Maria Ressa: Truth and justice won today, says Nobel laureate

Maria Ressa looks and sounds like she is on top of the world, and understandably so – this has been a huge victory for her.

A court in the Philippines has acquitted the journalist and her news outlet Rappler of tax evasion, in a move hailed as a win for press freedom.

In an interview for the BBC, she talks about what she calls the “weaponisation of the law” against her – and how it took more than four years to get to this point.

“This is a day that we had hoped would happen sooner,” she told me over zoom from Manila – beaming smiles as she spoke.

“And you know, it went down to these three things, facts, truth and justice. That is who won today.”

Under former president Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippine government had accused Ms Ressa and Rappler of evading tax payments when it raised capital through its partnership with foreign investors. Ms Ressa and Rappler denied the charges.

Rappler had been one of the few Philippine media organisations to be openly critical of Mr Duterte and his policies.

The Philippines’ National Union of Journalists said the tax evasion case reflected an increasing use of law for reprisal and intimidation against journalists and civil society.

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But it hasn’t been an easy road, and there’s still a tough battle ahead. Ms Ressa is acutely aware of the trials she has yet to face, but draws her inspiration from those who have gone before her.

“You know, Martin Luther King says, yes – it will take time,” she said. “But as I was reading through the decision, and there was no reason to take us to court… we’re not tax evaders – we never were… This was an incredibly important day because it would have set a direction for which way the Philippines was going.”

Maria Ressa’s legal problems started while Mr Duterte’s administration was in power, and continued into the current President Ferdinand Marcos Junior’s time.

Does she think things are changing now, under his rule?

“Our president is in Davos today speaking to business leaders,” she muses. “So it is, it’s a great signal to bring about where the Philippines is. We still have a ways to go – the fight isn’t over. And can I go to jail? I hope not. I’ll knock on wood, you know, but I was ready for either decision.”

It’s clear that Maria Ressa is up for the fight – she still has several cases against her, and faces significant prison sentences for them – those legal challenges are looming.

The last four years have taken their toll on her family, especially her parents. But as she puts it, it’s par for the course in this job.

“It’s like being in a conflict area – being in a war zone. It’s just long, right?”

Ms Ressa’s enthusiasm and optimism are infectious – but behind the beaming smiles and much deserved relief is a palpable sense of injustice.