Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC welcome acquittal of Maria Ressa of spurious tax evasion charges
Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, on behalf of the international legal team representing journalist Maria Ressa, have welcomed today’s decision of the Pasig Regional Trial Court in the Philippines, acquitting her of a spurious charge of tax evasion that carried a potential 10-year sentence.
Today’s decision follows Ms Ressa’s acquittal in another tax case earlier this year, which was welcomed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion as “a victory for media freedom as well as justice.”
All of the charges alleged that Ms Ressa misrepresented tax returns on two transactions from 2015 that secured investment for her news organisation, Rappler, from a global philanthropic fund. They were based on the concocted theory, never before applied in the Philippines, that a news organisation was a ‘dealer in securities’ and had to pay additional taxes that apply only to such bodies, a theory that has now been discredited by the courts.
However, the state-sponsored campaign of legal harassment against Ms Ressa continues. She remains convicted of “cyberlibel” and subject to a 6-year prison term as a result of Rappler’s public interest reporting on alleged corruption by a judge, in a case which is now before the state’s Supreme Court. And she faces other spurious criminal ‘foreign ownership’ charges criminalising an investment into Rappler in another unprecedented attack on the media that exposes her to over 30 years in prison. And the Philippines’ Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has also issued a closure order against Rappler based on the claim of the Duterte administration that the company is foreign-owned.
This abusive campaign continues to be widely condemned internationally, including by the UN, the US Department of State and US Congress, the EU and the Media Freedom Coalition of over 50 states. Most recently, in her report presented to the 53rd session of the UN Human Rights Council in 2023, the Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion cited the Philippines as a country in which “the authorities have sought to publicly denounce, stigmatize and discredit journalists, civil society organizations and activists, endangering their security or exposing them to threats and violence by others.”
In response to today’s decision, Ms Amal Clooney said:
“We welcome the decision by the Philippine courts today, the second in a row, acquitting Maria Ressa of spurious tax evasion charges after a four-year legal battle. Today’s acquittal is a victory not only for Maria but for all journalists in the Philippines who have been targeted by the government through the courts. But Maria still faces over 30 years in prison on outstanding charges, and these must also be dismissed if press freedom and the rule of law are to prevail.”
Ms Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC said:
“Our brave client Maria Ressa has been a victim of ‘lawfare’ for doing her job - for being a journalist. The law has been wielded as a weapon against her in multiple ways, as the authorities have attempted to criminalise her and Rappler for years of hard-hitting reporting holding the powerful to account. These baseless, politically motivated tax evasion charges were part of that wider pattern.
Today, the Pasig Regional Tax Court has rightly acquitted Ms Ressa. This is a welcome victory – another legal battle over, another spurious prosecution thrown out. But the Philippines' war on press freedom continues. Ms Ressa still faces decades behind bars for her journalism. The authorities must end this for once and for all, drop all remaining charges and concede Ms Ressa’s cyberlibel appeal.”
Ms Ressa said:
“Again, facts win. Truth wins. Justice wins. It took nearly five years, but it finally came - all five tax evasion charges have finally been thrown out.
Despite the harassment and intimidation, we continued doing our jobs. Today is proof that doing the right thing is the right thing.”
The international legal team led by Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC includes fellow barristers Can Yeginsu and Claire Overman and lawyer Alice Gardoll. The team is also working closely with Peter Lichtenbaum, Stephen Rademaker and former Ambassador Daniel Feldman of Covington & Burling LLP.