COSTA RICA

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After a slow period in the wake of the ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the Mauricio Herrera case, Costa Rica is now experiencing a new wave of lawsuits against media outlets. The courts are again using the narrow criteria found in Costa Rican law, while also adding new case law interpretations that pose a threat to freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Meanwhile, little progress has been made in reforms aimed at bringing Costa Rican law into line with international standards. Below are the main developments that had an impact on press freedom in the latest period: On December 8, La Nación film critic Ernesto Calvo was convicted of injurias (deliberately offensive statements) following a dispute with a movie producer. The producer had attempted to discredit Calvo’s review of a Costa Rican film by calling attention to the critic’s Cuban origins and calling him mezquino (roughly translated, “despicable”). Calvo responded by pointing out the xenophobic nature of the producer’s remarks. The court ruled that an accusation of xenophobia qualifies as injuria. The defense has appealed the ruling, and the case is still pending. On January 10, a criminal court in San José ordered La Nación, two of its journalists, and former Security Minister Rogelio Ramos to pay five million colones in damages to a police chief whose actions were under question. La Nación had learned that the police chief was being investigated for extortion and checked with Ramos, who confirmed the story. But there were two inaccuracies: First, the case had to do with vehicles instead of liquor, and second, the name of the police chief’s town was misreported. At trial, Ramos admitted to providing the information, and the investigation into the plaintiff’s actions was revealed to have reached a very advanced stage. In light of this evidence, the judges were forced to concede that the journalists could not be held criminally liable. But that didn’t prevent them from finding the defendants civilly liable for “procuring false news.” The defendants have appealed the ruling, and the case is still pending. On February 23, the Constitutional Court granted a request for legal protection filed by former President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, who was involved in the scandals that shook the country in 2004. Rodríguez alleged that his right of reply had been violated because La Nación had included an editor’s note at the bottom of his reply. The note merely clarified the former president’s statements. The court also ruled that parts of the original reply—which the newspaper had deemed not directly related to the original article that gave rise to the reply—should not have been deleted from the published version, but it did not specify which parts. On March 1, 2007, officials at the National Radio and Television System (SINART) decided to cancel the program “Diagnóstico,” which ran on the state television channel Canal 13. The measure was said to be for financial and administrative reasons, but Álvaro Montero, director of the program maintains that the true reasons are political. The trial for the murder of journalist Parmenio Medina is still in the evidentiary phase. Because the trial is complex and a considerable amount of evidence remains to be heard, a verdict is not expected for another several months. The proposed legal reforms related to press freedom are still pending before legislators. Those who support the reforms are trying to have them sent to a full committee with legislative powers as a way of expediting the process, but this measure is opposed by those who are resistant to change. The proposed reforms would incorporate the principles of the Sullivan ruling into Costa Rican law, though they would maintain criminal penalties for defamation-related crimes (known as “crimes against honor”) and allow to journalists who are charged with such crimes to use new defense strategies. So while not perfect, the initiative would be a step forward. Extensive case law from the Constitutional Court has firmly established that freedom of information must be upheld, but the process of considering requests for protection orders is too slow to meet the needs of journalism. Press offices and image consultants form barriers between the press and public officials who avoid making statements. Also, government agencies adopt policies to prevent officials from talking to the press, and instead they designate a small group of “spokespersons” as the only ones authorized to speak with journalists.

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