The nine-year legal battle of Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, a reporter with the San José–based daily La Nación (The Nation), ended on August 3, when the Inter-American Court of Human Rights announced a ruling overturning his 1999 conviction on criminal defamation charges. The Costa Rica–based court also ruled that the sentence harmed the reporter’s professional and personal life and violated his right to freedom of expression. The Inter-American Court ordered Costa Rica to void Herrera Ulloa’s conviction and pay the reporter US$20,000 in damages and US$10,000 in legal fees.
The charges stemmed from a series of articles that Herrera Ulloa wrote in
La Nación in 1995 citing European press reports alleging corruption by former Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski. On November 12, 1999, Costa Rica’s Penal Court of the First Judicial Circuit convicted Herrera Ulloa of criminal defamation. The Penal Court ordered Herrera Ulloa to pay Przedborski a fine equivalent to 120 days’ wages and put the journalist’s name on 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 in January 2001, the newspaper and the journalist filed a petition with the Washington, D.C.–based Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Both the commission and the Inter-American Court are entities of the Organization of American States (OAS), an intergovernmental organization of countries in the Western Hemisphere.
On February 3, 2003, the IACHR submitted the case to the court and asked it to dismiss the sentence against Herrera Ulloa on the 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 Costa Rica in support of Herrera Ulloa prepared by the New York law firm Debevoise & Plimpton LLP. A coalition of media companies in the United States and Latin America joined the brief: 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.
During its three-day visit to Costa Rica, the CPJ delegation met with La Nación‘s editorial board and Costa Rican journalists to discuss the significance of the court ruling and the legal implications of the case. The delegation testified at a hearing before the Costa Rican legislative commission tasked with revising Costa Rica’s press laws.
In its summer 2004 ruling, the Inter-American Court stated for the first time that “expressions concerning public officials or other people exercising functions of a public nature must enjoy leeway in order for an ample debate to take place on matters of public interest.” The court also concluded that the requirement that Herrera Ulloa prove the truth of the allegations contained in his reporting was unreasonable and results in a “dissuasive, frightening and inhibiting effect on all who carry out the journalistic profession, which, in turn, prevents public debate on topics of interest to society.”
The court’s president, Judge Sergio García Ramírez, wrote a separate, concurring opinion questioning the criminalization of defamation altogether and suggesting that such laws should be repealed. While the judge did not say all criminal sanctions for defamation violate international law, he indicated that civil remedies should be seriously considered as a substitute for criminal penalties.
The ruling sets an encouraging precedent in Latin America and should make it
more difficult for governments throughout the region to prosecute journalists for criminal defamation. On September 10, Eduardo Bertoni, OAS special rapporteur for freedom of expression, convened a meeting at CPJ’s offices to discuss the Herrera Ulloa ruling. A declaration ratified by press freedom and legal advocates stated: “Criminal defamation is a disproportionate and unnecessary response to the need to protect reputations … civil defamation laws provide sufficient redress for all those who claim to have been defamed.”
Another decision by the Inter-American Court a month later involving a Paraguayan politician built on the Herrera Ulloa case. Judges ruled that a criminal defamation conviction in that case violated international law.
In 2004, the Costa Rican media played a key role in uncovering corruption scandals that ended with the arrests of two former presidents—Miguel Angel Rodríguez and Rafael Angel Calderón, who were detained on bribery charges. The arrest of Rodríguez was particularly embarrassing since he was forced to resign as secretary-general of the OAS.
On December 7, Costa Rican prosecutors charged nine people in the murder of popular radio journalist Parmenio Medina, who was killed outside his home on July 7, 2001, by three gunshots fired at close range. Medina hosted the satirical weekly radio program “La Patada” (The Kick).
Businessman Omar Luis Chaves Mora and priest Mínor de Jesús Calvo, who had been held in preventive detention since December 2003, were accused of masterminding the murder. Calvo was the founder of Radio María, a local Catholic station that Medina had denounced for financial irregularities, and Chaves was one of Radio María’s main financial backers. Both suspects have denied involvement in the murder.
Three other men were accused of carrying out the murder, and four were charged with acting as intermediaries between the plotters and the gunmen. Prosecutors also charged Calvo and Chaves with embezzlement and criminal association related to the operation of Radio María. By year’s end, no trial date had been set for the suspects in custody.