Human Rights Watch has called on Philippine authorities to drop criminal charges against the news website Rappler and its editor, Maria Ressa, criticizing the legal action against them as politically motivated.
The international rights watchdog accused the government of using tax laws “to muzzle prominent critics of President Rodrigo Duterte and his ‘war on drugs.'”
Rappler said five cases were formally filed against Ressa and Rappler Holdings in two courts. Philippine officials say some of the charges stem from Rappler and Ressa failing to declare about $3 million in 2015 on tax returns from an investment by the Omidyar Network, a fund created by eBay founder and philanthropist Pierre Omidyar.
Tax evasion carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence and fines in the Philippines.
“The Philippine government is targeting Rappler and Maria Ressa for their dogged reporting on Duterte’s murderous ‘drug war,'” said Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch’s director for Asia.
“This attempt to silence a highly regarded news website is just the latest example of the administration’s contempt for free and vibrant news media.”
Ressa, an award-winning journalist who previously served as a CNN bureau chief, and Rappler’s lawyers maintain the charges have to do with the website’s critical coverage of Duterte.
The President has waged a brutal crackdown on the sale and use of drugs across the Philippines since he took office in 2016, carrying out extrajudicial killings that several rights groups have said could amount to crimes against humanity.
Journalists who have covered the Duterte’s anti-drug campaign critically have reported harassment and intimidation. Human Rights Watch said he and other senior administration officials have “denounced, threatened, and demonized journalists.”
“As Duterte has imposed an increasingly authoritarian rule, he has shown unrelenting hostility to Rappler and other critical Filipino media that are a check on his abuse of power,” Adams said.
“The Philippines’ allies and friends should denounce these attacks and support efforts to defend press freedom and human rights in the country.”
Ressa told CNN on Thursday, after news of the charges against her emerged, that she had “long run out of synonyms for the word ‘ridiculous.'”
“The basis of this case is that Rappler is classified as a dealer in securities. I am definitely not a stockbroker.”
This is not the first time Rappler has been in the crosshairs of Philippine authorities. In January, the Philippines Securities and Exchange Commission temporarily revoked Rappler’s registration on the basis that it had violated the country’s constitution over foreign ownership rules.