Filipino Journalist Maria Ressa, Facing Tax Charges, Vows to “Hold Government to Account”
Maria Ressa, prominent Filipino journalist and the president of Philippine independent news site Rappler, turned herself in to authorities on Monday after a warrant was issued for her arrest on tax fraud.
The Philippine Department of Justice charged Ressa and Rappler with five counts of tax fraud last month. Ressa and Rappler have denied all charges. Press freedom advocates have called the charges an assault on the free press and part of an ongoing crackdown by Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte on his critics.
The Rappler has closely covered Duterte’s anti-drug war, which has led to thousands of deaths. It has also played a leading role in fighting the spread of misinformation on Facebook, and was hired as a fact-checker in Facebook’s news verification program earlier this year. Ressa spoke to FRONTLINE for The Facebook Dilemma, describing how the platform was used to attack Duterte’s critics.
“President Duterte was targeting anyone who questioned the drug war, anyone who questioned the alleged extrajudicial killings. Anyone on Facebook who questioned that would get brutally bashed,” she said in an interview with FRONTLINE. “This is an information ecosystem that just turns democracy upside down.”
The charges revolve around failure to declare a 2015 investment in Rappler by the Omidyar Network, a philanthropic organization created by American entrepreneur Pierre Omidyar. Ressa argued that the charges are based on treating Rappler as a “dealer in securities,” not a news organization, saying it paid the taxes appropriate for a news site, according to The New York Times.
A presidential spokesman denied that Duterte was behind the charges, and said, “It’s a question of tax evasion. You violate tax laws and then you’ll be prosecuted.” He added, “Everyone is entitled to the presumption of innocence and that includes everybody including Ms. Ressa.”
After posting bail, Ressa said “now is certainly not the time to be afraid,” according to The Guardian. “We need to hold government to account, and part of the reason I’m here is precisely that.” She had just returned to the Philippines after several weeks abroad where she received journalism and press freedom awards.