San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Six Years and Counting: Former La Nación Editor Fights for Press Freedoms

At 14, Eduardo Ulibarri fled Cuba with his father to start a new life in Costa Rica. At 30, he was already at the helm of his adopted country’s daily newspaper of record as the editor of La Nación.

Today, at 54, he’s taken the lead in a different effort: the fight to change Costa Rica’s antiquated Press Law, which, according to Ulibarri, leaves journalists here open to threats and intimidation and limits all citizens’ right to open public discourse. As director of the Institute for Freedom of Press, Expression and Public Information (IPLEX), which he helped found, Ulibarri is working to jump-start reforms that have languished in the Legislative Assembly for more than six years.

The existing law, 104 years old, includes jail sentences for journalists convicted of libel; gives reporters no legal basis to protect their sources; places the burden of proof on accused journalists, not on their accusers as in most other trials; and makes the media responsible for statements of sources quoted in articles. The proposed Freedom of the Press and Expression Law would eliminate these problems, among others.

However, it’s made little headway, despite plenty of related developments outside the assembly walls. In 2004, Channel 7 TV News and La Nación, from which Ulibarri had retired the year before, broke stories that resulted in the arrest and investigation of two ex-Presidents, Rafael Angel Calderón, Jr. (1990-1994) and Miguel Angel Rodríguez (1998-2002). The cases gave the media new prominence and drew criticisms of the press from the accused and their supporters (TT, Oct. 22, 2004).

Earlier that same year, the case of La Nación journalist Mauricio Herrera, previously convicted of libel and defamation of character, prompted a ruling from the Inter-American Human Rights Court stating that Costa Rican courts had applied an extreme interpretation of national law in Herrera’s case, and exonerating the reporter. The decision was heralded as a victory for the media (TT, Aug. 6, 2004) – but still no reforms.

Through it all, Ulibarri, IPLEX and other advocates have continued to lobby for change, efforts that received new attention when President Oscar Arias and a new assembly took office in May. Last week, Arias announced he’ll include the bill during the upcoming extraordinary session, when the Executive Branch sets the legislative agenda (TT, Nov. 17). However, IPLEX and National Union Party (PUN) legislator José Manuel Echandi, a vocal supporter of the bill, say the best way to make sure the bill comes to a vote is to send it to one of three sub-commissions in the assembly with the ability to vote bills into law.

Echandi, a member, says the commissions have little to do, while the rest of the assembly has the most packed agenda in recent history. The Press Law is on that list – in 40th place.

Ulibarri, who has two grown children with wife Rocío Fernández, spoke with The Tico Times by phone last week and again Tuesday at his home in Moravia, northeast of San José. The mild-mannered graduate of the University of Costa Rica (UCR) and the Missouri School of Journalism – who still speaks with evident wonder about his remarkably speedy career path – discussed not only the reforms, but also his take on Costa Rican journalism in general and why these issues affect everyone. Excerpts:

TT: How do you respond to those who say – “Really, what are journalists so upset about if as recently as 2004, two media organizations did so much to expose huge corruption cases? Obviously, they’re finding ways to manage with problems in the law.”

EU: Well, that’s a good question. I’d tell them the following: Obviously, the press and citizens here have an environment of liberty that’s much better than what exists in other countries. Also, ever since the sentence against Costa Rica (by the Inter-American  Human Rights Court), the judicial scene haschanged.Now, a large number of judges have understood that what the American Human Rights Convention says – on any topic, but in this case, on the topic of freedom of expression – has to be considered as part of national legislation.

So what’s the problem? Well, it may be true that there’s been a shift, a more open attitude, but we still have legislation that allows journalists to be thrown in jail. We still have legislation that makes the “proof of truth” the basic proof for acquittal in a case of calumny. [In other words, the law makes journalists responsible for proving the truth of their statements, rather than requiring their accusers to prove the statements’ falsehood.]… In a poll by the Journalists’ Association a few years ago, 60% of journalists said they felt threatened.

You’ve said in the past that these issues affect not only journalists, but all citizens. How so?

Freedom of expression is an individual, human right that belongs to all of us. If it’s limited in some way, it affects every single person. Let’s say you’re in charge of an environmental organization in some municipality, and you make statements about a (development) project that a company considers defamatory, and it sues you – and this has happened. If that person doesn’t have enough tools to defend himself in trial, he’ll probably be condemned, and even if he isn’t, it inhibits many people and makes them limit their statements.

