Puerto Rico

Report to the IAPA
March 28, 2020

In this period there persisted actions against freedom of expression and on access to public information.

The Legislative Assembly has sought to create or increase offenses that would criminalize conducts that incite certain kinds of citizen demonstrations, after the fact that in the country several social protests took place.

On January 28 the Senate approved a bill that seeks to include, under the offense of aggravated harm, those carried out on real estate or property in historical and touristic areas, such as Old San Juan, after several protests in which alleged demonstrators vandalized structures and businesses.

On ending up as law the Senate bill 1479 there will be sanctioned with punishment of reclusion for a fixed term of three years any person that commits crimes of damages to public and private property, independently of the magnitude or nature of the damage caused, or a fine of $10,000 if the damage is caused by a juridical person in a historic or tourist zone.

For its part a court ordered the government to divulge information on the irregular handling in the administration of supplies to those damaged by natural disasters. Governor Wanda Vázquez Garced ordered that there be carried out a "full investigation" into allegations of the mishandling of supplies.The report generated by that investigation has been the object of requests for divulgation from various media, but the requests have been mainly denied.

A court determined that the report did not contain data whose divulgation would cause harm, for which reason it ordered its divulgation. It accused the government of lacking truth and justice in assuming "a baseless attitude" in maintaining the document's confidentiality. Then the governor instructed the judiciary to hand the document over.

In May 2017 the Department of Justice, headed then by now governor Vázquez Garced, requested a search warrant to obtain information about thousands of users that follow three news media regarding the student strike, including the interaction and the comments and private messages exchanged with the followers. The judiciary obtained access to the Facebook accounts of the university media Pulso Estudiantil, of the newspaper Diáologo UPR and Student Communication Center. The intention was to establish the identity, control of accounts and users. The search produced a file of thousands of pages with the history of university press publications on Facebook, as well as the names, information and conversations with its thousands of followers.

Law 122-2019 adds obstacles to journalists and citizens in the access to public information. The "Transparency Law" establishes the new process required for requesting public information which allows the government to postpone the delivery of public documents for about two months.

In order to implement that law on March 2 the Justice Ministry issued a document with guidelines to the heads of public agencies and corporations on regulations and administrative orders concerning public information.

The document contains bigger obstacles to access to public information and inconsistency with the requirements of the Transparency Law and public policy of openness and transparancy that the government proclaims. It creates bureaucratic layers and additional processes absent from the Transparency Law that have to be complied with in order to receive public information that the government has in its custody.

To the Chamber there was presented a bill that seeks to characterize as an offense the closure of streets or the blockage of public highways during public protests and demonstrations.

In November the Puerto Rico Supreme Court issued a resolution of warning against lawyer, university professor and political commentator Carlos E. Díaz Olivo, for the alleged violation of one the the Ethics Canons of his profession due to the language used in motions submitted before judges of the First Instance Tribunal.

The warning is the consequence of a request for investigation and disciplinary process made by Judge Rafael G. Rojas Fernández, who alleged before the Supreme Court that Díaz Olivo "carried out offensive imputations" against the judges who dealt with the case in which he represented one of the parties.

Díaz Olivo countered that the judge's charge is due to his denunciation of "a series of supposed irregularities" in the First Instance Tribunal and before the Office of Controller and other agencies.

Independently of the merits of the manner in which Día Olivo communicated his message or the forums that he used the case is an example of how criticisms of the judiciary can have consequences for those who make them.