Costa Rica

There have been no new violations of press freedom, but this is because there have been no new lawsuits, not because of changes in restrictive legislation. The absence of lawsuits may be explained by media outlets’ caution, which sometimes is excessive and approaches self-censorship. On February 3, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights filed a complaint against Costa Rica in the Inter-American Human Rights Court, alleging that a judgment against Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a journalist of La Nación, violated the American Convention on Human Rights. The judgment, upheld on January 24, 2001, by the Supreme Court, found the journalist responsible for four counts of defamation against Félix Przedborski, former honorary ambassador before the International Atomic Energy Agency. Herrera’s reporting concerned questions asked of the ex-ambassador by European newspapers and included additional information about his conduct. Herrera was fined 120 times the daily minimum wage and 60 million colones (about $100,000) as civil indemnification. La Nación was also convicted in the civil case. The newspaper was ordered to publish the reasoning behind the judgment and to remove from its online edition links between former Ambassador Przedborski's name and the stories cited in the complaint. Instead of those links, La Nación was ordered to create new ones linking his name to the holding of the judgment. It also ordered that the journalist’s name be published in the Judicial Registry of Criminals. After the commission’s intervention, the Inter-American court issued a restraining order suspending execution of the judgment. The commission’s petition, which was transmitted to the parties on February 17, asked the Inter-American Court to overturn the judgment and order changes to the legislation concerning injury to reputation. The commission argues that “use of a criminal concept is out of proportion and unnecessary in a democratic society and is an indirect restriction on press freedom.” It also underlined the public interest in the information published and holds that the controversy in the European press about alleged corrupt acts by Przedborski demanded the attention of the Costa Rican press. “The journalist Mauricio Herrera promoted public debate about a public official, which is an imperative social interest in a democratic society,” the commission said. The complaint questioned the Costa Rican courts’ ruling that the journalist was responsible for demonstrating the truth of what is published. Because of this disproportionate approach, which violates the presumption of innocence, Herrera was convicted without demonstrating that he had created a fraudulent act. The commission also described the order to eliminate the links between La Nación Digital and the reports about Przedborski and replace them with a link to the judgment as an “imposition.” The complaint was filed after the failure of efforts to achieve a friendly settlement with the state and the Costa Rican Foreign Ministry’s negative response to the requests in the Inter-American Commission’s report. The report requested that the judgment be overturned and the laws be modified, but the Foreign Ministry responded that it could not do so because of the separation of powers. In December and January, the Public Prosecutor’s Office charged three men with homicide in the death of journalist Parmenio Medina Pérez who was killed by three shots on July 7, 2001, near his house in San Miguel de Santo Domingo, Heredia. Luis Aguirre Jaime, alias El Indio, was charged with committing the murder. Andrés Chaves Matarrita was charged as an accomplice and John Gutiérrez Ramírez was accused of being the intermediary between the hit men and the mastermind of the crime. The police said they had leads about the mastermind’s identity, but had not yet charged anyone. The prosecutor’s office said the mastermind is César Murillo, known as Nicho, who was killed by police when he tried to rob a bank along with Aguirre and Chaves. There are indications that Medina’s reporting was the motive for his murder. He had been threatened in connection with his work as director of the radio call-in show “La Patada,” and his house was shot at. The special commission on press freedom of the Legislative Assembly, which is studying eight bills to modify legislation affecting freedom of expression, named a subcommittee to analyze the suggested changes. The subcommittee issued a report that carefully altered the proposals so that they were totally useless to ease the restrictive environment created by the existing laws. For example, it eliminated the word “information” from one article that would have removed sanctions in cases of public interest. In that way, anything that could be described as informative would be excluded from the legal protection that was sought. The subcommittee’s attitude demonstrates, once again, the lack of political will to advance this effort. However, there are legislators who have expressed their disagreement with the report and promised to revisit the topic and channel it into a more appropriate form.