Ressa’s tax evasion case isn’t about press freedom

The Supreme Court has already categorically ruled that a news media organization, just like other private enterprises in the Philippines, must pay taxes on all of its taxable transactions.

The recent decision of the Court of Tax Appeals acquitting Maria Ressa, head of the online news outlet Rappler, is an absolute brouhaha. Those praising the decision are making a mountain out of a molehill.

It all began when Rappler entered into a financial deal with Omidyar, a foreign company. The Bureau of Internal Revenue believed that the deal with Omidyar was subject to tax and that Rappler did not pay the required tax.

Accordingly, the BIR filed tax evasion charges against Ressa. Tax evasion is a criminal offense in the Philippines.

Admittedly, the tax issue in Ressa’s case was quite complicated due to the many intricacies attending the transaction.

Eventually, Ressa’s tax evasion case reached the Court of Tax Appeals where, after due proceedings, judgment was rendered acquitting Ressa. The Court of Tax Appeals ruled that the transaction between Rappler and Omidyar did not give rise to a taxable income on the part of Rappler.

In other words, it was a simple tax case resolved in favor of the taxpayer, nothing more, nothing less.

Right after the Court of Tax Appeals came out with its ruling, Ressa announced to the media that her acquittal was not only welcome news to her, but a victory for everyone unjustly accused of wrongdoing.

That notwithstanding, Ressa’s supporters, the gullible and politicized ones in particular, made it appear to the public that her tax evasion case was an attempt by the administration of then-President Rodrigo Duterte to censor Rappler because of its commentaries critical of Duterte.

One of these was former Vice President Leni Robredo, a known Ressa supporter. Robredo suddenly came out of her political oblivion and social irrelevance and sweepingly declared the appellate court’s decision a victory for press freedom.

Good heavens! Robredo gave a public statement without bothering to fully comprehend the nature of Ressa’s tax evasion case. Robredo’s habit of talking without first thinking is one of the many reasons why the bulk of the electorate rejected her in the 2022 presidential election.

Other groups exploited the situation by claiming that Ressa’s acquittal was a triumph over government censorship and mouthing similar mantras espoused by communists and their sympathizers.

Just like Ressa and Robredo, those who praised the Court of Tax Appeals decision as a victory for press freedom have it all wrong.

The Supreme Court has already categorically ruled that a news media organization, just like other private enterprises in the Philippines, must pay taxes on all of its taxable transactions.

In other words, a news media organization is not exempt from paying income tax just because its business of disseminating the news is protected by the free press clause of the Constitution. To repeat, the Supreme Court said so.

Thus, when the BIR believed that the Omidyar transaction created an income tax liability on the part of Rappler, and that Rappler did not pay the required income tax due on the transaction, the former instituted tax evasion charges against Ressa, as head of Rappler.

To repeat, the tax aspect of the case was very complicated, and the possibility of an acquittal for Ressa was not improbable on the legal premises.

The case Ressa won is simply a tax evasion case which the Court of Tax Appeals resolved in her favor. Ressa’s acquittal has nothing to do with press freedom. In fact, from the start of the tax evasion case until Ressa’s acquittal, Rappler was never closed down by the government. Rappler even continued its business of disseminating the news completely unimpeded, up to the present.

Even if Ressa’s conviction were sustained by the Court of Tax Appeals, and later by the Supreme Court, Rappler can continue to operate freely, and without censorship from the government.

Where then is the press freedom issue in the acquittal of Ressa in the tax evasion case against her? There isn’t any. The fanfare Ressa and her allies are creating is simply a lot of brouhahas.


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