Hard-hitting Philippine news portal faces tax evasion charge

Philippine prosecutors said they will file charges of tax evasion against a news website that has been critical of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The Justice Department said in a statement it found probable cause to indict Rappler Holdings Corp. and its president, journalist Maria Ressa. The case could be filed later this week, Justice Secretary Menardo Guevarra said.

Rappler called it "a clear form of continuing intimidation and harassment" and an attempt to "silence reporting that does not please the administration."

Duterte had already banned a Rappler reporter from his news briefings after the government's corporate watchdog found that the organization violated a constitutional prohibition on foreign ownership when it received money from an international investment firm. Rappler rejected the ruling.

Duterte has accused several independent media groups in the Philippines of biased reporting, including on his crackdown on illegal drugs that has left thousands mostly urban poor dwellers dead and drew condemnation by Western governments and U.N. bodies.

"We are not at all surprised about the decision, considering the track record of how the government has treated Rappler as a result of its independent and fearless reporting on what has been transpiring in the country," Rappler's legal counsel Francis Lim said.

He denied the charges of tax evasion in connection with Rappler's bond sales in 2015 to two foreign entities. Rappler, founded in 2012, says it remains wholly Filipino-owned and that the foreigners have no voting rights or a say in its management and news operations.

The brash-talking Duterte accused Rappler last year of being owned by Americans in violation of the Philippine Constitution and that the news outfit was funded by the Central Intelligence Agency. Rappler denied the allegations.