CPJ urges president to reform archaic press laws

June 8, 2006

His Excellency Oscar Arias
President of Costa Rica
Apartado Postal 520
2010 Zapote
San José, Costa Rica

Via Facsimile: +506 253 90 78

Your Excellency:

We are writing to ask you to use the authority of your office to reform Costa Rica’s archaic defamation laws, which are incompatible with international standards of freedom of expression and rulings by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Despite frequent calls for reform by Costa Rican and international media groups, outdated press laws remain on the books. We urge you to present legislation to Congress to ensure that criminal defamation provisions are repealed. The Committee to Protect Journalists believes that civil not criminal law provides the appropriate redress in cases of defamation.

The need for change is underscored both by a recent ruling of the Supreme Court, and a bill now before Congress which could seriously hinder the work of the press, and which contradicts Costa Rica’s rich democratic tradition.

On May 3, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court upheld a press law that makes libel and slander a crime. Article 7 of the 1902 statute known as Ley de Imprenta imposes a prison sentence of up to 120 days for defamation in the print media.

A petition to strike down the law was filed in February 2004 by a lawyer of the San José-based daily Extra, after three of its journalists, Gabriela Chaves Pérez, Marcos Leandro Camacho, and José Luis Jiménez Robleto, were convicted under Article 7 and given suspended prison sentences. The court rejected the appeal.

The ruling is even more troublesome considering that Costa Rica’s penal code does not impose a prison sentence for the same offenses. Articles 145, 146 and 147 mandate only fines.

As you are aware, in its July 2004 ruling, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights effectively voided a sentence against Costa Rican journalist Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, who was convicted of criminal defamation in 1999 under the penal code. The court declared that Costa Rica had “violated the right to freedom of thinking and expression, in the terms of Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights.” The court’s president, Justice Sergio García Ramírez, wrote a separate, concurring opinion that questioned the criminalization of defamation and suggested that such laws be repealed.

In another landmark decision in September 2004, the Inter-American Court ruled in the case of Paraguayan politician Ricardo Canese that his criminal defamation conviction violated international law. The court declared that the criminal proceedings themselves violated the American Convention on Human Rights, because they were not “necessary in a democratic society.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated in 1994: “Considering the consequences of criminal sanctions and the inevitable chilling effect they have on freedom of expression, criminalization of speech can only apply in those exceptional circumstances when there is an obvious and direct threat of lawless violence.”

There is a growing consensus among international bodies that civil remedies provide adequate redress for press offenses. In late April, Mexico City’s Legislative Assembly passed a bill that effectively eliminated libel and slander from Mexico City’s penal code, directing such complaints to the civil courts. CPJ believes the passage of such a bill represents a milestone in the advancement of free expression, and paves the way for other countries in the region to follow.

Unfortunately the Costa Rican Congress is considering a bill that would actually restrict press freedom. CPJ is also concerned about a bill introduced by two members of Congress at the end of May. The bill, presented by Congressmen Alberto Salom and Federico Tinoco, seeks to regulate journalism by establishing strict controls and regulatory bodies. It also limits the right to information by introducing the notion of “truthful information.”

CPJ believes that this particular aspect of the bill could be used to prosecute journalists for publishing information that is deemed “untruthful.” In the Mauricio Herrera Ulloa case, the Inter-American Court found that the requirement to prove the truth of the allegations contained in the journalist’s reporting was unreasonable and resulted 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.”

After the murder of Costa Rican journalist Parmenio Medina in July 2001, a legislative commission was tasked with revising the country’s press laws. Although the commission made some concrete proposals to modify the country’s outdated press laws, Congress has not acted.

CPJ believes that both measures seriously restrict press freedom in your country. We urge you to use the power of the presidency to break the stalemate in Congress by promoting legislation that would eliminate all criminal penalties for defamation and would thereby bring Costa Rica into compliance with international standards of freedom of expression.

Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director