Costa Rica, a country long regarded as one of the freest and most democratic in Latin America, was profoundly shocked by the July 7 murder of veteran journalist Parmenio Medina Pérez–the first assassination of a journalist in the country’s recent history.
Unknown assailants shot Medina, producer and host of the weekly radio program “La Patada” (The Kick), three times at close range. His program had often denounced official corruption and earned the journalist numerous threats. Two months before his murder, Medina received death threats in connection with accusations he made on air about fiscal improprieties at a local Catholic radio station, and unknown attackers fired bullets at his house. Twenty minutes after Medina’s murder, one of his colleagues at “The Kick” received an anonymous call saying he would be the next victim. The station that carried Medina’s program, Radio Monumental, received threatening calls for months, the station’s news coordinator told CPJ.
The public demanded justice, and the murder investigation began swiftly. However, it did not produce major results. Soon, a veil of secrecy covered the endeavor. In August, a consortium of individuals and civil society organizations launched the Frente Ciudadano contra la Impunidad (Citizens’ Front Against Impunity) to pressure authorities to solve the case.
On January 7–exactly six months after the murder–the San Josébased daily La Nación quoted a Frente coordinator, Albino Vargas, as saying, “We’re convinced there are political, business, and religious influences that are interfering so the truth about the crime won’t surface.” According to the same article, the Organization of Judicial Investigation, Costa Rica’s law enforcement agency, said that even though more than 100 people have been interviewed and many leads have been discarded, no details can be disclosed because the matter remains under investigation.
The impunity surrounding the murder further contributed to its devastating effect on Costa Rican journalists, who now fear violence in reprisal for their work. According to a June survey by La Nación, 55 percent of the 97 journalists polled said they had received some kind of threat during their careers. Though some threats were physical, most journalists were threatened with defamation suits.
Medina’s murder boosted efforts to reform Costa Rica’s antiquated media laws. Two days after the murder, two deputies presented plans to the Legislative Assembly to create a commission mandated to investigate the laws, according to Fernando Guier, a lawyer and columnist for La Nación.
On July 23, a group of editors presented a proposal to revise the press laws. One of several currently pending before the Legislative Assembly, the editors’ proposal is considered to be the most comprehensive. For defamation cases, it introduces the “actual malice” standard, which requires plaintiffs to prove not only that the published information is false, but also that the journalists knew or should have known it was false at the time of publication. The legislation encodes the neutral reporting standard, which says that journalists cannot be sued for accurately reproducing information from an explicitly mentioned source. The proposal also provides for the protection of journalists’ sources.
The Legislative Assembly’s press freedom committee convened several times, hearing editors, representatives of the journalists’ association Colegio de Periodistas, Supreme Court justices, and legal scholars. But no agreement had been reached by year’s end. Only one of the proposed changes was accepted–the elimination of the crime of disrespect, a little-used provision that imposes prison terms of up to two years for offending the honor of a government official
In an unprecedented decision, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued provisional measures on September 7 ordering Costa Rican authorities to stay certain sections of a 1999 defamation verdict against the daily La Nación and one of its reporters, Mauricio Herrera Ulloa. Decisions of the court are legally binding on Costa Rica and other countries that have accepted the court’s jurisdiction.
In November 1999, a Costa Rican Penal Court convicted Herrera Ulloa of criminal defamation and ordered him to pay damages to former diplomat Félix Przedborski based on 1995 articles that cited European press reports alleging corruption by Przedborski. After the Costa Rican Supreme Court rejected La Nación‘s appeal, the journalist filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, which ordered the Penal Court to stay its ruling while the commission studied the case. The court refused, so the commission filed a complaint with the Inter-American Court, which issued a stay. At press time, the commission was still studying the case.
