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World Celebrated journalist vows to fight tax charges seen as harassment of a critical voice in the Philippines

Maria Ressa, CEO and executive editor of online portal Rappler, shows the warrant of arrest order after posting bail at a court in Manila on Dece. 3, 2018. The journalist, who leads a news site that has battled Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, paid a cash bail on a tax fraud charge she says is an effort to intimidate the publication.

TED ALJIBE/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most celebrated journalists in the Philippines surrendered to a Manila court and posted a cash bail on Monday, as she attempts to fight tax charges she called an attempt to silence a media voice that has been critical of the country’s leadership.

The five tax-related charges against the company she founded, Rappler Holdings Corp., “are politically motivated,” Maria Ressa said in a statement after turning herself in to authorities. "This is a clear case of harassment.”

Founded in 2012, Rappler has become a standard-bearer for the independent media in the Philippines, and Ms. Ressa, its executive editor, was called a “a crusading editor and digital trailblazer” by the International Center for Journalists.

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But international praise has done little to ease pressure on her at home, where she is fighting to maintain a news organization that has challenged the often deadly exercise of power under President Rodrigo Duterte. A dozen journalists have been killed since Mr. Duterte became president in 2016 – most shot dead by gunmen on motorcycles. Attempts have been made to kill a further seven, and at least a dozen reporters have been hit with libel cases. Journalist groups have counted 99 assaults against reporters and media companies.

Rappler has been one of the President’s main targets. The news outlet has reported on corruption, exposed the spread of pro-government fake news on Facebook and documented death squads that have operated under Mr. Duterte, who has waged a bloody war against drug users – with more than 10,000 killed in two years, human-rights groups estimate – and has also threatened the media for reporting on it.

“Just because you’re a journalist, you are not exempted from assassination,” Mr. Duterte has said.

Now, Ms. Ressa is fighting for the survival of Rappler and for her own personal freedom.

“Because I’m a journalist, I’m now labelled a criminal and can go to prison for 10 years,” she said in a speech to the Committee to Protect Journalists in New York this November, as she accepted the 2018 Gwen Ifill Press Freedom Award from the Committee to Protect Journalists. The International Center for Journalists also gave her the 2018 Knight International Journalism Award.

At home, however, her struggles have mounted. The Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission has investigated Rappler and, in January, revoked its licence, saying it was in violation of “foreign equity restrictions in mass media.” Mr. Duterte accused the company of being “fully owned by Americans,” an accusation Rappler denies. The company has continued to operate as it fights the ruling.

The tax charges are the latest to hit the organization, and authorities in the Philippines, who say they are merely enforcing national law, had put out a warrant for Ms. Ressa’s arrest. She and Rappler have been charged with tax evasion and failure to file tax returns.

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But by posting a cash bail of nearly $1,500, she secured “her liberty during the pendency of the case,” her lawyer, Francis Lim, said in an interview. “The police can no longer arrest her.”

Philippines presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo denied singling out Rappler.

“It’s a question of tax evasion. You violate tax laws, and then you will be prosecuted,” he said. Mr. Duterte, he said, is too busy to concern himself with Ms. Ressa.

“We can hardly keep up with this man, he’s always working,” Mr. Panelo said of the President. “We are amazed at how industrious he is.”

But Mr. Lim, the lawyer, said, “the tax cases are clearly unfounded.” Ms. Ressa has said she overpays her own personal taxes.

“I’ve long run out of synonyms for the word 'ridiculous,’ ” she told CNN in November. “The basis of this case is that Rappler is classified as a dealer in securities. I am definitely not a stock broker.”

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The legal cases against Rappler form part of a broader campaign against the media, said Dabet Panelo, secretary-general of the National Union of Journalists Philippines.

“The attacks are not just against individuals, not just on companies, but against the institution itself,” she said.

Regulatory and tax authorities constitute “a new arsenal, a new weapon against press freedoms,” in the country, said Carlos Conde, Philippines researcher for Human Rights Watch.

“Whether the allegation has merit or not is undercut by the fact that this is clearly consistent with a pattern of behaviour by this administration against journalists.”

Last year, the Philippine Daily Inquirer was sold to a friend of Mr. Duterte after the President said the paper, which had maintained lists of people killed in what the country has styled its war on drugs, “went too far.” Mr. Duterte also warned that “someday, karma will come.” He has called journalists “garbage“ and gave a government communications position to a blogger who popularized the word “presstitute” as a critique of the country’s media.

Ms. Ressa and members of her organization have also been the target of countless personal attacks, with rape and death threats so vicious she has provided counselling for some of her employees.

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Mr. Duterte “is drawing from the modern autocrat’s field guide to information control," Sheila Coronel, a former journalist in the Philippines who is now a dean at Columbia Journalism School, wrote earlier this year. "The aim is complete encirclement so as to drown out critical and independent voices.”

She accused the President of “using a 21st-century playbook for media control. The strategy is no longer restricting information flows, but flooding the information space with disinformation and propaganda while also attacking legitimate purveyors of the news.”

Mr. Duterte is a “very big supporter of press freedom,” then-presidential spokesman Harry Roque said in the spring.

The Philippines has long been remarkable as a bastion of free press in Asia that is also one of the world’s more dangerous places to work as a reporter, with 80 people killed between 1992 and 2018

The legal threats only add to “a whole intimidating environment,” Human Rights Watch’s Mr. Conde said.

“Taken in the context of the violence that journalists face, this becomes even more chilling,” he said. “Now journalists are not just going to be watching their backs, they’re also going to be closely watching their paycheques.”

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