Court overturns Costa Rican defamation sentence; CPJ welcomes decision

New York, August 4, 2004—The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) welcomes a decision by the Inter American Court of Human Rights to annul a sentence against Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a reporter for the San José-based daily La Nación who was convicted of criminal defamation in 1999.

The court, based in San José, Costa Rica’s capital, informed La Nación of the ruling on Aug. 3. The decision was dated July 2.

The ruling effectively voided the November 12, 1999, sentence against Herrera Ulloa, saying the state “violated the right to freedom of thinking and expression, in the terms of Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights.”

The court also ordered Costa Rica to pay Herrera Ulloa US$20,000 in damages, or the equivalent in Costa Rican currency, and US$10,000 for legal fees. The Costa Rican government said it will abide by the ruling, La Nación reported.

The ruling was immediately available in Spanish only. Click here to read the text. [PDF 772k].

On November 12, 1999, Costa Rica’s Penal Court of the First Judicial Circuit convicted Herrera Ulloa of criminal defamation. The charges stemmed from a series of 1995 articles that Herrera Ulloa wrote in La Nación citing European press reports alleging corruption by former Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski.

The Penal Court ordered Herrera Ulloa to pay Przedborski a fine equivalent to 120 days’ wages. As a result, the journalist’s name was inscribed in an official list of convicted criminals. La Nación and Herrera Ulloa were ordered to pay the plaintiff’s legal fees and 60 million colones (US$200,000) in damages.

After the Costa Rican Supreme Court rejected La Nación‘s appeal on January 2001, the newspaper and the journalist filed a petition with the Washington, D.C.–based Inter American Commission on Human Rights. Both the commission and the Inter American Court are entities of the Organization of American States.

On February 3, 2003, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) submitted the case to the court, asking for the dismissal of the sentence against Herrera Ulloa on grounds that it violated the journalist’s right to freedom of expression, as established by the American Convention on Human Rights.

On February 19, 2004, a CPJ delegation submitted an amicus curiae brief to the Inter American Court in support of Herrera Ulloa. The brief was prepared for CPJ by the New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP, whose lawyers include CPJ board member and prominent First Amendment attorney James C. Goodale.

In the brief, CPJ stated, “Costa Rica’s criminal prosecution of Mr. Herrera violated Article 13 of the American Convention [on Human Rights]. Laws that permit journalists to be prosecuted criminally for the content of their reporting are a hazard to freedom of the press and the right of citizens to be informed.” According to the brief, “Such laws have an inevitable chilling effect on freedom of expression. They must not apply unless ‘there is an obvious and direct threat of lawless violence,’ which was obviously not the case with Mr. Herrera’s articles.”

Joining CPJ on the brief were The Associated Press, CNN, El Comercio, The Hearst Corp., The Miami Herald, El Nuevo Día, La Prensa, The Reforma Group, Reuters, El Tiempo, and Tribune Co.

Click here to read the full text of the brief in English and Spanish.  [PDF, 3.2 MB]