Costa Rica

57th General Assembly Washington, DC October 12 – 16, 2001 COSTA RICA Costa Rica’s press and society were dealt a blow in July with the murder of journalist Parmenio Medina. Not since the La Penca attack in 1984 had a journalist been killed in a criminal attempt. Moreover, restrictive legislation is still on the books that limits the press’s ability to inform Costa Ricans on matters of public interest, and has been given an even harsher interpretation by some courts. On May 23, 2001 the Inter-American Human Rights Court (IAHRC) renewed the stay of enforcement of the November 12, 1999 judgment ordering journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa to pay a fine of 120 times the daily minimum wage on four counts of defamatory publication. The judgment, which was upheld by the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court on January 24, 2001, also required the newspaper La Nación to pay 60 million colónes (about US$100,000) in damages, as well as the plaintiff's attorneys' fees. The journalist's name was also ordered added to the Judicial Registry of Criminal Offenders. The criminal complaint had related to reporting on questions posed by reputable European publications (Le Soir Illustré, La Libre Belgique and Der Spiegel) to Costa Rica's former honorary ambassador to the Atomic Energy Commission, Félix Przedborski. The justices held that the foreign publications introduced as evidence offered insufficient substantive proof of truth in reporting. In other words, the justices ruled that La Nación should not have published that the European press was asking Przedborski about his involvement in scandals in countries where he was representing Costa Rica. On May 29, 1998 the San José trial court had unanimously acquitted the journalist, finding that the evidence justified publication, but the Supreme Court set aside that decision on May 7, 1999, giving rise to the new trial. The legal precedent is alarming, since, if the judgment stands, Costa Rican newsrooms will not even be able to cite wire stories filed by international news agencies. In an unusual development, the judgment's reach also extended to the Internet, requiring La Nación to remove from its online edition links between former Ambassador Przedborski's name and the stories cited in the complaint. The judgment also ordered the newspaper to add a link in its online edition between Przedborski's name and the holding of the judgment, as well as to publish the holding. Faced with the impending enforcement of this disproportionate and dangerous judgment, on March 1, 2001 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights petitioned the government of Costa Rica for interim relief to safeguard the rights of journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa and La Nación representative Fernán Vargas Rohrmoser. The specific interim relief included a request to stay enforcement of the judgment on grounds that it would cause "irreparable harm" to the exercise of freedom of expression. The Costa Rican Supreme Court held that the Commission’s mandate was unenforceable, and so referred the case to the IAHRC. The IAHRC renewed the petition for interim relief, and the Costa Rican government relented. On September 7, after hearing additional argument, the court issued its final decision, ruling that the interim relief mandated by the Commission would remain suspended insofar as the addition of the journalist's name to the Judicial Registry of Criminal Offenders and the orders to publish the holding of the judgment and add a link between the former ambassador's name and the holding, until such time as the constituent entities of the inter-American system for the protection of human rights have ruled on the merits of a case that could set a significant precedent of vital importance in the hemisphere. In view of this decision by the IAHRC, on October 3 the Costa Rican trial court that had convicted Mauricio Herrera Ulloa and bears responsibility for enforcing the judgment decided to renew the interim relief and stay “enforcement of the judgment and the court orders contingent upon it,” until such time as the IAHRC issues a final ruling. The Supreme Court may hear the case after the IAHRC, where it is currently under investigation, makes its determination. The admissibility hearing before the Commission will be held on November 16 in Washington. Upon consideration the Commission will determine whether the case should be remanded to the Supreme Court, which is very likely to occur, given its highly technical nature. The Chapultepec Forum held in San José on July 2 and 3, 2001, helped stir up national discussion of existing legal restrictions on freedom of the press. The IAPA delegation concluded that no legal protections were in place to ensure complete freedom of speech and of the press. It also found a high level of self-censorship out of fear of lawsuits and the precedents set by judicial decisions. On July 7, 2001 journalist Parmenio Medina was murdered while on his way home in the town of Santo Domingo de Heredia after taping his radio program for Sunday, July 8. Four men intercepted Medina’s vehicle at 4:20 in the afternoon and shot him three times at close range, just twenty-five yards from his doorstep. Medina, a radio producer and editor of the “La Patada” program aired by Radio Monumental in San José, stood apart for his humorous criticism and investigation of corruption in Costa Rica. Medina had been the target of threats, which he had reported to the authorities. On May 9 persons unknown fired shots into Medina’s house, in what he said was a scare tactic. Two days before his murder, Medina asked the police to discontinue the protection he had been under, because he considered it unnecessary. The Costa Rican government condemned the murder and offered the judicial authorities its full support in order to solve it. Based on the preliminary investigations, Minister of Public Health Rogelio Ramos ruled out theft as a motive and stated that the crime had been well planned. Medina’s program had come under heavy pressure for its criticism of the management of Catholic broadcaster Radio Maria, and the journalist had appealed to the Constitutional Chamber of the Costa Rican Supreme Court, to take the necessary steps to prevent the censorship the broadcaster was trying to impose on him. The Constitutional Chamber ruled in favor of Medina and ordered Radio Monumental to continue broadcasting “La Patada” without prior censorship. On July 24, 2001 the daily newspaper Extra was convicted of failure to honor the right of reply. The paper ran the reply from an individual who felt he had been prejudiced by published stories, but failed to mention the reply on its front page. The judges ruled the paper had failed to satisfy the legal standard of proportionality. Judicial decisions have been so inconsistent on the right of reply, that uncertainty reigns among newspaper publishers. At other times the Constitutional Chamber, which determines such cases, has not required a reply to be mentioned on the front page. Now the paper is facing a lawsuit seeking compensation for alleged damages. On July 24, 2001, editors from Costa Rican media outlets introduced a bill in Congress to reform regulations governing the press, with a view to enhancing freedom of expression. The reform bill stirred up debate that culminated in a special legislative committee being set up to study the issue. Discussions are moving ahead slowly, but there is still hope for real progress. On September 20, 2001 the Criminal Court of Appeals for the Second Judicial Circuit of San José vacated a judgment entered against a government employee who reported, as part of an internal procedure at a healthcare institution, that the romantic relationship between his boss and a subordinate was having an adverse impact on the subordinate’s conduct at the institution. The employee that reported the relationship had been sentenced to pay 60 times the daily minimum wage (360,000 colónes or about US$1,000) for defamation, 5 million colónes (US$15,000) for a civil action for rescission, and 534,000 colónes (US$1,600) for legal costs. In setting aside the judgment, the Court of Appeals stated, “In matters relating to the civil service, the greatest latitude must be given in the reporting of acts, even acts relating to the government employee’s private life, such as intimate relations, provided there is a causal link to acts of corruption or a degradation of public services. This is duty of all government employees and public servants, and a right of each and every citizen. Otherwise, public corruption would be the rule.” The court’s stance contrasts with the position taken by the other forum for criminal appeals – the Criminal Division of the Supreme Court – which has taken a much narrower view on freedom of expression. On October 4, 2001 a trial court in the northern city of San Carlos acquitted three local television news journalists accused of the crimes of libel, wrongfully accusing a person of a criminal act, and defamation, in a complaint filed by a public official whom they had reported using an official vehicle during non-working hours. The most significant fact about the judgment, apart from the acquittal, was that the complainant was ordered to pay the costs of the trial, since the court viewed the complaint as frivolous.