San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Good News For Press Freedom

Major reforms in the country’s press lawsand changes in the judicial process may be theresults of a long-awaited ruling from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which thisweek culminated a nine-year legal battle overpress freedom.The ruling, announced Wednesday, declares thatthe government of Costa Rica violated two articlesof the Inter-American Convention on HumanRights – which Costa Rica signed in 1974 – in convictingLa Nación reporter Mauricio Herrera in1999 on libel and defamation of character chargesand later rejecting his appeal on the decision.It is the first time the human rights court has condemnedCosta Rica since the country recognized thecourt’s decisions as legally binding in 1980.“THIS is not only a personal triumph, but a triumphfor the responsible practice of journalism,” Herrera toldThe Tico Times. “The judges are saying that publicfunctionaries are subject to a greater examination by thecitizens of the country. . . they must accept greater criticismthan other citizens.”He said the ruling is a major step toward “jurisprudencewith a healthy respect for human rights” and is avictory for all Costa Rican citizens who are now afraid to speak out against authority.“It protects citizens’ right to expressthemselves, to report against people inpower,” he said.The ruling of the San José-based court,a tribunal of the Organization of AmericanStates (OAS), orders Costa Rican legislatorsto adopt reforms to the country’s pressfreedom laws in “a reasonable amount oftime.” Both Herrera and La Nación Editor inChief Alejandro Urbina said that at firstglance, the ruling appears to give journalistsgreater freedom to criticize politicianswithout fear of legal repercussions.Urbina said this fear has caused significantself-censorship in the country’snewsrooms for years.HERRERA was convicted for chargesstemming from a series of stories he wrotethat were published in the daily La Naciónnewspaper in 1995 about the questionablepractices of then Costa Rican diplomatFélix Przedborski. Herrera had used informationhe obtained from European newspapers– supported by his own interviews –to link Przedborski to illegal arms dealsand tax evasion.The reporter’s conviction, according tothe human rights court’s ruling, put CostaRica in violation of Article 13 of the convention,a section that governs “Liberty ofThought and Expression.”The ruling also completely overturnssentences handed down to Herrera, 34, andthe newspaper in 1999, and orders the stateto pay Herrera $20,000 in immaterial damagesand $10,000 to cover legal fees thereporter accrued during the struggle.After the conviction, La Nación wasfined ¢60 million (about $200,000 at thetime), and was ordered to remove all linksto the stories from its Web site. The newspaperalso had to publish the court’s sentence,which occupied 12 full pages.Herrera was ordered to pay ¢200,000, orface jail time, and to register himself as acriminal (TT, Nov. 19, 1999).URBINA is optimistic the governmentwill have to repay the fine money, andHerrera, married and the father of threechildren, said his name will be removedfrom the criminal registry.The Appellate Chamber of theSupreme Court (Sala III) rejected Herreraand La Nación’s appeal in 2001, promptingthe appeal to the Inter-American Courtof Human Rights through the WashingtonD.C.-based Inter-American Human RightsCommission. It was the decision to denythat appeal, according to the recent ruling,that put Costa Rica in violation of Article 8of the Human Rights Convention, which isentitled, “Judicial Guarantees.”The article guarantees due process forcitizens of signatory nations, which Herrerasaid the state violated by declining to admitevidence he said would have clearly refutedsome of the arguments for his conviction.THE case gained international attention.Seven journalism associations from aroundthe world submitted arguments on Herrera’sbehalf. In February, the U.S.-based Committeeto Protect Journalists (CPJ), in anamicus curiae brief submitted to the court insupport of Herrera, stated, “laws that permitjournalists to be prosecuted criminally forthe content of their reporting are a hazard tofreedom of the press and the right of citizensto be informed.”“Overall, (the ruling) will help us fulfillour primary obligation to provide thenecessary information to citizens in a freeand democratic society,” Urbina told TheTico Times. “I believe that self-censorship,which is quite prevalent, will in the immediatefuture diminish and that will lea tomore bold, yet responsible, publications.”A 2002 survey of reporters from 18Costa Rican media, conducted by LaNación, supports Urbina’s assertionsregarding self-censorship. According tothe survey, 62% of respondents said theyhad omitted information for fear of legalaction, and 99% said they believed thenation’s current, 102-year-old press lawsare in dire need of reform.At the time of the convictions, EduardoUlibarri was editor of the newspaper. Hestepped down in April 2002 after 20 yearswith La Nación.COSTA Rican Journalists’ Associationpresident Raul Silesky said he is “very satisfied”with the ruling.“This confirms that we were not confused,”Silesky told The Tico Times. “Thisgoes in line with what we have sought forthe last few years.”Silesky said the ruling will force thecountry to “adapt its national legislation tomake it correspond with internationalnorms and standards.” He said he is confidentthe ruling makes legal the practice ofreprinting references to material publishedin other newspapers or magazines, becausethat is what Herrera was initially convictedfor, but said he could not comment beyondthat on the exact implications of the ruling.Urbina said the ruling will require thecountry to change the judicial practicesthat led to the denial of Herrera’s appeal tothe Supreme Court. He pointed to Article175 of the ruling, which says, “the Courtconcludes that the magistrates of the (SalaIII), in resolving the appeal to theSupreme Court, interposed against thecondemning sentence, did not fulfill therequirement of impartiality.”THE victory is a huge leap ahead formany directors of Costa Rican media whohave been fighting for improved press lawssince the July 7, 2001, assassination ofradio journalist Parmenio Medina.Even before Medina’s killing, thedirectors of La Nación, Al Día, DiarioExtra, Canal 7, EcoNews, La Prensa Libre,Radio Monumental, El Financiero,Radioperiódicos Rolando Angulo and TheTico Times began work on a project torenew Costa Rica’s press law, and presentedit on July 23 of that year.Members of the Journalists’ Associationhad simultaneously drafted theirown version of a press freedom bill, but onSept. 12, 2002, according to Silesky, thetwo versions were combined into a progressivebill modeled primarily after presslaws in the United States and Spain.The bill was submitted to the floor ofthe Legislative Assembly earlier this year.Urbina said passing the bill into law isstill necessary.“THIS ruling helps, but it does notestablish, specifically, how press lawsshould change,” Urbina said.Though the bill, entitled “The Law ofPress and the Liberty of Expression,” wouldreform numerous aspects of current CostaRican legislation governing press activity ifpassed, Silesky pointed out a few aspects hesaid would make the most drastic difference.NOW, many infractions journalists canbe convicted of are dealt with in criminalcourts and can result in jail time. The proposedlaw would eliminate the criminalstatus of most of those and make them civilmatters, carrying only fines as punishment,much like in the United States.Herrera and Urbina said an annex tothe ruling, written by the court’s president,Sergio García, alludes to the idea that “thecivil route is the most adequate mechanismto resolve journalistic conflicts.”Herrera said he had no idea when hefirst wrote the story that it would end upbeing so controversial or have such a massiveimpact on the nation’s legislation.“I knew he was an influential andimportant character,” Herrera said ofPrzedborski. “But I didn’t think it wasgoing to have the relevance and importanceit will have.”

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