Costa Rica

Judicial decisions and electoral regulations marred press freedom during this period. No information has been made public to shed light on the death of journalist Parmenio Medina Pérez, director of the radio program La Patada. Medina was shot three times and killed on July 7, 2001 when he was arriving at his home. He had been threatened in connection with his work and his house had been shot at. Eight months later, no suspect has been detained and the police are keeping information about the investigation secret. The only response by the public prosecutor's office and the judicial police is that two prosecutors, five investigators and one criminologist are working on the case, but they are not authorized to disclose details. Three of the investigators were assigned to the homicide immediately and the other two were named in February to reinforce the investigation. A report by the ombudsman on January 15 about the status of the investigation stressed that the Code of Criminal Procedure requires judicial officials to remain silent about what they have completed. The report disappointed those who are lobbying for the crime to be solved quickly. On December 3, 2001, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights accepted the case of journalist Mauricio Herrera of the newspaper La Nación against the government of Costa Rica. On November 12, 1999, a criminal court in San José convicted Herrera on four counts of publishing defamatory material. Herrera's reports in La Nación in 1995 concerned scandals the European press had reported concerning Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski. The journalist was fined 300,000 colones ($1,000). The newspaper was fined 60 million colones ($200,000) for punitive damages. The newspaper was also ordered to remove from its electronic edition links to the case and to establish a link between the name of the former ambassador and the court's decision, which was to be published at the newspaper's expense. On February 28, 2001, the case was presented to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, alleging that the sentence violated freedom of expression as supported by the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights. On December 6, 2001, the Inter-American Human Rights Court reprimanded Costa Rica for not complying with court's order September 7 in support of Herrera. The court had demanded that the government suspend Herrera's registration in the judiciary's criminal records, while the case was pending in the Inter-American Human Rights System. It also demanded suspension of the order to publish the court's decision and to change the Internet links. On November 30, 2001, the commission had sent the court a certification, dated November 29, 2001, saying that Herrera's name was in the criminal registry. The state responded on December 4 that that the court's decision had been misinterpreted, and the department of registry and judicial archives would take measures to correct it. On December 6, the court made note of the state's communication and requested compliance with the provisional measures ordered September 7. On December 26, 2001, the Supreme Electoral Court issued a decision blocking the news program "Telenoticias, de Canal 7" from holding a debate among the four presidential candidates who had the highest standing in opinion polls. Three minority candidates had appealed against the forum, and the court ruled that the debate could not be held unless the station invited all 13 registered candidates, many of whom received less than 1% of the vote when the election was held. The decision upholds the principle of political equality for presidential candidates and holds that debates and forums are political events subject to regulation by the court. The court said, "Any limit imposed on the candidates impeding the diffusion of the political proposals they represent, giving an advantage to others in the same situation, should be seen as a serious limitation for the parties spreading their election ideology, damaging the democratic education of the voters and democracy itself." The decision also states that the television station was in a position of power technically, economically and in terms of public standing. "It is obvious that the exercise of this power in favor of the few candidates gives them an advantage in public opinion and at the same time offends the right of equality of the other presidential candidates who, although they are recognized as such in the national legal system are not given equal treatment by the media. The judges said that participation under equal conditions by all candidates does not affect or harm the essential content of the station's freedom of information. They also assume that debates with "selected candidates" creates a bias in public opinion against those who were excluded. Two of the five judges on the electoral court abstained. The directors of Telenoticias, Pilar Cisneros and Ignacio Santos, appealed the decision to the Constitutional Court, but on January 3 it declined to hear the case because it is an election matter. Four years ago the Constitutional Court decided an identical case in the same way the Electoral Court did. Channel 7 chose to hold three debates: the first, January 7 with the four candidates it originally had invited. On January 8 and 9 they held forums with four participants each, because one candidate declined the