Costa Rica

COSTA RICA The application of restrictive legal rules during the past half year configured threats to freedom of the press. The courts are constantly narrowing the legal framework through interpretations of the law in specific cases. On October 20, during the last day of the General Assembly in Houston, the Inter American Press Association learned that motions presented by the newspaper La Nación had been rejected. The motions sought to clarify the ruling that forced the paper to devote the first 10 pages of its edition to the full text of the court’s decision. The ruling’s harmful impact on freedom of the press—because of how the matter was considered and the application of the law—was duly reported to the IAPA assembly. But beyond the criteria applied to condemn a press account of clear interest to the public—granting of government motions in favor of the former Minister of Public Safety and Justice, Juan Diego Castro Fernández—what distinguishes this sentence is the act of holding hostage the first 10 pages of the newspaper. This in addition to the sentence imposed on the editor, Eduardo Ulibarri, and reporters Ronald Moya and José David Guevara. The three were sentenced to pay fines based on the wages for a day’s work; a civil action fine of 10 million colones (US$33,000) was meted out to the newspaper itself. On November 12 the courts sentenced journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa to pay a fine of 120 day-wages for four offenses of published defamation. La Nación was also fined 60 million colones (US$99,000). The challenged news accounts reported on stories published in reputable European publications—Le Soire Ilustré, La Libre Belgique, Der Spiegel—regarding Félix Przedborski, formerly Costa Rica’s honorary ambassador to the Atomic Energy Commission. The European stories questioned the ex-diplomat’s involvement in the notorious Lufthansa scandal. The judges decided that introducing the publications as evidence was not proof of truth in reporting. In other words, La Nación should not have reported that the European press was questioning the ambassador’s links to financial scandals spotlighted by newspapers circulating in areas where Przedborski represented Costa Rica. It now appears that the proof of truth needed to shield journalists when they report about public officials is restricted to such a degree that only what the courts admit is acceptable to determine a sentence. The precedent is alarming because Costa Rican newsrooms now can not even rely on stories filed by news agencies. Consequently, news gathered abroad that is relevant to Costa Rica or its officials will no longer be publishable in the country until much later, after the local media is able to undertake the expensive task of going to the news source to collect the pertinent information first hand. Former presidents of Costa Rica Luis Alberto Monge Alvarez and Rafael Angel Calderón Fournier, of the two dominant political parties, served as character witnesses for the plaintiff at the trial. Both are friends of the former ambassador and contracted his services during their adminstrations. The judges found the journalist guilty of negligence because, among other things, the former presidents spoke well of the diplomat and said they had no reports of questions being raised about him in Europe. The court disregarded other evidence introduced, including testimony by Isabel Montero, ambassador in Switzerland, and Victoria Guardia Alvarado, ambassador to UNESCO. Montero had a diplomatic post in Germany when the Lufthansa scandal exploded. Guardia Alvarado was at UNESCO when France refused to accept Przedborski’s diplomatic credentials and explained its reasons in a report delivered to her. The sentence is subject to review by the appeals court. Regarding the right of reply, the newspaper Extra has a case pending involving a lawsuit for 30 million colones brought by two persons detained in a car theft. The arrested persons sent a right of reply full of insults to a third party. Extra did not publish the libel and the plaintiffs then appealed to the Constitutional Court, which modified the text, forced the paper to publish it and, in the abstract, to pay an indemnification. The constant pressure of lawsuits that take advantage of the restrictive framework imposed on the Costa Rican press threatens to silence it. The newspaper La República has a case pending over the publication of a letter to the editor. Also, a former president announced he would sue the paper for publishing stories about his business activities. Last semester the paper was penalized for an opinion column published in the sports section. Extra has a 50 million-colón suit pending. El Día is juggling three suits, including one brought by a group of workers in a state program who are displeased by statements made by their director about corruption and misuse of resources in the program. La Nación also is involved in other litigation. The complaint itself is an easy way to punish the media in Costa Rica. These legal actions generate major investments of time and money for defense. The courts admit the complaint almost automatically and rarely assign court costs to the plaintiffs. Meanwhile, reform measures proposed to broaden freedom of the press are stalled in Congress.