Costa Rica

COSTA RICA Electoral censorship, which had restricted the practice of freedom of press and expression for many years during political campaigns, was abolished at the end of March as a result of a Supreme Court Constitutional Division ruling. Three years before, the same body had revoked the licensing of journalists. This new ruling was the most relevant event for Costa Rican journalism in the last six months. The Supreme Court Constitutional Division decision resulted from a 1993 challenge to the constitutionality of electoral censorship by the Chamber of National Newspapers (CAD INA, represented by lawyers Fernando Guier and Ruben Hernandez. In its decision handed down May 21, the judges found several measures in article 85 of the Electoral Code unconstitutional because they severely limited freedom of expression and communication during political campaigns. The most serious violations found in the Electoral Code were these: 1. During the campaign, publicity about political-electoral themes was limited only to those parties and media registered with the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE). This measure discriminated against citizens and groups not belonging to a registered political party. 2. It gave the TSE the right to censor political party advertising. 3. It set limits on the number of advertisements each party could publish or broadcast daily. The first two restrictions on press freedom were totally eliminated. The limits on the volume of advertising was maintained in name only, since its effect was diminished by permitting citizens' organizations and other politically unaffiliated groups to advertise during electoral campaigns. Moreover, the Constitutional Division eliminated the ban on political advertising outside the campaign period by reforming the Code's Article 79. The Court upheld the ban against publishing political polls for two days prior to elections and on Election Day. It also upheld the requirement that all polling firms be registered with the TSE. Other events: After a resolution handed down by Supreme Court Constitutional Division against the newspaper Extra in a case involving the right to reply, the Fifth Civil Court of San Jose filed preventative garnishment against the newspaper for U.S. $130,000 (30 million colons). The newspaper's bank accounts were frozen for several weeks, thus placing it in danger of bankruptcy. The civil court later revised the conditions of the garnishment and freed the bank accounts. The Constitutional Division decision against Extra, in addition to forcing the newspaper to print a reply to information published two years ago, ordered it to pay damages to the affected parties. Thus, in accordance with Costa Rican law, the amount of damages was fixed by a civil trial, the reason for the change of venue to the Fifth Civil Court of San Jose. This was the first time a court had ordered preventative garnishment in a case involving the right to reply. In mid-June, heated polemic arose when Alvaro Trejos, executive president of the magazine Actualidad Econ6mica and congressional candidate for the opposition party Social Christian Unity ordered the removal of a page from an already-printed magazine. The page contained a column by the magazine's editor, a regular feature, that discusses pOlitical and electoral matters. The column criticized the change in stance on economic policy by both the Social Christian Unity candidate and the ruling National Liberation party. Actualidad Económica editor Jose Miguel Fonseca resigned after finishing the issue, but before it had gone to press. The Journalists' Colegio investigated the case and issued a condemnation of Alvaro Trejos' actions. Trejos protested that he had not been given the right to legitimate defense and justified his decision to cut out the page on the grounds that the column referred to economic, rather than political, matters. On July 16, congressional representative Rodrigo Gutierrez Schwanhauser, from the minority New Democratic Party introduced a bill entitled "Law on the Right to Information, the Right to Correction and Reply." The text contains positive aspects such as the elimination of the crime of contempt and the assumption of responsibility of the media and their editors to back those reporters accused of slander. The bill also provides for the concept of the right of reporters to protect sources; it also shields reporters against accusations of libel or slander by public officials. However, some articles such as those regarding right to reply and the establishment of a collective press "ombudsman" would result in an increase in regulation and government interference in the media. The Congressional Committee on Social Affairs is studying the bill. Among the matters related to freedom of expression and press that have still not been resolved are the following: Publicist Oscar Bakit challenged the constitutionality of articles of several laws that establish different types of prohibition and censorship concerning advertising. Movie theater owner Luis Carcheri presented a constitutional challenge to the Public Entertainment Law, saying it has articles that establish prohibitions, rather than simple regulations, concerning who can attend different types of entertainment. Felix Przedborski, former honorary ambassador of Costa Rica before the International Atomic Energy Agency, brought a libel suit against journalist Mauricio Herrera and La Naci6n because the newspaper published a series of revelations in the European press about the businessman-diplomat.