Maria Ressa: Hold the line

MARIA RESSA at a press conference held on Oct. 9, 2021, following her Nobel Peace Prize win. — WIKIPEDIA-RAPPLER

On Wednesday, Jan. 18, or a little more a week ago, the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) acquitted veteran journalist and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa of tax evasion charges. The CTA cleared the 59-year-old Ressa and her news site Rappler of four charges of tax evasion that were filed by the administration of Rodrigo Duterte who was president from 2016 to 2022.

The decision was welcomed by international and local human rights groups. Carlos Conde, senior Philippine researcher at Human Rights Watch, was quoted by The Washington Post as saying that the court’s decision was a “repudiation” of the Duterte legacy but warned that more work was needed to shore up protection for journalists. The Washington Post added that the Philippines had once had the most independent media industry, but press freedoms have deteriorated precipitously in recent years. Conde added that, “The Marcos government should heed the lesson of this, which is that no one can muzzle a good independent press.”

For its part, The National Union for Journalists of the Philippines said, “While colleagues similarly face legal challenges — from libel to made up terrorism charges — in relation to their work, we take inspiration from this acquittal [that] if we stand up and hold the line, we can win.”

Ressa would have faced a maximum of six years in prison had she been convicted. Reacting to her acquittal before a group of reporters outside the courthouse in Quezon City, Ressa said, “These charges were politically motivated. It was a brazen abuse of power meant to stop journalists from doing their jobs.” Ressa added, “Today facts win. Truth wins.”

The Washington Post reported that the “government launched its legal action in 2018, accusing Rappler of failing to declare investments from foreign investors such as Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar. Ressa, on behalf of Rappler, took to the witness stand to deny these charges, arguing that the transactions in question were not a form of taxable income. The court also ruled that there would be no civil liabilities since the alleged tax obligation ‘have not been factually and legally established and proven.’”

Karen Lema of Reuters reports that the tax evasion case stemmed from accusations by the Bureau of Internal Revenue that Rappler had omitted from its tax returns the proceeds of a 2015 sale of depositary receipts to foreign investors which later became the basis of the Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) action to revoke Rappler’s license (as a news media outfit).

Ressa and Rappler still face three more legal cases: a separate tax case filed by prosecutors from another court; her Supreme Court appeal on an online libel conviction; and Rappler’s appeal against closure ordered by the SEC. Asked about these three cases, Ressa emphasized, “We keep going. You prepare for the worst-case scenario and you keep going.”

Ressa and other courageous colleagues continue the fight for the promotion, protection, and defense of press freedom. The lives of independent journalists (and their families) continue to be threatened in a country which once prided itself as having the freest press in Asia. Last year, however, radio journalist Percy Lapid was gunned down as he was about to enter the driveway of his home. The Lapid assassination and others which went relatively unnoticed by ordinary citizens have contributed to the creation of an atmosphere of fear. Reuters reports that “the Philippines ranked 147 out of 180 countries in the 2022 World Press Freedom Index, and the Committee to Protect Journalists ranks the Philippines 7th in the world in the 2021 impunity index, which tracks deaths of media members whose killers go free.”

Writing from Bangkok, Rebecca Root adds that “since 1992, 84 journalists have been killed in the country (the Philippines), the most recent of which took place in October last year when broadcaster Percival Mabasa (a.k.a. Percy Lapid) was gunned down inside his car.”

Despite all the troubles that still lie ahead, Root reports that “Ressa, who is author of the book How to Stand up to a Dictator, said she had faith in the court. It took four years and two months. We came to court (and) we believed in the court despite everything that was happening.”

Perhaps the indomitable fighting spirit of Ressa and many others like her, is reflected in her oft repeated statement of “Holding the Line (for media freedom and truth).” A few days before she was convicted of cyber libel a few years ago, Ressa had a very instructive interview with Big Tech hosts, David Skok and Taylor Owen. The following excerpts from that interview capture the grit and determination of a committed journalist and principled human being with a mission and purpose in life:

“I chose this road a long time ago, and I know that there are consequences for every choice we make. I know this is the right choice to make, to stand up and challenge any kinds of attempts to limit the rights you have under the constitution. So, a few weeks ago, I was writing a commencement speech for… I gave the speech at Princeton University…. the second lesson that I gave was to embrace your fear. That’s how I’ve lived my life. I learned that when I was a kid, that you are your own worst enemy. If you embrace your fear, whatever that is, you can rob it of the sting it has to prevent you from seeing clearly, from moving forward.”

Surely there are continuing lessons to be learned as we deal with others who have their own notion of democracy, use of social media, accountability, use of power and public office as a public trust.

The struggle must continue and we need to move forward, quoting Ressa. For quite a number of people, “holding the line” is what Fr. Tito Caluag says is their “faith-response.”

Philip Ella Juico’s areas of interest include the protection and promotion of democracy, free markets, sustainable development, social responsibility and sports as a tool for social development. He obtained his doctorate in business at De La Salle University. Dr. Juico served as secretary of Agrarian Reform during the Corazon C. Aquino administration.