MANILA — The journalist and Nobel laureate Maria Ressa was acquitted of tax evasion on Wednesday, a rare victory after numerous setbacks in her fight to keep publishing her news site Rappler, whose run-ins with the authorities have become emblematic of the Philippines’ declining press freedoms.
A Philippine court acquitted Ms. Ressa on all four charges against her. She would have faced a maximum sentence of 34 years if convicted.
Outside the courthouse in Manila, the capital, Ms. Ressa looked visibly relieved after the verdict. Asked what it meant to her, she replied: “Hope. That is what it provides.”
“We need independent media to hold power to account,” she added.
The case was the first high-profile test of whether the legal troubles facing Ms. Ressa and Rappler would continue under the Philippines’ new president, Ferdinand Marcos Jr., who has benefited from online disinformation and tried to downplay the brutality of his father’s dictatorship decades ago. Advocates had urged Mr. Marcos to demonstrate his stated commitment to a free press by intervening in Ms. Ressa’s favor.
There are several other cases pending against Ms. Ressa and Rappler. She is appealing her June 2020 conviction on a cyber libel charge, under which she could face six years in prison. The Philippines’ top court is expected to rule on that case soon.
The authorities began taking action against Ms. Ressa and Rappler during the administration of Mr. Marcos’s predecessor, Rodrigo Duterte, as the news organization was aggressively covering Mr. Duterte’s bloody campaign against drugs. That coverage helped Ms. Ressa win the Nobel Peace Prize in 2021.
Mr. Marcos, who took office in June with Mr. Duterte’s daughter Sara as vice president, recently rejected a request from the International Criminal Court to resume its inquiry into Mr. Duterte’s antidrug campaign, which left thousands of people dead.
Mr. Marcos is in Davos, Switzerland, for the World Economic Forum, where a conviction of Ms. Ressa in the Philippines would likely have exposed him to unwanted scrutiny.
In a recent letter to Mr. Marcos, a group of Nobel Peace Prize laureates implored him to “assist in bringing about a rapid resolution to the unjust charges against Maria Ressa and Rappler.”
“We hope to see the Philippines leave the mistakes of its past behind,” they wrote.
The tax evasion case was related to an investment into Rappler by Omidyar Network, which is owned by the eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. The authorities said the financing violated the restrictions on foreign ownership of domestic media. Rappler countered that Mr. Omidyar’s investment was not the same as owning shares, did not violate the law and did not give Omidyar Network control of its operations.
Rappler continued to publish while it fought its legal battles, and in 2018 the Omidyar Network donated its investment to Rappler employees, which the publication argued should have ended the government’s grievance. However, the authorities then accused Rappler of owing taxes on that transaction.
In a statement, Rappler described the verdict Wednesday as “the triumph of facts over politics.” The news outlet said it did not believe the tax charges against Ms. Ressa had “any basis in fact.”
Ms. Ressa was convicted of cyber libel in connection with an article that Rappler published four months before the law under which she was charged took effect. An appeals court has said that the case should not be considered a press freedom issue, stressing that the law was “not geared towards the curtailment of speech.”
Jason Gutierrez reported from Manila and Mike Ives from Seoul. Vivek Shankar contributed reporting from Seoul.