MANILA • Faced with arrest over tax evasion, the acclaimed founder of an online news site in the Philippines turned herself in to the authorities yesterday, in what is being seen as the latest episode in the ongoing crackdown on critics of President Rodrigo Duterte.
Maria Ressa, chief executive officer of start-up news agency Rappler, showed up at a regional court and posted bail of about US$1,150 (S$1,570) after a warrant for her arrest was issued over the weekend.
Ressa and Rappler were indicted last week on multiple counts of tax evasion, in what the journalist's supporters say is a politically motivated attempt to persecute the news website that has been instrumental in exposing the brutality of Mr Duterte's war on drugs.
The charges, which Ressa and Rappler have denied, were filed while she was overseas on a trip that included a stop in New York, where she was given a press freedom award by the Committee to Protect Journalists.
She faces a maximum of 10 years in jail under Philippine tax law.
"I'm going to hold my government accountable for publicly calling me a criminal," she said on Sunday night in brief comments to journalists gathered at the airport. "I am not a criminal. I have been a journalist my entire life."
Mr Duterte's administration has denied the President's involvement in the case, or that it is targeting Rappler for its coverage. "It's a question of tax evasion," presidential spokesman Salvador Panelo said yesterday. "You violate tax laws, then you will be prosecuted."
But Ressa and Rappler's lawyers have pointed out that the charges hinge on the news agency being classified as a "dealer in securities".
The claims relate to a 2015 bond sale which resulted in about US$3 million in gains for Rappler. Manila says the agency failed to pay tax on that sale, but has not specified how much it owes in back taxes.
"I'm definitely not a stock broker," Ressa said.
This is not the first swipe against Rappler. Mr Duterte has banned one of its reporters, Ms Pia Ranada, from covering his activities.
The Philippine government also sought to revoke Rappler's licence to operate earlier this year.
Mr Duterte, known for his fierce attacks on his critics, has tried to muzzle other media outlets, including broadcasting giant ABS-CBN.
Meanwhile, the World Association of Newspapers and News Publishers (Wan-Ifra) yesterday called on the government of the Philippines to drop the tax fraud charges against Rappler and Ressa, who is the 2018 laureate of the group's Golden Pen of Freedom.
Mr Vincent Peyregne, Wan-Ifra CEO, said: "These fabricated charges are nothing more than a politicised attempt to silence independent journalism and remove accountability from those perpetuating violence and intimidation against their own people. We stand in solidarity with Maria and are behind her 100 per cent as she fights these latest charges."