Two cases involving Costa Rica’s laws governing freedom of expression yielded very different results this week.
A Catholic priest – accused of libel because he’d allegedly claimed that La Cruz Mayor-elect Carlos Gonzaga, who took office this week, illegally acquired lands in the northwestern province and transferred them to President Oscar Arias – was acquitted of the charges, eliciting cheers from several community and environmental groups.
However, a reporter from the daily La Nación was convicted of libel because of a mistake apparently made by an official he quoted. (The reporter, Ronald Moya, was among the journalists who covered priest Ronald Vargas’ high-profile case.)
A judge ordered Moya, along with fellow reporter Freddy Parrales and the newspaper, to pay damages of ¢5 million (approximately $9,615), Moya told The Tico Times this week. The reporters were convicted of the civil charges against them, though acquitted of criminal charges.
The reason for their conviction? In a story published Dec. 17, 2005, Moya and Parrales attributed to then-Public Security Minister Rogelio Ramos a statement that “the police chief of San Vito de Coto Brus, of the last name Cruz…is object of an investigation” for alleged irregularities related to contraband liquor cases.
Had they misquoted the minister? No, Moya said: the police chief apparently filed suit because Ramos, and subsequently the reporters, had incorrectly identified the Southern Zone canton in which he served.
Though La Nación ran a retraction by Ramos, and Ramos himself appeared at the trial to admit that the error was his alone, the judge ruled that the reporters should have confirmed his statements with the Judicial Branch, and that the error caused the police chief “moral damage,” according to Moya.
The Tico Times asked the San José Second Circuit Criminal Court and the Judicial Branch for a copy of the decision and more information about the case, but did not receive it by press time.
“Obviously we’re going to present an appeal,”Moya added. “(Ramos) isn’t just any source – he’s an accredited source. It’s absolutely absurd.”
An e-mail from reporter Hazel Feigenblatt distributed through the listserv of the Institute for Freedom of Press, Expression and Public Information (IPLEX) said the ruling against the La Nación reporters “sets a terrible precedent…if one publishes that an official is being investigated and he alleges that he’s ‘traumatized,’ etc. then there is a civil damage.”
IPLEX and other press-freedom advocates have been working for more than six years to change the country’s Press Law, which is more than a century old and calls for prison sentences for reporters convicted on criminal charges of libel. A bill to change the law finally made it to the upper stratosphere of the Legislative Agenda in December, but has since been shoved aside to make room for other bills.
In priest Vargas’ case, Guanacaste judge Rafael Saborío ruled that the witnesses who testified against the priest “don’t deserve credibility” and failed to prove Vargas had made “injurious statements,” La Nación reported. He also stated that the witnesses against Vargas shared “a direct line of friendship.”
Vargas said his comments about Gonzaga’s alleged acquisition of land from the Agricultural Development Institute (IDA), and subsequent transferal of the land to President Arias, were based on TV news reports and a Comptroller General’s Office report. Mayor Gonzaga said he plans to appeal.
Arias’ brother and spokesman, Rodrigo Arias, told wire service AFP that the President obtained the lands “without knowing their origin” and “had nothing to do with the complaint against the priest.”