Philippine journalist and Duterte critic Maria Ressa pleads not guilty in tax case

Philippine journalist Maria Ressa speaks to the media after her arraignment on tax-related charges at the Court of Tax Appeals in Quezon City, east of Manila, Philippines on April 3, 2019. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

MANILA (AFP) - Philippine journalist Maria Ressa, whose news website is critical of President Rodrigo Duterte, pleaded not guilty Wednesday (April 3) to the first of a series of criminal charges she says are government attacks.

Ressa has been arrested twice in six weeks by Philippine authorities, prompting international criticism and allegations she is being targeted for her work.

She entered her plea in a Manila court to four tax evasion charges stemming from a 2015 bond sale that raised money from a US-based investor for the news site she co-founded, Rappler.

If found guilty she could face up to 10 years behind bars on each charge.

The site has taken a tough stance on Mr Duterte's signature narcotics crackdown that has killed thousands of alleged drug dealers and users, but also cast a critical eye on his leadership and controversial public statements.

"I'm hoping for justice," Ressa told reporters after the court hearing. "I still say all of these cases are politically motivated."

Ressa was arrested in her Manila office in mid-February on an online libel charge and was released on bail the next day.

She was again taken into custody on Friday, this time for allegedly violating the Philippines' strict rules prohibiting foreign ownership of media with a 2015 investment from eBay founder Pierre Omidyar's Omidyar Network.

The Philippines' corporate regulator revoked Rappler's business licence last year over the investment, but the site continued operating as it appealed the case in the courts.

After her second arrest the United States urged the Philippines to quickly resolve the case against Ressa, who holds Filipino and US passports, and allow her and Rappler to "operate freely".

"The freedom of expression is a cornerstone of any truly democratic society and a fundamental freedom recognised by both the United States and the Philippines," a State Department spokesperson said.

Mr Duterte has in speeches lashed out at Rappler and other critical media outfits, including the Philippine Daily Inquirer newspaper and broadcaster ABS-CBN.

He threatened to go after their owners over alleged unpaid taxes or block the network's franchise renewal application.

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