Costa Rican court strikes down tracking of daily’s calls

The constitutional chamber of the Costa Rican Supreme Court ruled on March 21, 2014, that the government’s secret monitoring of phone records of the San José-based daily Diario Extra as part of a leak investigation was unconstitutional, according to news reports

Diario Extra reported in January 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 the 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 after the story broke, 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.

In the March 2014 ruling, the judges said that the OIJ had violated the reporter’s privacy and his right to protect his sources, according to a review of the decision by CPJ. The court ordered Estrada’s records to be destroyed and forbade officials from repeating such tactics. 

The daily wrote that the decision was “historic” for its protection of sources and establishing that journalists could not be the subject of surveillance for the mere act of reporting and said it was an important legal precedent nationally and internationally.

Days after the court ruled, the Attorney General’s office dropped its investigation into the official who had allegedly leaked to Estrada due to a lack of evidence, Diario Extra reported.