San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Archaic Press Law Still on the Books

As the threat of prison time continues to hang over journalists in Costa Rica like a Sword of Damocles, three professional associations and the University of Costa Rica’s LawSchool this week founded a “Freedom of Expression Observatory.”

Recent legislative and judicial actions have highlighted limits to press freedom in Costa Rica, a nation bound by outdated press laws despite a 2004 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordering the government to reform them immediately.

Through its “observers,” the new organization plans to review and voice complaints, propose solutions, encourage communications education, and prepare and promote legislation to strengthen the constitutional rights to freedom of expression.

“Freedom of expression is intimately tied to the formation of public opinion…It is not possible to have a state without communication.

In our democracy constitutional liberties exist, but much remains to be done,” Alexander Miranda, president of the Costa Rican Political Science and International Relations Association, one of the observatory’s founders, said at the inauguration Wednesday.

The founders, which also include the Costa Rican Lawyer’s Association and Journalists’ Association, selected 13 Costa Rican intellectuals, mostly journalists and lawyers, to be observers. Former Foreign Relations Minister Rodrigo Madrigal Nieto (1986-1990), historian Hilda Chen Apuy and the others were appointed to serve ad honorem for seven years. Another two observers are expected to be announced soon.

Renowned journalist and politician Armando Vargas, another of the observers, said during the inauguration that the observatory will work with the community to promote freedom of expression, a fundamental human right.

Another observer, lawyer Pablo Barahona, told The Tico Times his team will begin working as soon as possible.

According to Eduardo Ulibarri, former editor of the daily La Nación and president of the Institute for Freedom of Press, Expression and Public Information (IPLEX), reforming the country’s archaic, 104-year-old Press Law is a challenge because those in power harbor “a certain reticence” against the press.

Ulibarri and other journalists founded the institute last year to lobby for press law reforms. The nonprofit association has almost 30 members.

Ironically, on World Press Freedom Day May 3, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) ruled in favor of upholding the controversial Press Law, which establishes prison sentences for defamation and libel.

The court ruling thrust Costa Rica into the international spotlight, prompting uproar from international press organizations, which for years have asked the country to reform its Press Law.

“…In the 21st Century, the press of Costa Rica, a country that is supposed to be one of the most democratic in the Western Hemisphere, is still condemned to work under this Sword of Damocles called the Press Law,” says a June 15 letter to President Oscar Arias from the World Press Freedom Committee, an organization that represents 45 groups around the globe.

International journalists’ rights organization Reporters Without Borders issued a statement May 9 asking the government “to reconsider the Press Law and begin a debate on the subject with the media and journalists’ associations.”

Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias told journalists at Arias’ weekly Cabinet meeting Wednesday that he does not know whether the President plans to heed the organizations’ requests.

 ‘Muzzle Law’

Last May, Citizen Action Party (PAC) legislator Alberto Salom and National Liberation Party (PLN) legislator Federico Tinoco resubmitted a controversial bill to the Legislative Assembly’s Secretariat that calls for prison sentences for members of the press who fail to publish corrections and reader responses in a timely manner, among other sanctions.

Both legislators told The Tico Times they do not support the bill’s content and submitted it only to start discussion on the issue of press law reform in Costa Rica. However, Ulibarri said he believes the bill was submitted by mistake.

“It was careless; they did not sit down to study (its contents),” he told The Tico Times.

Salom and Tinoco submitted the bill separately in May to the Legislative Secretariat, according to Salom.

In a letter to The Tico Times, Tinoco said that though he does not agree with most of the bill’s proposals, “he considers it salvageable,” and points out it “could be modified.”

Salom told The Tico Times he also submitted a bill entitled “Law of Freedom of Expression and Press,” which does not punish journalists with prison time but fines them instead. Several former legislators, including Liberation legislator Laura Chinchilla, now Vice-President of Costa Rica, and Libertarian Movement member Federico Malavassi, drafted this bill in 2005.

“I tend to relate to this project…but nothing impedes you from submitting projects (to the Legislative Secretariat) that contradict each other,” Salom said.

The bill that calls for additional prison punishments, called “Law on Freedom of Expression and the Right to Information,” was also drafted in 2005, by Liberation legislator Sigifredo Aiza. Among other sanctions, it punishes heads of press companies with prison sentences of three to six months for failing to publish corrections to inaccurate or offensive information, or reader responses to published information.

It also punishes communicators who do not make available at least 20% of their space or time to dissemination of public opinion with three to nine months in prison.

The bill states this space should be made available to residents of Costa Rica to spread their opinions without censorship, while adhering to Costa Rican laws.

Luis Alberto Muñoz, director of the daily La República, told The Tico Times this proposal is not the correct way to obtain a greater diversity of viewpoints in the media.

In fact, the bill limits freedom of expression and other liberties, he added.

If the bill is approved, media company employees who “limit the right to freedom of expression” would face prison sentences of three to six months. However, the bill does not specify what these limits might be.

The bill, referred to by the daily La Nación as a “muzzle law,” resulted in a flurry of news reports, prompting Tinoco to remove his signature from the proposal June 26.

“I have removed my signature because my position was misinterpreted, but I have not renounced the debate and search for a law that respects what the (

Inter-American Court

) has ordered,” Tinoco said.

Salom said he has not removed his signature because it would negate his reasons for submitting the project. However, the bill cannot enter legislative debate because no commission exists to review it.

According to Legislative Assembly press chief Raúl Silesky, former president of the Journalists’ Association, the Special Commission for Freedom of Expression and Press, created as a temporary commission in 2001, expired last month.

Prison for Journalists

The 2004 ruling by the

Inter-American Court

declared the government of Costa Rica violated two articles of the Inter-American Convention on Human Rights when it declared La Nación journalist Mauricio Herrera guilty of libel and defamation of character in 1999.

Article 7 of the 1902 Press Law, which the Sala IV upheld in May, calls for prison sentences of up to 100 days for both the authors and editors at publications where libelous or defamatory material is published.

The Sala IV ruling came in response to a lawsuit filed by the daily Diario Extra against Article 7 in February 2004. Its journalists faced prison time for convictions in a series cases (see separate article).

La Nación’s Herrera was prosecuted as a result of this law. A Costa Rican court ordered him to pay the equivalent of three months’ wages or face jail time, and La Nación was fined ¢60 million (about $200,000 at the time) for articles Herrera wrote in 1995 about the questionable practices of former Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski.

Herrera had used information he obtained from European newspapers, supported by his own research, linking Przedborski to illegal arms deals and tax evasion (TT, Feb. 2, March 2, 2001).

Sala IV rejected La Nación’s appeal in 2001, prompting the appeal to the

Inter-American Court

. After a nine-year legal battle over press freedom, Herrera was absolved in 2004 (TT, Aug. 6, 2004). It was the international court’s first condemnation of Costa Rica in July 2004 since the country recognized its rulings as legally binding in 1980.

Besides absolving Herrera, the court ordered the state to pay him $20,000 in damages and $10,000 to cover his legal costs, and to reform the nation’s press laws. Earlier that year, a press freedom bill was submitted to the Legislative Assembly.

The bill was a combination of two projects, one drafted by the directors of Costa Rica’s main news sources, including La Nación, Al Día, Diario Extra, El Financiero and The Tico Times, among others, and another by the Costa Rican Journalists’ Association.

Though the bill would reform the Press Law to eliminate the threat of prison for journalists, among other changes, the project languished without the support of lawmakers, until Salom resubmitted it in May.



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