Costa Rica

Although there is a general climate of press freedom, its exercise has been affected by court decisions and pressure from the government, while the free access to public information is restricted by governmental policies and a culture of obstruction within government entities. Costa Rica’s Instituto de Prensa y Libertad de Expresión and the director of the University of Costa Rica’s School of Mass Communication released a study in November 2008 finding that many public entities, such as government ministries and agencies, do not have standard procedures to make basic information, such as budgets or expenditures, readily available to the public or the press. Those that do, the study concluded, are the exception rather than the rule. Researchers sent a questionnaire to 16 ministries and 12 government institutions in April 2006, asking if each makes information available to the public as required by the constitution. Despite three months of phone calls and requests for a response, only seven ministries and seven institutions returned the questionnaire. On a scale of 0 to 100 points, only two of the government offices that responded scored 70 or better. The majority scored less than 50 percent, which researchers said was “alarming.” They did acknowledge, however, that the study overlapped with the transition between the former administration and the current, which may have affected the results. Press access to information is also threatened by a potential change to the way that the court system publishes its judicial and administrative resolutions. New regulations are being discussed in the Judicial Branch, based on recommendations from an international meeting of judicial authorities, that would prohibit courts from releasing a wide variety of information about people convicted of crimes in the sentences published on the internet. Most worrisome is that resolutions online would not identify the names of those convicted of crimes, but rather only use their initials, with the exception of public figures and only if the judicial process is related to their notoriety. In February, a prominent television network news program came under criticism from the Oscar Arias administration following aggressive reporting by news director and anchor Pilar Cisneros, who published a scathing commentary February 19 on the government’s handling of the relief efforts following a devastating earthquake January 8. The network had already run a series of news segments highlighting the plight of displaced residents living in tents and temporary shelters more than a month after their homes had been destroyed. Cisneros criticized the administration for failing to find rapid solutions for the victims, even as more than one million dollars in donations sat unused in government accounts. In a televised rebuttal, run on the Telenoticias news program under Costa Rica’s “right to reply” law, Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias criticized Telenoticias and Cisneros directly, saying she showed “rudeness, disrespect and arrogance” (malacrianza, irrestpeto y soberbia) in referring to the government’s response to the emergency. Saying that disrespect “destroys” democracy, Arias warned the news station to “be very careful when pointing the finger of blame.” The tone and criticism is not new, and echoes comments made by President Oscar Arias in July 2008, when journalists aggressively investigated the administration’s use of $2 million donated to Costa Rica by the Central American Bank of Economic Integration. The president chalked those reports up to “envy,” “insults” and deliberate attempts to undermine the government. However, Minister Arias is now facing a possible investigation by the Comptroller General’s Office over the potential misuse of those funds. In February, Gilberto Lopes, a Brazilian-born journalist who has lived in Costa Rica for 30 years, alleged government persecution for his opposition to the Central American Free Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA). In 2008, the National Registry rejected Lopes’ application for citizenship, telling him he had not conducted himself well in the country. The registry based its decision on a letter from the Dirección de Inteligencia y Seguridad Nacional (DIS), an investigative police that answers only to the president, which said only that Lopes’ name appeared in its files. Lopes said he believes the police agency – which saw its sub-director resign in 2008 amidst investigations into whether he defrauded more than a dozen businesses and individuals – had been keeping tabs on him because of his political activities. During Lopes’ appeal, the Tribunal Supremo de Elecciones requested the DIS documents referencing Lopes, but the security agency refused, citing articles of the law which created the DIS that allow it to withhold information pertaining to ongoing investigations or “state secrets.” Lopes was eventually granted his citizenship, and when a Colombian lawyer faced the same citizenship rejection, again based on secret DIS files, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court ruled that the DIS could not deny access to the files. When subsequently consulted about Lopes’ case, both the new sub-director and director of DIS now said no files on Lopes existed in the agency’s archives. Hope for finding justice in the murder of Costa Rican journalist Ivannia Mora, who was shot to death December 23, 2003, dimmed further when, on September 22, 2008, the Supreme Court upheld a 2006 ruling that freed the suspects in the case. As in the original 2006 ruling, the Supreme Court judges found that prosecutors had not correctly obtained testimony from witnesses, and accused investigators of “psychological coercion” in order to produce testimony from a witness against the defendants. Among the errors in the prosecutors’ handling of the case, the Court cited the example of one investigator who allegedly offered to remove an arrest warrant for the aunt of a witness if he “declared what he knew about the investigated events.” The court found that this offer amounted to “morally pressuring” the witness, rendering the testimony – which was key to the prosecution’s case – inadmissible. Investigators also did not follow proper procedure in obtaining wiretaps and interviewing a suspect in Colombia, the Court said. In the September 2008 decision, the court ordered an investigation into the “possible disciplinary errors” of the prosecutors and investigators in the preparation of their case, and rejected the Public Ministry’s request to retry the defendants. With this ruling, it becomes an even stronger possibility that Mora’s murder will remain in impunity. Good news for press freedom came, however, with a payment of 124 million colones (about $217,000) by the Costa Rican government to the daily La Nación in February. The payment was a court-ordered retribution for a 1999 ruling by the San José Penal Court convicting La Nación and former La Nación reporter Mauricio Herrera of criminal defamation. In articles published in 1995, Herrera referenced reports in European press accusing former diplomat Félix Przedborski of corruption. The Costa Rican courts ruled in 1999 that this was criminal defamation, and ordered La Nación and Herrera to pay damages to Przedborski. The Inter-American Court of Human Rights, however, found that the ruling violated the reporter’s freedom of expression, and ordered Costa Rica repay the paper and journalist the damages, as well as expenses and interest – a sum nearly double the original damages of $120,000. A recent ruling by the electoral tribunal extends to the Internet the limits placed on campaign advertising in other media. The ruling makes a distinction between information that is permitted and illegal advertising, depending on whether the person who receives the message searched for it actively on the Web or it was sent to him. This distinction does not apply to advertising in traditional media, where seeking a message requires an equal or greater effort. The Legislative Assembly is considering an amendment to the Electoral Code that would require a prison sentence of up to four years for executives of media companies that publish surveys three days before an election or on election day itself.