Or today, for example, with the case of Ivannia Mora (see separate story) – the defense lawyer said in La Nación that they might take action against witnesses for having participated and affected the honor of the defendants. I think that’s just an empty threat, but just having the possibility of such accusations under a law that doesn’t have enough guarantees, can have an inhibiting effect.

The other dimension of this is that if you limit this right, you’re keeping society from hearing opinions or information that’s of public interest. Public debate is less broad, less intense.

Access to information isn’t contemplated in the current reforms, which focus on expression and punishments for journalists.

Exactly, because when these reforms started up, years ago – things advance slowly here, don’t they? – there wasn’t much interest yet, and the biggest risks and limitations were in expression, not in the search for information. But Costa Rica has no legislation regarding access to information.

Since 2000, a series of resolutions by the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) in specific cases where access to information has been denied… has strengthened this right.

What are the other problems of the current Press Law that the reforms would address?

Right now in our legislation, if a journalist publishes statements from a politician about another politician, for example, he or she is responsible (for the content) along with the source. This reform, in matters of public interest, would mean you’re not responsible for what your source says.

Another reform is introducing the concept of confidentiality of sources. Judges to this point have been pretty tolerant – I don’t know any case along the lines of Judith Miller (the New York Times reporter jailed in 2005 for refusing to reveal the identity of a source). But there’s no legal protection.

How do you think the corruption scandals affected attitudes toward the press?

They’ve changed, for better and for worse. From the point of view of social support for this kind of reform, citizens have become much more conscious of the importance of the press as a vehicle, a means to fight against impunity. But on the negative side, it’s made some political sectors, above all those closest to the ex-Presidents, react to the press in a very hostile way. [Both the former heads of state jailed in the cases belonged to the Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC).] Those sectors, at this point in the game, will have much greater reasons to impede any reform.

In the heart of the Legislative Assembly, there are signs that some political groups have been trying to block this reform without saying so. Slowing it down, putting obstacles in its path – there’s a reason this reform has been in the assembly for more than six years.

The other problem is that other parties that might not have that attitude, still don’t see the reforms as a priority. That’s why we think the most convenient way to process this would be to send it to the special commission.

So President Oscar Arias’ vow to put it on the extraordinary agenda showed support – but not entirely.

Exactly. It’s support we have to thank him for, and I think it’s a good attitude. But it’s more symbolic than practical, because it would be much more efficient for the Liberation legislators to give their votes so it can be sent to commission.

How would these reforms change journalism here on a daily basis?

There’s a trend in Costa Rican journalism that’s not very positive. Lots of journalists and media see public issues as secondary. They have a more frivolous agenda –sports, show business, celebrities – not so much to the work of investigation, which is where this kind of legislation is really important. But I think there are other media where they do think about it a lot.

If this reform is approved more or less as is, it won’t open the door for irresponsible journalism, which is what some people say: “They’ll do whatever they want.” If it’s proved that a journalist acted irresponsibly, he or she can still be condemned.What this will do is improve the equilibrium.

Do you see that “frivolous agenda” of some media as the result of the climate of intimidation you’ve described?

I’d like to say it is, but I think it’s not, honestly. And it’s not just a Costa Rican tendency. It’s part of this whole transition of media and changes in society – a lot of people are out of touch with public matters and are more interested in (lighter topics). And sometimes the press hasn’t been conscious enough that there are certain values and journalistic responsibilities that are part of their democratic contract. Many media have subordinated those values just for the sake of circulation or ratings.

This is negative, even from a commercial point of view, because many media end up competing with entertainment, and that’s a very difficult area to compete in. It’s better to compete in the area of news and information. Of course, media still have to be balanced. One needs to consume information but also have some fun.

It worries me, because if the media don’t do their work well, that opens the door to critics, and for those critics not to support a bill like this, or even to create bills that limit the press even more.

It must be interesting, as a Cuban by birth and a defender of press freedoms, to watch the situation of media in that country.

Ah, yes. One of the reasons I ended up as a journalist was all that impact one feels from experiencing an authoritarian, totalitarian regime. During university, it was a challenge sometimes, because I started in 1969, when the university was polarized to the left, sympathetic with Fidel Castro. I felt an urge to defend my principles – I studied to be able to debate with professors and students. That helped me a great deal.

The reason for our departure was political. The reasons for our arrival here were two: I had an uncle who lived here, and also, the Vietnam War was at its peak, and I was 14. My dad wasn’t too interested in me going to the United States and ending up in the Vietnam jungle.

I see (going back if the regime changes) as an option… it’s like an aspiration of mine. I’d like that.


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