EVEN AS COSTA RICAN JOURNALISTS BATTLED A FLURRY of defamation lawsuits, a proposed bill that would have greatly enhanced press freedom in the country failed to win legislative approval.
On February 15, the Legislative Assembly’s judiciary committee rejected a bill, drafted by several leading journalists and endorsed by President Miguel Angel Rodríguez, that would have introduced the so-called actual malice standard into Costa Rican law. While defamation remained a criminal offense, plaintiffs would have been required to prove not only that the published information was false, but also that the journalist knew or should have known it was false at the time of publication, according to Fernando Guier, a lawyer and columnist for the San José daily La Nación.
Meanwhile, a proposed amendment to the Penal Code would increase the maximum fine for defamation from 150 to 200 days’ wages, which could be converted into a prison sentence if unpaid. The bill also introduces the novel concept of “subliminal” defamation, a category that would grant dangerous interpretive latitude to local judges.
Defamation cases against local media have increased in frequency over the last few years, according to Hugo Chavarría-Soto, legal counsel to the San José daily La República. Most were dismissed, but several highly dubious cases did go forward, raising the fears of journalists in a country long regarded as one of the freest and most democratic in Latin America.
On November 12, 1999, a criminal court ordered journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa of La Nación to pay damages equivalent to 120 days’ wages for four articles that cited European press reports alleging corruption by Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski. The court ordered La Nación to pay 60 million colones (US$190,000) in damages. One of the arguments used to justify such a large fine was that the articles were available on the Internet, and therefore reached a larger audience for a longer period of time.
The court also ordered La Nación to remove all links from its Web site that could lead the reader to the contested articles. “This becomes a violation both of the integrity of La Nación Digital and of the right of each individual to search the Internet for texts or information he considers opportune,” La Nación editor Eduardo Ulibarri wrote in a February letter posted on the Latin American journalism site “Sala de Prensa” (www.saladeprensa.org).
The judges ruled that Herrera had shown malicious intent by continuing to investigate the case despite testimony from two former Costa Rican presidents who vouched for Przedborski’s integrity, Guier said. La Nación appealed to the Supreme Court in December 1999. The court rejected the appeal on January 24, 2001.
On August 18, another San José criminal court ordered Rogelio Benavides, editor of La Nación‘s TV supplement Teleguía, to pay a fine equivalent to 20 days’ wages or face a jail sentence. Enrique González Jiménez, a beauty pageant promoter, sued Benavides based on a review of his pageant that appeared in a 1999 issue of Teleguía.
La Nación published a letter from González’s lawyer after the review appeared. Moreover, Article 151 of the Penal Code holds that press reviews cannot be characterized as “offenses against honor.” Nevertheless, the court convicted Benavides of libel and ordered that its ruling be published in Teleguía.