MANILA — The Court of Tax Appeals has affirmed a Pasig court ruling denying Maria Ressa’s bid to travel to the United States back in August supposedly to attend various events surrounding the release of the documentary “A Thousand Cuts.”
The documentary is about Ressa’s life as a journalist in the Philippines, her news outfit Rappler, and the challenges they are facing under the current administration.
Ressa had initially asked to travel from August 1 to 30, 2020 but this was moved to August 23 to September 10, 2020 after the initial denial of her plea.
In a December 4 decision written by Associate Justice Juanito Castañeda, the CTA Second Division found that the plea is already moot since the period for Ressa’s travel had long passed.
It also did not find any grave abuse of discretion on the part of Pasig Regional Trial Court Branch 157 Judge Ana Teresa Cornejo-Tomacruz in denying Ressa’s motion.
Tomacruz had expressed concerns that travel restrictions due to the coronavirus pandemic could prevent Ressa from attending court hearings whenever needed.
“[T]o the court’s mind, the possibility that Ms. Ressa may be forced by circumstances to remain abroad, should the global health situation deteriorate over time, is very real. If this happens, the accused may indefinitely be placed beyond the court’s jurisdiction and the court’s hands will be tied, so to speak, without recourse to enforcing Ms. Ressa’s presence in court,” read the RTC ruling dated July 27, 2020.
“The court likewise notes that Ms. Ressa is a dual citizen of both the Philippines and the USA. As such, prudent exercise of discretion dictates that the motion to travel abroad filed by Ms. Ressa be denied at this time,” it added.
According to the CA Second Division, the Pasig RTC’s denial of her plea was “not unfounded.”
It noted that the Pasig court had previously granted Ressa’s prior motions to travel 15 times but the situation in March 2020 “drastically changed” because of the pandemic.
“These circumstances directly bear upon the issue of whether the petitioner can physically return to the Philippines to continue her trial if she goes abroad,” the CTA said, taking judicial notice of the travel restrictions imposed in the Philippines and around the world.
It cited the Bayanihan Acts 1 and 2 which imposed travel restrictions in the country.
The CTA also said the Pasig court had the power to ensure that it is able to enforce its jurisdiction and it was not shown that the court gravely abused its discretion amounting to lack or excess of jurisdiction in acting in an arbitrary or despotic manner to deny Ressa’s plea.
Ressa is facing 1 of her 5 tax evasion cases in the Pasig court. The 4 others are with the CTA.
The tax evasion cases are in connection with Rappler Holdings’ supposed failure to declare its sale of Philippine Depositary Receipts (PDRs) to foreign investors, which Department of Justice prosecutors considered taxable, treating Rappler Holdings as a dealer in securities.
Rappler has contested the DOJ’s resolution. Ressa was impleaded as Rappler Holdings’ president.
She pleaded not guilty to the charge during her arraignment on July 22.
The CTA ruling differs from the Court of Appeals’ previous denial of Ressa’s bid to travel for the same period.
The CA is handling Ressa’s appeal of her June 15 conviction for cyber libel.
In affirming its ruling not to allow Ressa to travel, the CA Special Fourteenth Division, through Associate Justice Geraldine Fiel-Macaraig, said in August that her bail “operates as a valid restriction” to her right to travel and her conviction “warrants the exercise of greater caution” even if it is not yet final.
In contrast, the CTA said “to withhold permission to travel throughout the duration of the trial or the case is certainly excessive.”
“[P]etitioner’s conviction in the Cyber Libel case alone is not sufficient justification for the court a quo to prevent her from attending to her professional engagements outside the country,” it said, recognizing the constitutional right to travel.
The CTA even went as far as saying that after arraignment, trial may proceed even without the accused’s presence or the accused may attend via videoconference.
Despite these pronouncements, the CTA did not overturn the Pasig court’s decision to deny the travel plea.
But it clarified that Ressa could still be allowed to travel on other occasions when the travel restrictions ease up, depending on the trial court’s assessment of the “evolving situation.”