Costa Rica

COSTA RICA Legislative, constitutional and judicial issues, plus the aftermath of the election campaign, have all affected the practice of journalism in Costa Rica. In the constitutional area, licensing of journalists and the publication of preliminary reports by government agencies which could reveal the identity of suspects are the two most hotly debated topics. In the judicial arena, in addition to the usuallibel cases, a journalist was sentenced on contempt charges. In the legislative sphere, a law was passed imposing strict regulation of public performances, and a bill that would prohibit cigarette advertising went to committee. Three other recently introduced bilis would limit public opinion polls and their publication during eleetion campaigns. A committee set up by the ]ournalists Colegio to investigate accusations of alleged polítical pressures on the media during the past campaign issued its report. The following is a detailed chronological summary: On March 24, a committee set up by the ]ournalists Colegio of Costa Rica issued a report on its investigation into the departure of six journalists from Telenoticias, the country's major news program, broadcast on Channel 7. The journalists had alleged in early January that "top level" officials of the party of then-candidate, now president, José María Fígueres, had exerted pressures which led to their having to leave. Isabel Ovares, assistant to the news director, was fired in the heat of the campaign, on ]anuary 7. That same day, the director, Pilar Cisneros, resigned, and on ]anuary 10, four reporters quit in solidarity. In its report, the Colegio committee, appointed ]anuary 12, denied the existence of political pressures alleged by Cisneros and her colleagues. It found contradictions in the testimonies and criticized Cisnero and Ovares, as well as five other journalists (one from Telenoticias and four others), for their campaign coverage. It defended Figueres for refusing to give any statement to Telenoticias, saying that his action was not a general refusal to cooperate with journalists but a reaction against cooperation with those who "had aligned themselves with others to harm him, or at least to try to do so." Throughout, Cisneros refused to recognize the Colegio committee, saying most of its members were not working journalists or were political supporters of Figueres' party. After the report was issued, Cisneros complained that she and her colleagues had not been called to testify, while others had been heard at length. The committee retorted that the journalists' views had already been aired fully in the media. Cisneros and her colleagues gave notice of appeal to the Constitutional Court. The matter is still pending. On May 2, Luis Arturo Alvarez, a La Nación journalist and an active member of the ]ournalists Colegio, filed a complaint contending that several articles of the Colegio's charter were unconstitutional , asserting that obligatory colegio membership viola tes several constitutional provisions, including supremacy of international treaties over locallaws, freedom of expression, the general right to liberty and equality of judicial access. The Constitutional Court agreed to consider the complaint, but has not yet rendered an opinion. The Journalists Colegio, stung by criticism from journalists and others in recent months, decided to take the offensive and since early this year has sought to establish that licensing of all professionals is envisioned in the Constitution, The initiative has had no tangible resulto However, the Third National Congress of]ournalists, hedid August 24 to 26, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the Colegio, focused on the issue and delegates from Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, Argentina and elsewhere expressed support for licensing of journalists. President José María Figueres voiced his commitment to freedom of the press and reaffirmed his support of the Journalists Colegio at the inauguration of the Congress. He said that the institution "plays an important role in Costa Rican society, because its principal quality is to regulate the practice of the profession and to defend the individual right to expression." OnJune 15, the Constitutional Court ruled that state institutions could not give out information to the media about ongoing investigations, because such information could be used to impugn the honor of those involved. The ruling carne about as a result of a complaint filed by the reforestation company Bosques Puerto Carillo against the Anti-Narcotics Police. The company felt that it had been harmed by a police report, published in La Nación March 21last year, linking the firm to money laundering. The suit was dismissed. The Constitutional Court ruled that publication of the report violated the fundamental right to prestige and honor, enshrined in Articles 11 and 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights. The ruling held that the right to information is not unrestricted and, in the case of internal or preliminary reports, it is not for the state to pravide information that could lead to identification of suspects. In