Costa Rica must investigate tracking of daily’s phone calls

New York, January 22, 2014–The Committee to Protect Journalists calls for a full investigation into reports that Costa Rican officials secretly monitored the phone records of the San José-based daily Diario Extra as part of a leak investigation.

Diario Extra reported on Monday that the Judicial Investigative Organism (OIJ), along with agents from the narcotics and organized crime division, had been tracking outgoing and incoming phone calls on the daily’s central telephone line, as well as the private phone numbers of some of its journalists. The report did not specify a number of journalists whose calls had been tracked, although other publications identified Diario Extra journalist Manuel Estrada as the principal target of the surveillance. The daily also reported that the monitoring was designed to determine Diario Extra‘s sources and had continued for more than 10 months, but did not provide details as to when it began or if it was ongoing. The daily also alleged that OIJ officials were secretly photographing Diario Extra reporters when they met with officials.

Diario Extra said it learned about the surveillance from an extensive report leaked by an anonymous source.

In a statement released on its Facebook page Monday afternoon, the OIJ said the monitoring was part of an effort by officials to determine the identity of a government official who had leaked information to Diario Extra reporters about a 2013 abduction. The OIJ also said that the target of the monitoring was the accused government official–not the journalists or the news outlet.

On Tuesday, Supreme Court Chief Justice Zarela Villanueva told reporters that the court would ask the OIJ for a full investigation into the matter and for a report on the findings.

“Using broad and secret subpoenas of journalists’ records as a means to identify their sources can cause a severe chilling effect and hampers the press’s ability to report on sensitive issues of public interest,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Costa Rican officials must provide a full explanation of this matter.”

The secret monitoring of journalists’ records as a way to identify employees who leak classified information to the press became an issue of international concern in May 2013, when it was revealed that the United States Justice Department had secretly intercepted the communications of The Associated Press and a Fox News reporter as part of two separate leak investigations. A CPJ special report in October found that the aggressive prosecution by the United States of leakers of classified information and broad electronic surveillance programs deter government sources from speaking to journalists.