Costa Rica

COSTA RICA Three court rulings pose the most serious threats to press freedom in Costa Rica. These decisions set precedents limiting freedom with economic and criminal sanctions imposed within a strict judicial framework that the judges interpret narrowly. This is a summary of the events: June 25: The Supreme Court upheld the slander verdict against Ronald Moya, Jose David Guevara and Eduardo Ulibarri, all of the daily La Nacion. The lower court's verdict was excessive because of a fine equal to several days' pay, the order to pay $10 million colones ($34,000) to the plaintiff (former justice minister Juan Diego Castro) and the requirement to publish the court's ruling on the first pages of the newspaper, which actually would fill at least seven. Printing the ruling would take up most of La Naci6n's space for national and spot news, except for page 2 which is set aside for other topics. The measure is a type of censorship because it makes it impossible to publish the usual selection of news and deprives the newspaper's editors of the power to rank news stories, a basic part of a journalist's job. The news story published on September 19, 1997, by La Nacion about the use of an official car and weapons by former cabinet minister Castro was based on a complaint made at a news conference by the National Association of Public Employees (ANEP). The judges did not take into account the complete text of the news stories, just the parts taken out of context in Castro's complaint. They also did not take into account that, in addition to the news story and editorial about the case, La Nacion published on June 20 a summary of statements Castro had made in his defense on the program "Nuestra Voz" on Radio Monumental and a brief interview with his driver. July 20: Channel 7 of Teletica was ordered to pay 5 million colones ($17,000) in punitive damages for the partial broadcast of a reply by former public works minister Bernardo Arce .In October of 1996 the Teletica news show broadcast a report on irregularities in the Civil Aviation Authority, under Arce's control. Arce gave the news show a filmed response. It was broadcast on three editions of the news show, but Arce alleged that the original story had been carried on four editions. On January 17,1997, the Constitutional Court, charged with resolving disputes over the right of reply, ordered the news show to complete the broadcast of Arce's reply in the edition that had not carried it, the noon edition, and ordered payment of damages. The court also ordered that the broadcast be "without interruption or commentaries," because the news show had included its explanations of Arce's comments in the broadcast of his reply. July 27: A company attempted to buy advertising space in a supplement bought by the Chamber of Retailers in La Nacion. The chamber did not want the newspaper to sell that space because, it said,the company was not a member. The Constitutional Court upheld the company, which said its freedom of expression had been restricted, and made a suspended award of damages. Although the company had alleged in its complaint that it had lost 60 million colones ($186,000) in sales because it could not place the ad, it later requested 99.6 million colones ($339,000) during the phase of the trial to determine the award. The court ordered damages, which were suspended, against La Nacion for that amount, but later lowered the award to 10 million colones ($34,000) after the newspaper appealed. The difference between the loss admitted by the company and the award was painfully obvious. An award of that size could have caused a serious financial crisis for a less solvent company. The legislature's judiciary committee is studying a bill sent by the executive branch that is intended to make important improvements in national legislation. Specifically, it abrogates Article 7 of the old "Press Law," which makes publishers liable for offenses committed by third persons in their news outlets. It also increases to 15 days the time allowed to respond to a lawsuit, which makes it easier to defend journalists. It also would include in Costa Rican legislation a provision similar to one in the Argentine Penal Code that exempts from responsibility those who have only provided material means for publication or sale of slanderous, libelous or defamatory reports. The initiative essentially broadens the pOSSibilities of defense beyond the defense of truth, which so far has been Costa Rican journalists' only protection agalnst lawsuits. The proposed text moves toward allowing some kinds of inaccuracies as long as the person who disseminated them acted with due diligence and without malice or a desire to offend.