foreign ownership regulations as another weapon to criminalize journalism and silence Ressa and Rappler as threats to press freedom and democracy escalate in the Philippines,” the collective said.
Duterte’s government also recently shut down the ABS-CBN channel, the country’s largest media franchise, leaving the future of 11,000 workers in limbo. EFE-EPA