Journalist Maria Ressa and her news website Rappler were charged last week on multiple tax evasion charges, a move that Ressa’s supporters say is part of a wider crackdown on dissent by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s and his administration. Ressa, Rappler’s CEO and a former CNN Manila bureau chief, faces a potential 10-year prison term under Philippine tax law. Ressa has called the charges “ridiculous.”
The Society of Professional Journalists in a Dec. 7 press release stated that SPJ supports Ressa as she battles with the Philippine government of Duterte. SPJ encourages the Philippine government to drop all charges against Ressa.
Ressa turned herself in to Philippine authorities on Dec. 3, upon returning from a round-the-world trip to participate in several high-profile journalism events in Paris, Washington and New York. After being fingerprinted and photographed, she was released on bail.
The Philippine government has charged Rappler and Ressa with tax evasion related to a foreign investment by the Omidyar Network, which is owned by American investor Pierre Omidyar, the founder of eBay. The charges essentially treat the investment as if Rappler were a securities dealer rather than a news website. Ressa says that they are in compliance with the tax obligations of a news media company.
Press freedom organizations widely condemn the charges against an independent news site that has published stories and images documenting the thousands of killings of alleged drug users in Duterte’s “war on drugs.” We view this as a clear threat to use political force against any journalist covering the Philippine administration.
This is part of a rising trend by governments to use both political rhetoric and the courts to threaten freedom of speech and of the press. It is not the first time the Philippine authorities have harassed this news website. The country’s Securities and Exchange Commission temporarily revoked the company’s registration earlier this year. Authorities have banned Rappler’s reporters from covering the country’s presidential palace and referred to the site as “fake news.”