Costa Rica

Few cases of restrictions on press freedom have occurred in Costa Rica in the past six months, but this has been due to substantial change in legislation and case law, not a lack of court proceedings. Especially noteworthy is the new precedent for court interference in a newspaper’s editorial decisions, set by the Constitutional Chamber of Costa Rica’s Supreme Court in the matter of the newspaper Al Día. On April 2 the Constitutional Chamber ordered Central Bank President Eduardo Lizano to make public a study on Costa Rica done by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in July 2001. Lizano had declined to turn the study over to the press, claiming there was a “tradition” of not releasing most annual reports. He also noted that the Central Bank does not release the minutes of meetings of its board of directors nor reports delivered to the government by IDB or World Bank missions, and that the data in the IMF report “is not needed for government policy at this time.” Liberación Nacional party representative José Miguel Corrales released a summary of the study on February 14, 2002, but the Central Bank stood its ground and refused to turn over the full report. On January 25 the Secretary General of the Union of Ministry of Finance Employees, Carlos Navarro Gutiérrez, initiated the amparo proceeding for constitutional relief that led to the order to release the document. In a July 30 ruling, the Constitutional Chamber upheld the amparo appeal brought by an Al Día columnist against the newspaper’s editor. The newspaper changed editors, and the new editor reorganized the roster of contributors, eliminating Rodrigo París’s weekly column. The columnist submitted a final piece raising the issue of whether his dismissal might be connected to an argument he had had months earlier with the new editor in relation to opinions expressed on a presidential candidate. The column was not published, and its writer sought relief from the Constitutional Chamber, which ordered the newspaper to publish the column and pay court costs and damages. This case raises concerns, because the right of reply is not even an issue. Rather, the Constitutional Chamber stepped in to reverse an ordinary editorial decision and penalized the newspaper for making it. On September 11 Costa Rican President Abel Pacheco de la Espriella asked the judicial police to expedite the investigation into the murder of journalist Parmenio Medina Pérez, news director of the radio program “La Patada.” The president said he would seek assistance from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, if the case is not solved by the end of the year. On September 12 Federal Attorney General Carlos Arias spoke out in defense of judicial independence, and said that the police were close to identifying those responsible. On September 20 the police arrested a bank robbery suspect and announced he was a “person of interest” in the murder of Medina Pérez, who had been shot three times on his way home on July 7, 2001. Medina had received threats related to his work, and his house had been targeted in an attack with firearms. On September 17 the Criminal Court for the Second Circuit of San José acquitted Rogelio Benavides Rivas, publisher of the Teleguía magazine in La Nación, of the crime of wrongfully accusing a person of a criminal act. Benavides Rivas had been sentenced to 20 days in prison, which could be commuted to a fine of 20 times the daily minimum wage, and ordered to publish the judgment in Teleguía and to pay court costs. The conviction related to a beauty contest review published in Teleguía. The judgment was vacated on appeal to the Supreme Court, and a new trial ordered. Benavides Rivas was acquitted in the new trial, since by then the statute of limitations had run out. Draft amendments to legislation affecting freedom of speech and press freedom are currently before the Legislative Assembly’s Special Committee on Freedom of Expression, which has established a subcommittee to study what changes are needed to do away with the restrictive legal environment in which journalism is practiced in Costa Rica. On October 30, 2001, the committee prepared a list of points on which consensus could be achieved as a focus for discussion, but progress is slow. The list includes an amendment to Article 152 of the Criminal Code that would modify the crime of defamatory publication to incorporate the principle of accurate reporting. Also on the list is discussion of the conscience clause for journalists and the right of reply for opinion pieces. The new Criminal Code bill incorporates a number of rules of concern for press freedom, especially in the area of access to information. The section on “Crimes Against Privacy and Information Self-Determination” governs the use of people’s likenesses, access to computerized databases and the use of personal data and communications. With the laudable aim of protecting privacy, these rules incorporate definitions of crimes so sweeping that they could conflict with the free and full exercise of press freedom. The Supreme Court, which is sponsoring the bill, has signaled openness to discussion with the press.