Attacks on the Press 1999: Costa Rica

Legal and political wrangling shook Costa Rica’s media and threatened to undercut the country’s normally vibrant and independent press.

In a June 25 decision, the Costa Rican Supreme Court upheld a libel verdict against three journalists from La Nación, Costa Rica’s leading daily. The case stemmed from a 1997 article reporting that the National Association of Public Employees had accused former justice minister Juan D. Castro of appropriating state-owned weapons and an official car for his personal use. Castro sued reporters Rónald Moya and José David Guerra, and Eduardo Ulibarri, the paper’s editor, for libel. The lower court found in Castro’s favor, awarding him damages of US$34,000. More damaging, however, was the requirement that La Nación publish the first seven pages of the decision in their entirety.

In an October 22 editorial published in the paper’s online edition, Ulibarri railed against the decision, which he deemed “an interference in editorial decision making unheard of in Costa Rica’s history.”

In another troubling legal development, the Supreme Court on May 7 reversed a lower-court decision that had absolved journalist Mauricio Herrera and La Nación of defaming ex-diplomat Félix Przedborski in articles published in 1997. The higher court remanded the case for a new hearing, which the plaintiff himself had not requested.

Meanwhile, Parliament considered a bill to lengthen jail terms imposed for defamation. If adopted, the proposal would increase the maximum penalty for defamation to 70 days in prison. And an attempt to bring libel laws into line with international standards appears to have stalled. First proposed by President Miguel Angel Rodríguez in late 1998, the changes would have ensured that reporters could be prosecuted for libel only if they published statements that they knew or should have known were false (the “actual malice” standard, first articulated by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1964 case of New York Times Co. v. Sullivan). At year’s end, there seemed to be little legislative support for libel law reform.