Report to the 71th General Assembly

Charleston, South Carolina

October 2 – 6, 2015

This period will go down as one of the darkest in the history of Costa Rican journalism, largely due to a disastrous initiative in early 2015 by the Ministry of Science and Technology (MICIT) of the administration of President Luis Guillermo Solís. The ministry was pursuing a new Law on Radio and Television that was rife with provisions harmful to private enterprise and press freedom.

The ministry distributed a "background paper for discussion," which triggered an adverse reaction from the media and led to a meeting between President Solís and officers of the IAPA. The initiative would have empowered the ministry to monitor and regulate the granting of frequencies; would have declared a company to be "hoarding" if it were to own 30% of all television frequencies and 20% of all radio frequencies; would have issued regulations governing media content — including advertising — under the pretext of combating activities such as pornography; and would have granted the executive branch the power to allocate, at its discretion, 30% of all radio frequencies to regional and communal entities.

In the end, the government called off the project. The minister and the official who authored the plan were dismissed, and President Solís gave his assurance that any further initiative would uphold the government's obligations related to press freedom.

However, the government has prepared three other initiatives that could include some of the measures that were part of the canceled initiative.

One would decriminalize the work of journalists, leaving open the possibility of high-priced civil lawsuits that are already permitted under current laws.

Another would legalize community radio stations, many of which — as seen in other countries — are designed to promote the government's political initiatives.

A third initiative would regulate government advertising, but with the risk that this advertising could be placed in accordance with political, rather than technical, criteria. This would favor state-owned media outlets or those outlets that are friendly to the current administration.

The national government has exhibited a troubling tendency to exert control over the release of public information, or to refuse to release such information altogether. The Board of Directors of the Costa Rican Social Security Fund was forced to turn over information on public-sector salaries at the request of Otto Guevara, a legislator for the Libertarian Movement, pursuant to a March 2014 ruling by the Constitutional Court, which held that public officials' salaries are public information.

This situation had caused a stir among public-sector labor unions, and the Social Security Fund used this as a pretext for refusing to release any further information to Guevara.

The Constitutional Court accepted appeals from Diario Extra and from Rolando González, a legislator for the National Liberation Party, compelling the Office of the President to release information, which it had previously withheld on the grounds that it constituted state secrets, regarding visits to the office by unidentified persons.

The press filed a claim with the Constitutional Court seeking an injunction against a ruling by the Legislative Directorate that, starting in 2014, required the media to filter all information on Congress through that body. The Constitutional Court forced the legislature to rescind this measure.

A number of attacks on journalists occurred during this period. On September 8, Fabio Chávez, president of the Internal Workers Front of the Costa Rican Electricity Institute (FIT-ICE), threatened the media during a press conference at which the "Patria Justa" organization announced plans for a general strike in October.

Some of the actions of Information Minister Mauricio Herrera have been deemed intimidating, intrusive, and hindering to the work of journalists. On September 24, Diario Extra summarized these actions as follows: "Refusing to open the floor to reporters at press conferences; refusing interviews; interrupting and restricting meetings that he deems uncomfortable; numerous calls to journalists and media executives by the minister and by press officer Stephanie González in attempts to change headlines and content, and leveling accusations against reporters when stories are unfavorable to the government."

Herrera tried to excuse his behavior by arguing that he had only intended to "clarify information." His actions were met with criticism from media executives and triggered to a heated debate in the Legislative Assembly, where he had gone to render accounts. The legislators decided to have him appear before the Human Rights Committee, whose meetings journalists are allowed to attend.