San José, February 19, 2004—A delegation from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights today in Costa Rica’s capital, San José. The brief was in support of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a reporter for the San Josébased daily La Nación, who was convicted of criminal defamation in 1999.
Joining CPJ on the brief were The Associated Press, Cable News Network LP, LLLP, El Comercio, The Hearst Corporation, The Miami Herald Publishing Company, El Nuevo Día, La Prensa, The Reforma Group, Reuters Ltd, El Tiempo, and Tribune Company.
In February 2003, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights agreed to hear Herrera Ulloa’s case. The Inter-American Court’s ruling could determine whether criminal sanctions for defamation are permissible under the American Convention on Human Rights, a treaty ratified by most countries in the Americas. Decisions of the Inter-American Court are legally binding on the 21 countries that have accepted the court’s jurisdiction, including Costa Rica.
The court has no deadlines to hear the case, but a decision is expected in the first half of 2004.
Today, the CPJ delegation presented the brief in person to the Inter-American Court’s Secretariat. The brief was prepared for CPJ by the New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, whose lawyers include CPJ board member and prominent First Amendment attorney James C. Goodale.
During a three-day visit to Costa Rica, the CPJ delegation met with La Nación‘s editorial board and discussed with Costa Rican journalists the significance of the court ruling and the legal implications of the Herrera Ulloa case. The delegation also plans to meet with the legislative commission tasked with revising Costa Rica’s press laws.
The delegation was led by CPJ’s Deputy Director Joel Simon and Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría. Joining them was Pablo J. Valverde, a lawyer from Debevoise and Plimpton LLP.
On November 12, 1999, Costa Rica’s Penal Court of the First Judicial Circuit convicted Herrera Ulloa of criminal defamation. The charges stemmed from a series of 1995 articles that Herrera Ulloa wrote in La Nación citing European press reports alleging corruption by former Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski.
The Penal Court ordered Herrera Ulloa to pay Przedborski a fine equivalent to 120 days’ wages. As a result, the journalist’s name was inscribed in an official list of convicted criminals. La Nación and Herrera Ulloa were ordered to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees and 60 million colones (US$200,000) in damages; to publish the ruling; and to remove all links from its Web site that could lead readers to the offending articles. After the Costa Rican Supreme Court rejected La Nación‘s appeal on January 2001, the newspaper and the journalist filed a petition with the Washington, D.C.based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. Both the commission and the Inter-American Court are entities of the Organization of American States.
In the brief, CPJ states, "Costa Rica’s criminal prosecution of Mr. Herrera violated Article 13 of the American Convention [on Human Rights]. Laws that permit journalists to be prosecuted criminally for the content of their reporting are a hazard to freedom of the press and the right of citizens to be informed." According to the brief, "Such laws have an inevitable chilling effect on freedom of expression. They must not apply unless ‘there is an obvious and direct threat of lawless violence,’ which was obviously not the case with Mr. Herrera’s articles."
In the brief, CPJ points out that "debate about the actions of public officials is the
cornerstone of democracy. Because Mr. Herrera’s articles reported on the conduct of a public official and matters of public concern, they merit the strongest possible protection under Article 13."
Based on these arguments, CPJ requests the court declare that Costa Rica has violated Article 13 by trying and convicting Herrera Ulloa of criminal defamation; ordering the payment of damages for defamation without proof of falsity and reckless disregard for the truth; preventing access to Herrera Ulloa and La Nación‘s reporting; and compelling La Nación to publish the ruling.
Therefore, the court should order Costa Rica to:
• Render the judgment against Herrera Ulloa and La Nación without any effect whatsoever, and fully compensate Herrera Ulloa;
• Repeal its criminal defamation laws;
• Amend its laws to prevent imposition of civil liability for defamation without proof of falsity and actual malice in cases involving public officials or public figures.
Of counsel for the brief were Debevoise & Plimpton LLP James C. Goodale, Jeremy Feigelson, Erik Christopher Bierbauer, Pablo J. Valverde, and Ellen Hochberg.
Costa Rica: Inter-American Court to hear criminal defamation case, Feb. 26, 2003.
News alerts on the same case from May 21, 2001 and October 3, 2001.