invitation. On January 17, the electoral court ordered the polling company Unimer Research International, S.A. to hand over all the information related to a voter survey published by the newspaper La Nación on December 9, 2001. In the survey, 29.5% of those polled supported the candidate of the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC). There was a virtual tie between the candidate of the National Liberation Party (PLN) who had 22% and the candidate of the new Citizen Action Party (PAC) who received 21.6%. The PLN was dissatisfied with these results and on December 13 it asked the electoral court to order Unimer to hand over all information about the survey. According to the party, it needed the information to file an electoral appeal. Unimer handed over information about the pollsters, the instruction manual they received, the controls applied to field work, materials about the way the answers were handled and the documents used in the tabulating process as well as the sampling plan. However, concerning the PLN's request, the court said the polling company had only partially complied. The PLN wants the company to hand over the questionnaires, information about the people polled and the database used. Carlos Paniagua, the company's president said this information would make it possible to identify the people interviewed and their answers. The PLN has not appealed, but Paniagua filed a demand for the ruling to be overturned, which the judges have not yet ruled on. On January 24, Central Bank President Eduardo Lizano refused to disclose the results of a study of Costa Rica cone by the International Monetary Fund in July of 2001. Speaking to La Nación, Lizano said his decision was in line with a "tradition" of not publishing most of the content of these annual reports. He also said that the Central Bank does not publish the minutes of its board meetings or reports that missions from the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank give the government. Besides, he said that information in the IMF report "at this time is not useful for the government's policy." On February 14, José Miguel Corrales, a deputy-elect of the National Liberation Party, released a summary of the study, but the full text has not yet been made public because the Central Bank has not changed its position. The ombudsman criticized the bank's action, and on January 25 Carlos Navarro Gutiérrez, general secretary of the Finance Ministry employees' union, filed an appeal against Lizano in the Constitutional Court. In his answer February 14 to the Constitutional Court, Lizano said the reports are for the exclusive use of the IMF and their confidentiality is inviolable. The Constitutional Court has not yet ruled on the appeal. On March 4, the Legislative Assembly repealed the crime of contempt, which set a penalty of one month to two years in prison for anyone who offended the good name or reputation of a public official. The law retains a reasonable special protection in case of threats, punishing with a prison sentence of one month to two years anyone who threatens a public servant personally, publicly in writing, by telegraph or telephone or through the bureaucracy. The change should be viewed cautiously. Although it is a step in the right direction, it carries with it the danger that it could be represented as a major advance while in reality it is almost symbolic. In practice, the charge of contempt had fallen into disuse. It was last applied in 1994 when a journalist was sentenced for criticizing three judges in an opinion column. The real obstacles to press freedom in Costa Rica are the articles of the Criminal Code that, in the name of alleged protection of "good name" or "honor" seriously limit the possibilities of criticism. Harsh interpretations in case law of this legislation, especially in the III Criminal Division of the Supreme Court create a very restrictive legal environment for the full exercise of press freedom that is very detrimental to democracy. Although there are very concrete and balanced reform proposals in the Legislative Assembly's special committee on press freedom, there has been little progress. In August of 2001, the assembly formed a committee to study eight bills to change regulations affecting press freedom. The committee has only been able to pass two bills. The first is the repeal of the crime of contempt which has been approved by the entire legislature. The second is a change in the Code of Criminal Procedure to modify some time frames to benefit the defendant. This proposal would reduce the statute of limitations for criminal action from two years to one for crimes committed by individuals, including crimes against one's good name. It also would increase from five to 10 days the time the defendant has to respond to a suit. Radio and television companies would be required to save for 15 days a copy of everything they broadcast. Failure to comply with this regulation would be punished with a fine. On October 30, the committee drafted an agenda outlining the topics on which there could be consensus and those that would be debated. Among these are a change to Article 152 of the Criminal Code that would modify the crime of publishing an offense to incorporate the principle of faithful reproduction, the conscience clause for journalists and the right of response in the case of opinion articles. Changes to crimes against reputation would be excluded.