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Philippine Journalist Maria Ressa Acquitted of Tax Evasion

FILE - In this photo provided by the Rappler, Rappler CEO and Executive Editor Maria Ressa reacts after hearing she won the Nobel Peace Prize, inside her home in Taguig, Metro Manila, Philippines, Oct. 8, 2021.

Philippine journalist and Nobel Peace laureate Maria Ressa was acquitted Wednesday of tax evasion charges that she and other critics say were part of an attempt by former President Rodrigo Duterte to stifle freedom of the press.

The Court of Tax Appeals ruled that prosecutors failed to prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that Ressa and the parent company of her news site Rappler failed to pay taxes on an investment made by U.S.-based Omidyar Network, a philanthropic investment firm founded by billionaire Pierre Omidyar, the founder of the online shopping site eBay.

An emotional Ressa told reporters outside the courtroom that “facts win, truth wins, justice wins,” and that the verdict represents “hope.” Rappler posted a statement saying the decision was “the triumph of facts over politics.”

Ressa and Rappler still face numerous legal battles, including an appeal of a 2020 conviction of cyber libel over a 2012 story that cited an intelligence report that linked a wealthy businessman to drug dealing and other illegal activities.

Rappler is also appealing a separate tax evasion case and an order by the Securities and Exchange Commission to shut down on allegations that it violated the constitutional ban on foreign ownership of Philippine media companies when it accepted the investment from Omidyar Network.

The international legal team representing Ressa, and led by Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher, welcomed the court decision as a “milestone in the struggle for a free press.”

Noting that Ressa had the prospect of a 30-year prison sentence hanging over her while the courts heard the case, Clooney said, “Today we see justice being done. We see judges drawing a line.”

Gallagher in the joint statement described the case against her client as “a blatant politically motivated attempt to criminalize Ms. Ressa for years of hard-hitting investigative reporting holding the powerful to account.”

Ressa is a former CNN journalist and one of Time magazine’s persons of the year in 2018 when it celebrated journalists around the world, including murdered Saudi Arabian journalist Jamal Khashoggi. She shared the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov for their respective fights to maintain their independent news organizations, which the Nobel Committee called “a precondition for democracy and lasting peace.”

Press freedom advocates say the legal cases against Ressa were part of a broader effort by Duterte to quash all forms of dissent and scrutiny of his administration, especially his brutal anti-drug crackdown that left thousands of people dead.

Lawmakers loyal to Duterte overwhelmingly voted in 2020 to deny radio and television broadcaster ABS-CBN a renewed 25-year operating license, forcing the nation’s top broadcaster to shut down.

The Hold The Line coalition of rights organizations, which advocates for the defense of press freedom, on Wednesday welcomed the court ruling, and called for the remaining cases against Ressa and Rappler to be dropped.

“This verdict indicates that it is possible for President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. to hit reset on his predecessors’ vast campaign of media repression,” the coalition statement read.

Some information for this report came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.