An executive decree issued by President Oscar Arias and Environment Minister Roberto Dobles last week shut off public access to public documents.
The decree, published in the official government newspaper La Gaceta on Feb. 5, voids long-standing public access to case files in the Environment Tribunal.
“It’s outrageous,” said Alejandro Delgado, a lawyer for the Costa Rican Journalism Association and the Institute for Press Freedom (IPLEX). “It impedes, without any justification, citizen access to documentation which is obviously of public interest.”
According to Article 21 of the decree, only those directly involved in a case, their representatives or any accredited “lawyer” in the country can view the case files.
The press and the public are excluded. The decision marks an abrupt change from the tribunal’s original 1996 reglamento, or bylaw, which states that such files are “considered public and accessible, for information purposes, for any individual.”
Delgado said the decree was blatantly unconstitutional.
“How does one decide who the two sides are, and who should be privy to information in these cases? For example, if a hotel is dumping sewage in a neighboring town or beach, shouldn’t the entire town, or the neighbors, be entitled to these documents?” he said.
Eduardo Ulibarri, president of the press institute and former director of the country’s premier Spanish-language daily, La Nación, sent a letter to Dobles on Wednesday, calling the decree an “attack on our freedom of access to public information.”
In the letter, Ulibarri cites articles 29 and 30 of the Constitution, which “guarantee” access to “issues of public interest.”
Ulibarri said the decree threatens Arias’ “commitment to transparency.” Fernando Guier, the country’s bestknown advocate of press freedom, called the timing unusual.
The decree comes in the midst of a series of Tico Times reports revealing both the Hotel Occidental Allegro Papagayo and neighboring Occidental Grand Papagayo had been accused of dumping sewage illegally into the ocean.
Both hotels are part of the high-profile, government-run Papagayo Tourism Project, which officials have long touted as “ecofriendly.”
The decree was signed on June 20 but did not enter into law until its publication in La Gaceta on Feb. 5 – the day after The Tico Times requested documents pertaining to the Grand Papagayo case. The newspaper was denied the records.
José Lino Chávez, president of the Environmental Tribunal, insisted the law has “always been that way” and assured the tribunal “was working to provide better access to the press.”