MANILA – Philippine prosecutors said on Friday (Nov 9) they will file tax evasion charges against a news website that has clashed with President Rodrigo Duterte, a case the outlet branded as an “intimidation” effort.
Rappler, which denies the allegations, is one of a few Philippine media outfits openly critical of Duterte’s leadership, in particular his deadly anti-narcotics crackdown.
The government accuses Rappler Holdings Corp, the site’s CEO Maria Ressa and its accountant of failing to pay taxes on 2015 bond sales that it alleges netted gains of 162.5 million pesos (S$4.2 million).
“The National Prosecution Service has found probable cause to indict… for violation of the national Internal Revenue Code,” the Justice Department said in a statement.
Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra told AFP that state prosecutors are to file the tax evasion charges in court next week.
Rappler described the case as “a clear form of continuing intimidation and harassment” as well as “an attempt to silence reporting that does not please the administration”.
The bonds, called Philippine Depositary Receipts, are at the heart of a case that led to the Philippines’ corporate watchdog to void the news site’s corporate license in January.
Rappler has been battling a string of government moves to shutter the site, which has won international awards over its efforts to publish critical reports on Duterte.
The President banned a Rappler reporter from covering his official activities, calling its reports “twisted”.
Press watchdogs have criticized the government actions as payback for coverage that challenges Duterte’s signature crackdown that has resulted in police shooting dead alleged pushers and addicts.
To ease the pressure on Rappler, a key foreign backer, Silicon Valley firm Omidyar Network, announced in February it was donating its investments worth about US$1.5 million to the site’s local managers.
The Philippines’ Constitution forbids foreigners from owning media properties in the South-east Asian nation of 105 million people.
In March, an appellate court ruled that Rappler must be given “a reasonable time” to correct or modify objectionable portions of its corporate structure, a decision that allowed the website to continue operations for the time being.
Duterte has also attacked other media outfits that criticise him, including top newspaper The Philippine Daily Inquirer and major broadcaster ABS-CBN, threatening to also go after their owners over alleged unpaid taxes.