Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC welcome dismissal of spurious “foreign ownership” case against Maria Ressa that carried a 21-year maximum penalty

Amal Clooney and Caoilfhionn Gallagher KC, on behalf of the international legal team representing journalist and Nobel Laureate Maria Ressa, have welcomed a decision by the Philippine Department of Justice to dismiss a spurious criminal case against Ms Ressa related to alleged ‘foreign ownership’ of her news organisation, Rappler.

Prosecutors have finally dismissed charges alleging that an investment provided in 2015 by an American philanthropic investment fund violated a prohibition in Philippine law against foreign ownership or control of media organisations.  The charge against Ms Ressa and her fellow directors was brought under the Securities Regulation Code and carried a maximum penalty of 21 years’ imprisonment. 

The case was filed despite the fact that there was no evidence that any crime had been committed. Rappler’s years-old investment had not transferred ownership of any part of Rappler. Nor did the investor exercise control over Rappler, nor seek to exercise such control. Many other companies, including media organisations, have secured foreign investment in the same way as Rappler, but have never been the subject of criminal proceedings. 

These proceedings against Ms Ressa and her fellow directors were commenced in early 2019.  However, in October 2019, the Pasig Regional Trial Court ordered a re-investigation by the City Prosecutor of Pasigthat afforded Ms Ressa and other directors of Rappler their right to due process of law. Following that re-investigation, the prosecution conceded that it did not have evidence to charge Ms Ressa with a criminal offence, and the case has now been dropped. 

This development follows Ms Ressa’s acquittal earlier this year in two other criminal cases based on spurious tax evasion charges. This acquittal was welcomed by the UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression and Opinion as “a victory for media freedom as well as justice.” 

However, Ms Ressa remains convicted of “cyberlibel” and subject to a prison term of over 6 and half years 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 Ms Ressa still faces separate criminal proceedings, carrying a maximum 15-year sentence, arising out of the 2015 foreign investment.  Rappler is also currently battling an order from the Securities and Exchange Commission revoking its registration and shutting it down, and facing a protracted tax audit designed to add additional pressure on its journalists. 

This campaign of state-sponsored harassment against Ms Ressa and Rappler 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 50 states.  Most recently, in her report presented to the 53rd session of the UN Human Rights Council in 2023, the UN 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.”

Ms Clooney said:

“This is an important victory for Maria – and for the press.  Maria has spent 4 years with these baseless charges hanging over her and we are delighted that they have finally been dismissed.  We hope that the remaining charges will now be dropped so that justice can be restored and journalism can thrive in the Philippines.”

Ms Gallagher KC said:

“For years our brave client Maria Ressa has faced a barrage of spurious criminal investigations and prosecutions for doing her job – for being a journalist.  We are pleased to see another spurious case against Maria dismissed.  But Maria still faces decades behind bars for her journalism.  The authorities must end this for once and for all, drop all remaining charges and concede Maria’s cyberlibel appeal.”     

Ms Ressa said:

Again, facts win.  Truth wins.  Justice wins.  We will continue to hold the line.”

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.