Attacks on the Press 2003: Costa Rica

While outdated media laws that encourage self-censorship among journalists remain on the books in Costa Rica, the decision by the Organization of American States’ (OAS) Inter-American Court of Human Rights to hear a criminal defamation case involving a Costa Rican journalist may have a profound impact on the region’s press. A ruling could set a precedent to determine whether criminal sanctions for defamation in the Americas are permissible under international law.

In 2003, the Costa Ricabased Inter-American Court of Human Rights agreed to hear the case of journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, who was convicted of criminal defamation in 1999 by the Penal Court of the First Judicial Circuit in Costa Rica’s capital, San José. The charges stemmed from a series of 1995 articles Herrera Ulloa wrote for the San Josébased daily La Nación citing European press reports alleging corruption by former Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski. The court ordered the journalist 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 ordered the journalist’s name added to an official list of convicted criminals, and it also instructed La Nación to remove all links to the offending articles from its Web site and to publish parts of the ruling.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), an entity of the Washington, D.C.based OAS, submitted the case to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on February 3, asking for the dismissal of the sentence against Herrera Ulloa. According to the IACHR, the conviction 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 21 countries in South and Central America and the Caribbean that have accepted the court’s jurisdiction, including Costa Rica. On CPJ’s behalf, the law firm of Debevoise and Plimpton agreed to submit an amicus curiae brief to the court supporting Herrera Ulloa’s complaint. The court has no deadline to hear the case, but a ruling is expected in early 2004.

Meanwhile, more than two years after the assassination of popular radio journalist Parmenio Medina, investigators arrested the two suspected masterminds behind the murder: Businessman Omar Luis Chaves Mora was detained on December 26, and priest Mínor de Jesús Calvo Aguilar was arrested a day later. Calvo was the founder of Radio María, a local Catholic station that Medina denounced for financial irregularities, and Chaves was one of Radio María’s main financial backers. Both suspects have denied involvement in the murder. Medina, host of the satirical weekly radio program “La Patada” (The Kick), was killed outside his home on July 7, 2001, by three gunshots fired at close range.

Prior to these arrests, the Costa Rican media had reported that two suspects–Nicaraguan-born Luis Alberto Aguirre (known as “El Indio”) and Andrés Chaves Matarrita–have been incarcerated in connection with Medina’s murder. A third suspect, Colombian-born John Gilberto Gutiérrez, was arrested on December 23, 2002. He was accused of acting as an intermediary between the killers and the planners of the murder, but he was released on March 26, 2003, due to insufficient evidence. On September 26, Gutiérrez was arrested again, but this time on charges stemming from two unrelated kidnappings that occurred in 2002. In November, Gutiérrez told investigators he had acted as an intermediary in the killing, a confession that led to the arrests of the alleged masterminds, Chaves and Calvo.

Several Costa Rican editors and the country’s Colegio de Periodistas (Association of Journalists) have criticized the lack of progress by the legislative commission tasked with revising press laws in the wake of Medina’s murder. After Medina’s assassination, Costa Rican journalists were timid in reporting on the official investigation into the murder because they feared they could be prosecuted on defamation charges. Under Costa Rica’s Penal Code, anyone who libels, slanders, defames, or reproduces offensive statements against someone, even public officials, can be fined or placed on an official list of convicted criminals.