MANILA - A day before journalist Maria Ressa is set to be arraigned on tax evasion charges, a United Nations expert has called on the Philippine government to drop the criminal cases filed against her and her company.
In a statement released on Thursday, UN special rapporteur on freedom of expression, David Kaye, said the charges against Ressa and news site Rappler were being used as a censorship tool.
“In light of past measures taken against Rappler, I am concerned that the charges of tax evasion constitute an attempt to silence the news outlet’s independent reporting,” he said.
“This is a serious threat against independent and investigative journalism in the Philippines,” he added.
Ressa is due to appear at a Pasig City regional trial court on Friday morning, although she has asked the court to dismiss the charge against her, remand the case to the Department of Justice (DOJ), and suspend all proceedings including her arraignment.
The DOJ accused Ressa and Rappler Holdings, Inc. (RHC) of failing to file a value-added tax return for the 2nd quarter of 2015 and of failing to pay close to P300,000 in tax deficiencies from its sale of Philippine depositary receipts (PDRs) to a foreign corporation.
The offense carries a penalty of up to 10 years’ jail time.
The department has also filed 4 other cases before the Court of Tax Appeals (CTA) – 3 for failure to file tax returns and pay taxes and another one for attempting to evade payment of taxes.
In all 5 cases, the DOJ is claiming RHC should pay P108 million in taxes because it allegedly earned P162.5 million from the sale of PDRs to NBM Rappler and Omidyar Network Fund LLC.
According to the DOJ, RHC acted as a middleman in buying Rappler, Inc.’s shares in order to underwrite PDRs for resale to interested buyers and should be taxed as a dealer in securities.
But Rappler maintained it is not a dealer in securities and never hid any transactions from the BIR.
While the CTA has yet to act on the charge, the Pasig court issued a warrant of arrest in late Nov. Ressa immediately posted bail early this week.
Aside from Kaye, Canada’s foreign affairs minister Chrystia Freeland has voiced support for Ressa and Rappler.
On Wednesday, she said on Twitter: “Canada remains deeply concerned for the security and safety of @mariaressa in the #Philippines. The harassment and intimidation of journalists have no place in democracy. We call for due process to be respected and stand with all journalists working in defence of the truth.”
Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth on Thursday tweeted that “[t]he latest weapon used by Phil Pres Duterte to fight journalists who dare to criticize his deadly ‘drug war’ is trumped-up charges and an arrest warrant.”
Foreign journalists and international media organizations like the Southeast Asian Press Alliance have also expressed condemnation of what they call “creeping suppression of the press” in the Philippines.
Kaye, who teaches international human rights and international humanitarian laws at the University of California, Irvine, School of Law, has served as UN special rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression since 2014.
UN special rapporteurs are independent experts who are not UN staff and are not compensated, their work being voluntary. But they belong to a group of independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms called Special Procedures under the UN Human Rights Council.
Other UN special rapporteurs who have expressed concern over the situation in the Philippines include special rapporteur on extrajudicial executions Agnes Callamard and special rapporteur on the right to health Dainius Pūras in the context of the war on drugs, and special rapporteur on independence of judges and lawyers Diego García-Sayán following Chief Justice Maria Lourdes Sereno’s ouster.
This has led to a testy relationship between President Rodrigo Duterte, on the one hand, and the UN and its special rapporteurs.
Duterte has cursed and challenged Callamard to a debate.
The Philippine government had also tagged Filipina Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, the UN special rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, as a terrorist but she was later cleared by a Manila court.
In March this year, the President withdrew from the International Criminal Court (ICC), claiming that there is a “concerted effort” between UN special rapporteurs and the ICC special prosecutor to paint him as a “ruthless and heartless human rights violator who allegedly caused thousands of extrajudicial killings.”
ICC Prosecutor Fatou Bensouda on Wednesday announced her office will continue its preliminary examination of the war on drugs in the Philippines to determine if it has jurisdiction to hear alleged crimes under the Rome Statute.