San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Legislative Agenda Good News for Press Bill

Freedom of expression shot to the top of the charts in the Legislative Assembly this week when the Executive Branch moved press law reforms to third place on lawmakers’ agenda.

The move means legislators could be talking about reforms to the country’s antiquated Press Law within days, rather than months or years. It also gave press-freedom advocates, who have watched the bill languish during not one, but two previous legislatures, cause for cautious optimism.

“The fact that it’s moved from 40th to third place on the agenda is undoubtedly an advance,” Eduardo Ulibarri, former editor of La Nación, told The Tico Times Wednesday.

“The big question is whether that advance can be converted into approval for the project during this extraordinary session.”

“We’re very pleased,” said José Manuel Echandi, the only legislator for the National Union Party (PUN) and a vocal supporter of the Freedom of the Press and Expression Law, which would eliminate jail terms for journalists convicted of libel and make other changes to the country’s 104-year-old press law. In a phone interview with The Tico Times minutes after Presidency Minister Rodrigo Arias announced the change Wednesday, Echandi said he will continue to urge his fellow legislators to send the bill to the Third Plenary Commission, which would be able to bring it to a vote more quickly than the assembly as a whole.

The commission is one of three subgroups of legislators – a representative mix of 19 lawmakers from various parties is assigned to each – that meet weekly and have the power to vote bills into law. Echandi has been lobbying for months to move the reforms to the commission, on which he serves, saying the group hasn’t seen any legislation in months and would be a perfect means to move the bill forward.

Now that the bill is in third place, compared to its previous status in the doldrums of the agenda – in 40th place – a vote to delegate the bill could happen much sooner. And it appears the move to a Plenary Commission may have the 38 votes it needs. The support of the National Liberation Party (PLN) and its 25 legislators is crucial, and this week Liberation faction head Mayi Antillón told the daily La Nación her party “very likely” will cast its votes in.

Liberation’s apparent support is a big step – though the show’s not over. The Citizen Action Party (PAC), the secondlargest legislative player with 17 legislators, had indicated its support for measures to speed up a vote on the bill, but is now examining the text to determine whether it conflicts with the Constitution in any way, La Nación reported. The Social Christian Unity Party (PUSC) and the Broad Front, a total of six legislators, maintain the bill should be discussed by the whole assembly.

The Executive Branch’s decision to prioritize the law was made possible by the extraordinary legislative session that begins today. During this session, which will run Dec. 1-April 30, the Executive Branch sets the legislative agenda.

In addition to the press reforms, the assembly-wide agenda (to be discussed en plenario, or on the assembly floor), includes reforms to the Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) and a constitutional reform that would dedicate 8% of the gross domestic product (GDP) to public education, up from 6%. In second place are reforms to the Public Works Concessions Law, which was approved earlier this year but sent back to the assembly by the Supreme Court because of a procedural foul-up.

Arias, who announced the agenda at a press conference following President Oscar Arias’weekly Cabinet meeting, said he hopes the assembly will approve the Concessions Law and IMAS reforms before they break for Christmas Dec. 22.

The assembly, which will return to work Jan. 8, will be considering a second press freedom bill as well: Echandi said he is pleased by the Executive Branch’s inclusion of his proposed Transparency Law on the agenda of the Legal Affairs Commission.

This bill would define access to information as a basic human right, and would make it easier for people to denounce violations of that right by creating a “habeas data” lawsuit that could be filed before the Constitutional Chamber of Supreme Court (Sala IV).

During a trip to Costa Rica this week, Ignacio Alvarez, a specialist in freedom of expression with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, said that although Costa Rica is a centuries-old democracy where freedom of expression has played a “fundamental role,” the country should be “embarrassed” by its lack of justice in the murder of two Costa Rican journalists, limited access to public information and a press law that allows journalists to be jailed.

Alvarez said he was affected by the recent verdict in the trial for slain journalist Ivannia Mora, 33, who was killed by two men on a motorcycle the night of Dec. 23, 2003, as she sat in traffic in Curridabat, east of San José. Mora’s former boss, businessman Eugenio Millot, was tried in connection with the murder, but the three presiding judges ruled last week to drop the charges against him and five alleged accomplices, saying “essential” evidence for the case was improperly obtained and inadmissible in court (TT, Nov. 24).

Mora’s death followed that of radio journalist Parmenio Medina two years earlier (TT, July 13, 2001). A Catholic priest and his  business partner are being tried for alleged involvement in the crime, but like Mora’s murder trial, the Medina trial also has been fraught with problems and delays.


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