one of the most important paragraphs, the Court stated that "it is contrary to the right to reputation and honor to portray a person in an article as a delinquent if he or she has not been sentenced as such, nor to portray as accused a person who has not been charged, as is the case when the names of alleged suspects are mentioned in a preliminary report." The implications of the report have not yet been fully assessed. There has been no change in the ability of the press to obtain information on legal actions. Moreover, in a widely publicized and continuing case on banking abuses, information based on preliminary reports and pracesses has flowed freely. However, the court ruling could, in other cases, represent a restriction on freedom of press and information. On May 31, La Nación sports editor Ricardo Quirós was acquitted on charges of defamation braught against him by sports figure Isaac Sasso. The Third Criminal Court of San José, which heard the case, also dismissed a civil suit seeking damages in the equivalent of $32,000, to be paid by him or La Nación. Sasso, at the time president of the Costa Rican Football Federation, accused Quirós of defamation over a column the newspaper published July 2, 1993, in which the journalist criticized the way in which a Federation tribunal had been administered. On July 8, the Fifth Criminal Court of San José found Bosca Val verde Calderón, news editor of La Nación, guilty of contempt charges. He was sentenced to a year in prison and a fine equivalent to $10,000, to be paid by him or La Nación. However, his prison sentence was suspended. The accusation had been filed by the three judges who make up the First Superior Criminal Tribunal of San José. They charged that Valverde had been guilty of defamation in publishing an article May 23 that criticized themselves for the way in which they treated former President Luis Alberto Monge during a judicial hearing. In his article, Valverde called the judges "pig-headed" and accused them of "seeking the most detestable ways to get ahead and impress public opinion." Article 307 of the Penal Code establishes that contempt occurs when "the honor or decorum of sorne public official is offended or threatened in carrying out his duties." This was the first time since the Penal Code went into effect that the artide had been used against a journalist. Valverde's sentence drew general criticism fram national and international press groups, induding the Journalists Colegio of Costa Rica, the Central American Newspaper Association and the Inter American Press Association, as well as fram private citizens and jurists. Valverde's Iawyer, Fernando Guier Esqulvel, appeaIed the sentence to a higher court. On July 14, representative Hernán Bravo Fonseca of the Social Christian Unity Party intraduced a bill to repeal article 307. On July 26, citizen Leda Díaz Valladares, found guilty of contempt in another matter, filed a suit contesting the constitutionality of the article. There has been no resolution of any of the three actions. OnJuly 13, a higher court quashed the sentence for defamation, handed down the previous year by the First Penal Court, on La Nación columnist Julio Rodríguez as a result of charges brought by sports personality Isaac Sasso Sasso. The lower court decision was thrawn out because the judge had intraduced extraneous matter. Sasso has not appealed. On the same date, the Fourth Criminal Court of San José opened, then suspended, a plea for damages and calumny filedd six years earlier by a union leader against La Prensa Libre editar Andrés Borrasé. The judge halted the case because of the absence of a key witness. On September 25, the "General Law on Public Performances," designed to regulate a wide variety of public shows through prohibitions and restrictions, was approved in a final debate. The law encompasses movie theatres, live shows, radio, television, cable programs, wireless media, satellite transmissions, video games, video rentals and pornographic material. The law explicitly prohibits anything that constitutes "a social danger" because of violent content, possibility of inciting to crime and vice, for degradation of "the human condition" and pornography. It excludes, however, prohibiting or restricting public exhibitions far the ideas they express or maintaln. The National Council on Publíc Shows and Similar Events, a division of the Justice Ministry, will be responsible for administering the law. The material, before being distributed or exhibited, must be approved by this council. In addition to the National Council, the law provides far the creation of municipal commissions in charge of supervising complíance with the law at the local level. On June 8, the Legislative Assembly's Committee on Social Affairs unanimously approved the "Law Regulating Smoking," which , among other things, bans all advertising that could stimulate smoking. Three bilis have also been introduced, but not yet debated, to control the carrying out and publícation of opinion polls. One would prohibit such surveys during 30 days prior to an election, another would make it 10 days and the third would ban them only on election day.