Attacks on the Press 2002: Costa Rica

Information about the 2001 murder of journalist Parmenio Medina Pérez remains scarce. Although his killing heightened efforts to reform Costa Rica’s outdated media laws, the legislative commission that was created to study such laws made no advances during 2002, while Costa Rican journalists continued to suffer from court interference.

Medina, host of the muckraking weekly radio program “La Patada” (The Kick), during which he repeatedly denounced political corruption, was shot and killed by unidentified assailants on July 7, 2001. In September 2002, President Abel Pacheco de la Espriella asked the judiciary to expedite the murder investigation and announced that if no advances were made, he would seek assistance from the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).

On December 23, police arrested Colombia-born John Gutiérrez in Costa Rica’s capital, San José, and held him in preventive detention in connection with the Medina case. Investigators believe that Gutiérrez, who has been a refugee in Costa Rica since 1999, might have acted as an intermediary in the murder. Gutiérrez denies the allegations. Police leaks to the press suggest that authorities are investigating four suspects and a businessman who allegedly paid the gunmen 10 million colones (US$28,000) to commit the crime. At year’s end, the government decided it would not call on the FBI.

Costa Rican journalists have been reluctant to investigate the murder because they fear that publishing the results of their reporting could expose them to criminal defamation charges under the country’s harsh Penal Code. CPJ published a report about Medina’s killing, titled “The Silence,” by Costa Rican journalist Montserrat Solano Carboni, on the one-year anniversary of his death.

The fear of being charged and punished is not unfounded. Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a journalist for the San José-based daily La Nación, was convicted of defamation in 1999 for publishing information based on allegations made by European publications against former Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski. A Costa Rican court ordered Herrera Ulloa to pay a fine equivalent to 120 days’ wages, as well as the plaintiff’s legal fees and 60 million colones (US$200,000) in damages. After numerous proceedings, Herrera Ulloa is still seeking an appeal. On October 28, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights sent President Abel Pacheco’s administration a report containing conclusions and recommendations about the Herrera Ulloa case and asking for a response in two months. By year’s end, the government had not responded.

In September, a group of editors and members of the journalists’ association Colegio de Periodistas (Association of Journalists) presented proposals to the legislative commission formed after Medina’s murder to revise press laws. The commission established a subcommittee to study the proposals, but the subcommittee’s report, which was released on November 7, disappointed Costa Rican journalists. They criticized the subcommittee for altering the journalists’ suggestions in a way that left the legislation restrictive.