Nobel laureate Maria Ressa’s acquittal is a rare victory for press freedom in Southeast Asia
A Philippine court acquitted journalist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Maria Ressa, and her news outlet Rappler, of tax evasion.
The ruling in Ressa’s favor was celebrated as a victory for press freedom in Southeast Asia, where journalists are increasingly being targeted by their governments for critical coverage.
Press freedom is deteriorating across Southeast Asia. In the most recent World Press Freedom Index, released by not-for-profit organization Reporters Without Borders (RSF), three Southeast Asian countries — Myanmar, Vietnam, and Laos — ranked among the worst for press freedom on the list of 180 countries and territories.
In its 2022 report, RSF wrote that even in democratic countries in the Asia-Pacific region, “media face pressure from increasingly authoritarian and/or nationalist governments.”
Where there are no outright bans on critical coverage, stories can be suppressed through the use of intimidation, arrests or lawsuits.
The Philippines is ranked as one of the worst countries in the world for prosecuting the killers of journalists. Since 1986, more than 200 journalists have been killed in the country, mostly those working for radio stations in the provinces, according to Human Rights Watch.
“These cases are where capital markets, rule of law, where press freedom meet. So this acquittal is not just for Rappler, it’s for every Filipino who has ever been unjustly accused,” Ressa said. “Today, facts win, truth wins, justice wins.”
After seizing power in a February 2021 coup, Myanmar’s ruling military junta began banning independent news organizations and arresting journalists. At least 42 journalists were imprisoned in December 2022, the Committee to Protect Journalists reported, making Myanmar the world’s third-worst jailer of journalists after Iran and China.
Many reporters went into hiding or fled the country after the takeover, with more than half of those still operating in Myanmar facing online threats, according to Southeast Asian monitoring organization Reporting ASEAN.
The junta has also changed Myanmar’s penal code to criminalize questions about its legitimacy, VOA reports.
Ressa and Rappler, the outlet she co-founded, still face three other court cases including Rappler's appeal against a closure order sparked by the government of former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte last year.
Rappler reported extensively on rights violations under Duterte’s government, including his deadly so-called war on drugs, with the government responding by trying to shut the outlet down. The legal suits have been criticized as an attempt to silence the press in the Philippines.
The two other cases are an appeal by Ressa and her former colleague Reynaldo Santos Jr against their 2020 cyber libel convictions for reporting on the alleged criminal activities of a Filipino businessman, and another tax allegation against Ressa and Rappler.