On December 26, Costa Rica’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal issued a controversial split decision ordering the privately owned television station Teletica Canal 7 to invite all 13 presidential candidates to appear on a scheduled debate, rather than the top four contenders as the station had originally planned. Pilar Cisneros, co-director of the channel’s news department, told CPJ that the station appealed to the Supreme Court, which on January 3 refused to hear the case on the grounds that it was an electoral matter. The channel aired the debate between the top candidates as planned on January 7 and followed with January 8 and 9 debates between remaining contenders. Cisneros announced that Teletica Canal 7 would appeal the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.
Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, La Nación
The Costa Rican Supreme Court rejected the appeal of journalist Herrera Ulloa and the San José daily La Nación, who were convicted of criminal defamation.
On November 12, 1999, the Penal Court of the First Judicial Circuit in San José convicted Herrera Ulloa and La Nación of criminal defamation based on 1995 articles by Herrera Ulloa that cited European press reports alleging corruption by former Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski.
The court ordered Herrera Ulloa to pay a fine equivalent to 120 days’ wages, the plaintiff’s legal fees, and 60 million colones (US$190,000) in damages to Przedborski. It also ordered that the journalist’s name be inscribed in an official list of convicted criminals. La Nación was instructed to remove all links to the offending articles from its Web site and to publish parts of the ruling.
In response, the newspaper and the journalist filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an entity of the Organization of American States (OAS).
According to Herrera Ulloa’s lawyer, Fernando Guier, the petition recommended that the commission urge Costa Rica to bring its press laws into compliance with the American Convention on Human Rights, which the country ratified in 1970. On March 1, the commission’s then-executive secretary, Jorge Taiana, asked the Costa Rican Penal Court to suspend its ruling while the commission studied the case.
When the Penal Court refused to comply, the commission asked the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, another OAS entity, to confirm the suspension. (The court’s decisions are legally binding on Costa Rica and other countries that have accepted the court’s jurisdiction.) On April 6, the Inter-American Court’s president, Antônio Cançado Trindade, ordered the Costa Rican government to suspend the verdict. The Inter-American Court held a May 22 hearing on the matter.
On May 21, CPJ issued an alert about the hearing. Executive director Ann Cooper was quoted as saying, “It is shocking that journalists in Costa Rica can be branded as criminals simply for doing their professional duty.”
On May 23, the Inter-American Court confirmed the ruling ordering the Costa Rican government to suspend the verdict.
Then on September 7, the court, which is based in San José, Costa Rica, issued “provisional measures” ordering Costa Rican authorities to keep Herrera Ulloa off the official list of convicted criminals until the Inter-American Court system resolves the case. The government was also instructed not to enforce the order requiring La Nación to publish the Penal Court’s ruling.
That was the first time the court had taken such action in a freedom of expression case. Provisional measures are only issued in cases of “extreme gravity and urgency, and when necessary to avoid irreparable damage to persons,” according to the American Convention on Human Rights.
On October 3, the Penal Court confirmed that it would abide by the Inter-American Court’s decision, Guier later told CPJ.
During its 113th regular session, held from November 12 to 16, the Inter-American Commission conducted a hearing to determine whether it would hear the case. At year’s end, no decision had been made.
Parmenio Medina Pérez, “La Patada”
Medina, producer and host of the weekly radio program “La Patada” (The Kick), was murdered by unknown assailants who shot him three times at close range with a .38-caliber weapon, once in the back and twice in the head.
Medina’s 28-year-old program often denounced official corruption and earned him numerous threats. On-air accusations he had made since 1999 about alleged fiscal improprieties at a local Catholic radio station led to its closure and an investigation of its former director.
Two months before his murder, Medina received death threats in connection with the accusations, and unknown attackers fired bullets at his house. Although Medina had been under police protection, he asked that it be lifted just days before his death.
In a July 10 letter, CPJ praised President Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Echeverría for condemning the murder and encouraged the president to ensure that the perpetrators were caught. President Rodríguez responded with an e-mail message saying, “[M]y government is committed to cooperate as best as it can with the judicial authorities to clarify these facts until their ultimate consequences and will do all it can to discover the material and intellectual authors.”
No substantial progress in the investigation had been reported at year’s end, however.