By Pam CASTRO
Philippine Nobel laureate Maria Ressa was acquitted Tuesday of her final tax evasion charge, in the latest legal victory for the veteran journalist as she battles to stay out of prison.
Ressa smiled as the judge delivered the verdict in the years-long case, an AFP journalist inside the courtroom said.
The 59-year-old, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Russian journalist Dmitry Muratov in 2021, has been fighting multiple charges filed during the administration of former president Rodrigo Duterte.
Ressa, a vocal critic of Duterte and his deadly drug war, has long maintained that the cases against her and the news website Rappler, which she co-founded in 2012, were politically motivated.
“You gotta have faith,” Ressa told reporters outside the court after the acquittal.
Ressa and Rappler had faced five government charges of tax evasion stemming from the 2015 sale of Philippine depositary receipts, which is a way for companies to raise money from foreign investors.
A court acquitted them on four of the charges in January. The fifth charge was heard by a different court, which cleared her and Rappler of wrongdoing on Tuesday.
Despite the acquittals, Ressa and Rappler face an uncertain future as they battle another two court cases.
Ressa and a former colleague Rey Santos Jr are appealing a cyber libel conviction that carries a nearly seven-year jail sentence.
Rappler, meanwhile, is challenging a Philippine Securities and Exchange Commission order to close for allegedly violating a ban on foreign ownership in media.
Under the constitution, investment in the media is reserved for Philippine citizens or entities controlled by citizens.
The case springs from a 2015 investment by the US-based Omidyar Network, established by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar.
Omidyar Network later transferred its Rappler investment to the site’s local managers to stave off efforts by Duterte to shut it down.
Ressa and Rappler’s legal troubles began in 2016 with the election of Duterte, who frequently launched foul-mouthed attacks against his critics.
They have faced what press freedom advocates describe as a grinding series of criminal charges, arrests and online abuse.
Duterte’s government claimed it had nothing to do with any of the cases against Ressa.
Another high-profile Duterte critic, human rights campaigner Leila de Lima, has spent more than six years in jail on drug trafficking charges she said were fabricated to silence her.
Throughout the campaign against her, Ressa, who is also a US citizen, has remained based in the Philippines.
Ressa is on bail pending the appeal against her cyber libel conviction and is required to apply for court approval when she wants to travel abroad.
That included her trip to Norway in December 2021 to collect her Nobel Peace Prize.
Ressa and Muratov were awarded the Nobel for their efforts to “safeguard freedom of expression”.