Inter-American Court to hear criminal defamation case

New York, February 26, 2003—The Inter-American Court of Human Rights said last week that it will hear the case of Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, who was convicted of criminal defamation in 1999. A ruling could set a precedent to determine whether criminal defamation is permissible under international law.

On February 3, the Washington, D.C.­based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) submitted the case to the court, asking for the dismissal of the sentence against Herrera Ulloa on the grounds that it violates the journalist’s right to freedom of expression, as established by the American Convention on Human Rights.

Decisions of the Inter-American Court are legally binding on the countries that have accepted the court’s jurisdiction, including Costa Rica. Both the commission and the court are entities of the Organization of American States.

“This is an extremely significant development with far-reaching legal implications,” said CPJ acting director Joel Simon. “We are glad that the IACHR submitted the case to the Inter-American Court, and we hope that any ruling will set a positive precedent for other criminal defamation cases in the region.”

On November 12, 1999, the Penal Court of the First Judicial Circuit in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, convicted Herrera Ulloa and the San José daily La Nación of criminal defamation. The case was based on 1995 articles by Herrera Ulloa that cited European press reports alleging corruption by former Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski.

The Penal Court ordered Herrera Ulloa to pay Przedborski damages equivalent to 120 days’ wages. It also ruled that the journalist’s name be inscribed in an official list of convicted criminals. La Nación was 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 IACHR. In September 2001, at the request of the IACHR, the Inter-American Court issued “provisional measures” ordering Costa Rican authorities to suspend certain sections of the verdict against Herrera Ulloa and La Nación.

Last week, on February 17, 2003, the Inter-American Court notified the IACHR that it would hear the case. According to the IACHR, the penalties against Herrera Ulloa are excessive, disproportionate, and have a chilling effect on “the dissemination of information over matters of interest involving public officials.” The IACHR also requested that the Inter-American Court order Costa Rica to bring its legislation regarding criminal defamation in line with international standards.