Costa Rica

COSTA RICA After a lengthy legal battle, the Constitutional Court ruled on May 9 that licensing of journalists is unconstitutional. The unanimous decision of the court's seven justices was in response to a writ filed by a Costa Rican citizen, R6ger Ajun Blanco, asking the court to declare article 22 of the statutes of the Journalists Colegio unconstitutional. The article made it obligatory to belong to the colegio to be able to work as a journalist. Ajun was sentenced to six months' imprisonment and fined the equivalent of $600 on January 12, 1989, for working illegally as a journalist. However, the judge suspended the sentence and Ajun went to the Supreme Court on May 20,1990. The court decision "declares valid the contention of unconstitutionality and as a result nullifies article 22 of law number 4.420 of September 22, 1969 (Statutes of the Journalists Colegio)." The judges, moreover, ruled that all those who had been sentenced for violation of the now struck-down article could seek to have their sentences overturned. The court based its ruling largely on the American Convention on Human Rights and on the advisory opinion of the Inter-American Human Rights Court several years ago against licensing of journalists. In its decision, the Supreme Court said, "The point at issue is that the Oournalists Colegio) law makes the right to practice journalism a special privilege rather than a general right established by the American Convention to seek, receive and transmit information." Following the ruling, the Journalists Colegio called a meeting in which it ordered its board of directors to decide on how to react. So far, it has not made a decision. The Inter American Press Association and many other news organizations welcomed the court decision. However, on July 21, during a tribute by the Colegio to President Jose Maria Figueres, the president reiterated his support of the Colegio, saying,"My opinion is the same as it has always been: I maintain total support for licensing of journalists." Before the court ruling, a group of professional colegios, including the Journalists Colegio, suggested amending the Constitution to include an article providing support for the licensing of professionals. But the proposal has not received any significant support. In fact, a bill is pending in Congress to eliminate all special benefits granted to the professional colegios under the existing law. For instance, the Journalists Colegio receives 1 % of the price of all advertising in the media. If these special benefits are ended, as expected, the organization's funding will dry up and it will be difficult for it to continue to exist. Other major events affecting press freedom in the last six months include: In July, the Legislative Assembly approved the Law Regulating Smoking which bans cigarette and tobacco advertising on programs aimed at minors and all radio and television programs broadcast between 6 a.m. and 9 p.m. The content of all smoking products advertising is subject to official control, particularly in regards to the type of models used. The original bill had proposed the total ban of cigarette and tobacco advertising. On August 18, the Fourth Criminal Court of San Jose acquitted the editor of La Prensa Libre, Andres Borrase, on criminal libel charges, but ordered him and his newspaper to pay damages to the plaintiff. The suit against Norrase and La Prensa Libre was filed in 1988 by Carlos Campos, leader of a farmworkers group, as a result of a report published on June 10 that year. The story, based on information provided by the Intelligence and Security Service, referred to the alleged militarization of the group, the Union of Small Farmers of the Atlantic Region (UPAGRA). It said UPAGRA had ties with Cuba and Nicaragua and was seeking to destabilize the Costa Rican government. The $30,000 damages the court ordered to be paid by Borrase and his newspaper were considerably higher than is usual in such cases. Borrase said he would appeal to the Supreme Court.