Philippine journalist Ressa takes stand to rebut gov't tax evasion lawsuits


Filipino journalist and Rappler CEO Maria Ressa speaks to the media after testifying before the Court of Tax Appeals in Quezon City, Metro Manila, Philippines, March 4, 2021. REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez

MANILA (Reuters) - Veteran Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, who runs a website known for its tough scrutiny of President Rodrigo Duterte, took the witness stand for the first time on Thursday to counter tax evasion charges that she maintains were politically motivated.

Ressa, a Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2018 for fighting media intimidation, is facing several government lawsuits that have stoked international concern about harassment of journalists in the Philippines, a country once seen as a standard bearer for press freedom in Asia.

Speaking to reporters after testifying for two and a half hours in Manila, Ressa asked the government to allow journalists to work freely and independently. "We're here to work with you, and you will want us to do that," she said.

Ressa, 57, chief executive of the news site Rappler (www.rappler.com), was convicted of libel in June 2020 and sentenced to up to six years in prison, a ruling widely seen as a blow to democratic freedoms under Duterte's increasingly popular authoritarianism. She was freed on bail.

Her court appearance on Thursday is over accusations that Rappler falsified tax returns by omitting the proceeds of a sale of depositary receipts to foreign investors, which later became the securities regulator's basis to revoke its licence to operate.

The securities regulator alleges that Rappler allowed foreigners to illegally own shares in a domestic media firm, a charge it denies. Rappler is still operating pending its appeal against its license being revoked.

Ressa, the last witness to be presented by the defence in the tax evasion lawsuits, said she decided to take the stand because "no one knows (the company) better".

"I felt good afterwards. I was happy to talk to respond to the charges," she said. "If the government believes that they can intimidate me, no, I won't allow it."

Presidential spokesman Harry Roque has repeatedly said Duterte supported freedom of speech even as the mercurial leader has publicly lashed out at Rappler, calling it a "fake news outlet" sponsored by American spies.

(Reporting by Jay Ereño and Eloisa Lopez; Additional reporting by Karen Lema; Editing by Kenneth Maxwell)

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