Index and the other 77 civil society and journalism organisations that make up the #HoldTheLineCoalition demand that the Philippines authorities drop a barrage of bogus tax and foreign ownership cases against journalist Maria Ressa and Rappler – the news organisation she founded.
“The prosecution of baseless financial charges and cases represents an attempt to use tax law and foreign ownership regulations as another weapon to criminalise journalism and silence Ressa and Rappler as threats to press freedom and democracy escalate in the Philippines,” said the #HoldTheLine steering committee. “We urge the government to drop all charges and cease and desist its orchestrated harassment campaign.”
The Coalition was formed after Ressa, a prominent Filipino-American editor, was convicted on a trumped-up criminal cyber libel charge in June.
The Coalition’s call for the dismissal of all tax and foreign ownership cases and charges comes as Ressa prepares to return to court in Manila on 22 July on a baseless criminal tax charge, amid concerns about a suspected Covid-19 outbreak involving the death of a worker at the Pasig Regional Trial Court where the hearing will take place.
Ahead of this appearance, this Court has an opportunity to quash the criminal taxation charge on which Ressa faces arraignment. The #HoldTheLine Coalition urges the state to immediately drop this charge and end the prosecution of the other charges and cases associated with it.
Convictions against Ressa in three related tax cases cumulatively represent prison sentences of 44 years. They hinge upon the bogus notion that Rappler’s parent company, Rappler Holdings Corporation (RHC), is not a holding company for a news organisation but rather a ‘dealer in securities.’
“Legal acrobatics – that’s what all these cases show. In order to charge me with tax evasion, the government reclassified Rappler as a ‘dealer in securities’ – we’re obviously a news organisation. It’s absurd!” Ressa said. “From inciting hate on social media to weaponising the law to using the full force of the state against journalists trying to hold power to account … it’s a war of attrition, tearing down trust and credibility. This is how democracy dies by a thousand cuts.”
The tax-related cases and charges are predicated on another suite of charges and cases connected to alleged foreign media ownership breaches designed to shut Rappler down. They cumulatively represent maximum prison sentences of up to 36 years.
Together with the criminal libel conviction, which is currently under appeal, and a second pending libel action, convictions in all these cases could theoretically lead to a century in jail for Ressa.
Further, the Coalition calls on the Pasig Regional Trial Court to conduct proceedings remotely on 22 July to ensure the safety of Ressa, her legal representatives, media and court staff amid the coronavirus pandemic. We note that in addition to this court being associated with what appears to be a deadly Covid-19 outbreak, Ressa was forced into lockdown following her appearance in June before a different court which was also the subject of a COVID-19 scare.
More than 10,000 people have signed a petition calling on the Philippine government to drop all cases against Ressa, her former colleague Reynaldo Santos Jr, and Rappler, and to cease attacks on independent media in the Philippines.