Costa Rica

COSTA RICA Current legislation and case law once again pose the main threat to press freedom. The most noteworthy development of the past six months has been legal action taken against a journalist for the mere act of criticism. On August 18, La Nación journalist Rogelio Benavides Rivas received a 20-day suspended sentence, but was fined 5,000 colones for each of those 20 days. A San José court acquitted him on charges of defamation and the publication of material offensive to a corporate entity. But the court reformulated the charges to libel, which is brought by an individual, not an entity. This aspect of the verdict once again underscores the issue of defendants’ rights in these cases because the accused had defended himself from the charges in the lawsuit but not the charge for which he was punished. Although the fine was minimal (about $320), the newspaper had to pay the legal costs of both the defendant and plaintiff. The lawsuit was brought in connection with an article in the Sunday TV supplement Teleguía that criticized the organization of a beauty pageant. The plaintiff said he was offended by the article’s headline, “Contest of What?” and alleged that it “rationally induced someone to think that the least of what was involved was beauty,” which “sowed doubts about the quality of the event” and in addition was offensive to the participants. Though the pageant’s organizers did not have the opportunity to defend themselves in the published commentary, the newspaper respected the plaintiff’s right of reply as mandated under Costa Rican law. Among the phrases cited as offensive was that the pageant was “nearly a tragedy,” that there was a lack of rehearsals and no well-conceived presentation. The plaintiff also complained about the references to the “tattered set design” and “outrageous, desperate anti-choreography.” Finally, it noted that the critic said the so-called “deorganizer” of the pageant had given himself a prize by having former beauty queens pay him homage during the ceremony. The lawsuit alleged that these expressions had the intent of offending and harming the reputation and image of the pageant organizers. On August 3, a San José court admitted a case against the newspaper El Día, which it later threw out because of its poor technical basis and the failure of the plaintiffs to appear in court. The case was a lawsuit brought by day care center directors as a result of the newspaper’s report on alleged irregularities in handling funds earmarked for the day care facilities. The case exemplifies the ease with which a lawsuit can be brought against the press without having to pay court costs. In contrast, the newspaper will have to shoulder the costs of another round in court to have the case definitely closed. That burden in itself is punishment for having reported on news clearly in the public interest and based on statements of senior government officials managing the program. On September 25, an organizer of a conference sued the newspaper Extra for 388 million colones (about 1.25 million U.S. dollars) over its report that the plaintiff charged foreign participants for meals, lodging and transpiration but in fact the fees were not used to pay these costs. The newspaper based its story on statements from foreigners attending the conference, and the paper could face the prospect of paying the travel costs of these foreigners to return to Costa Rica to testify. Another pending matter is the appeal against the fine, equivalent to 120 days’ pay, imposed on journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa on four counts of defamation. The newspaper La Nación also was ordered to pay compensation of 60 million colones (about 99,000 U.S. dollars). The lawsuits concern information that recounted reports appearing in European media (Le Soir Ilustre, La Libre Belgique, Der Spiegel). The questions posed by the European press concerned Félix Przedborski, Costa Rica’s former honorary representative before the Atomic Energy Commission. Costa Rican judges considered that the publications cited did not sufficiently support the material published in Costa Rica. In other words, La Nación should not have reported on the questions posed by the European press about Przedborski’s alleged links with financial scandals ― highlighted in the headlines of newspapers circulating where Mr. Przedborski represented his country. This legal precedent is cause for alarm because if the verdict is upheld that would mean that Costa Rican newsrooms cannot rely on international news agency reports. The absence of clear guidelines by a constitutional court on the right of reply is a source of uncertainty for the news media, which still do not know if the response to an article should be published in the same section where the news report in question appeared. Also unclear is which aspects of a response can be excluded as irrelevant or how to act when a response contains terms that the editors consider as being libelous or defamatory. This court has ruled on identical cases with radically contrasting criteria, which the news media finds disconcerting as it provides a means to apply pressure for those who seek to silence the press.