Costa Rica

COSTA RICA On June 7, the Constitutional Court gave an interpretation of the right to reply that, if upheld, would seriously restrict journalistic autonomy. The ruling was in a lawsuit against La Republica filed by Congressman Carlos Fernandez, deputy chief of the Social Christian Unity Party legislative delegation. In its April 18 issue, La Republica published a report that Fernandez, a lawyer, had been suspended for a year from practicing as a notary public after complaints from clients. While the published information was accurate, an important fact was excluded: Fernandez had appealed the decision and therefore the sentence was only provisional (after the publication, the suspension was reduced to eight days). Journalist Rocio Pastor, who wrote the article, tried to reach the congressman before printing the information, but he did not return her calls. Once the news was published (on page six of the newspaper, with a photo of the congressman and a teaser on the front page), Fernandez demanded that the newspaper publish a correction, written by him, to be printed in exactly the same way the original item had appeared. La Republica decided to publish the reply on its opinion pages, in a section where contributions from readers and officials frequently appear. The congressman filed a complaint in the Constitutional Court, demanding that his correction be published with the same prominence as the original piece. In its June 7 decision, the court said in an unprecented ruling that the correction had to be published on page six, together with a photo of Fernandez and a teaser on the front page. La Republica published the court-ordered correction on July 12. The Law of Constitutional Jurisdiction, on which the decision was based, establishes a right to correction or reply. However, the decision went much further than the law, whose Article 69, paragraph b, says that the reply must appear in an equivalent - but not equal way. Even though under to Costa Rican law the decision does not necessarily create an obligatory legal precedent for the Constitutional Court, if it were to do it would have very serious consequences for free press in Costa Rica. Because of this, every single Costa Rican newspaper published the same editorial on August 12, explaining to the public the implications of the court decision and asking the constitutional judges to reconsider. Since then, there has been no other decision on the right to correction or reply that would show how judges might rule in future. However, public officials frequently demand publication of their responses in exactly the same way as the original information appeared. Newspapers have rejected such demands, but this has not yet led to any formal complaints, though it is a fact that the Costa Rican press feels seriously threatened, particularly in its ability to make disclosures and demand accountability from public officials. Other recent important resolutions and initiatives in the legal and constitutional area include: On May 14, the executive branch reversed a previous decision declaring the purchase of police weapons by an Israeli government agency to be "a state secret." The earlier order had unleashed a wave of public protest by the press and others, among them former president and Nobel Prize winner Oscar Arias. The constitutionality of the original decision had meanwhile been challenged in the Constitutional Court. On July 10, the publisher, editor and advertising manager of La Naci6n, Fernando Lefiero, Eduardo Ulibarri and Luis Am6n, respectively, jointly asked the Court to declare various clauses in the Law on the Control of Advertising unconstitutional, on the grounds they amount to unlawful prior censorship. On September 6, the Constitutional Court ruled in favor of La Naci6n News Editor Edgar Fonseca Monge in his complaint against the National Electric Service (SNE). This regulatory board, which sets public utility rates, repeatedly refused to provide information about decisions to raise rates before they were published in the official newspaper La Gaceta. The ruling, which specifically concerned refusal to release information about a fuel price hike, meant the SNE must henceforth announce its decisions as they are made rather than waiting for their later publication in the official newspaper. La Naci6n Assistant News Editor Marcela Angulo and Reporter Yonacy Noguera appealed to the Constitutional Court September 22 challenging the definition of banking secrecy by three state-owned banks. The Bank of Costa Rica, the National Bank and the Agricultural Credit Bank of Cartago refused to provide information to La Nación about the grant of a series of loans, now in default, to banana companies. Several matters involving press freedom remain unresolved. They are: A libel suit filed by the former honorary ambassador to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Organization, Felix Przedborski, citing journalist Mauricio Herrera and his newspaper, La Nación, is still in court. The Foreign Ministry, in part basing its actions on reports written by Herrera for La Naci6n, revamped the Costa Rican foreign service. As a result, Przedborski lost his job. The Legislative Assembly has yet to vote on several amen dements to the Electoral Code approved in committee. Among these are a measure that would prohibit publication of opinion poll results within two days of elections. The Constitutional Court is still studying a plea, filed in August 1993 by the National Newspaper Chamber, that certain provisions in the Electoral Code be declared unconstitutional.