Journalism groups upset because lawmakers shelve a bill

Many in the media business are astounded that the Asamblea Legislative would ashcan a freedom of expression bill that has been in the works for years.

Lawmakers voted 37 to 6 to archive or shelve the bill, No. 15.974. Among other changes, the bill would have removed the criminal penalties for defamation and provide civil remedies. Now defamation and related allegations remain criminal matters.

The journalism professional organization, the Colegio de Periodistas, and the Instituto de Prensa y Libertad de Expresión came out against the legislative decision.

The colegio in its weekly newsletter quoted José María Villalta Flores Estrada of Frente Amplio. The legislator said that he heard a colleague say that he did not want to give more tools and weapons to the press.

The Instituto de Prensa y Libertad de Expresión made the point in a press release that the beneficiaries of the legal change would be the private citizens who may address public issues in an Internet discussion and elsewhere.

Latin cultures strongly protect reputations, and defamation can result in a jail term. A.M. Costa Rica spent thousands of dollars over the last three years defending editors and reporters against a baseless defamation allegation in which a lawyer here prosecuted the case on the strength of a power of attorney signed by a man and woman who were fugitives living in Panamá.

The press institute noted that the bill stems from a case Costa Rica lost before the Interamerican Court of Human Rights. That was the case of reporter Mauricio Herrera Ulloa, who was convicted of defamation in 1999.

Herrera, a reporter for La Nación, wrote articles in 1995 outlining European press reports of corruption involving a
Costa Rican diplomat there. Herrera was convicted by a trial court of criminal defamation, and the verdict later was upheld by the Corte Suprema de Justicia. He and the newspaper were ordered to pay damages.

The newspaper carried the case to the Inter American Commission on Human Rights and later to the interamerican court. Many journalist organizations filed briefs in support of the reporter. The interamerican court reversed the verdict and awarded Herrera and the newspaper damages and costs.

One of the briefs came from the Committee to Protect Journalists. It said: “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.”

“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.”

The Costa Rican bill has been through a number of hearings and generated mountains of paperwork. Periodically lawmakers would pledge their support for the measure, but that was not the case with those who took office a year ago.

“The lack of support to the proposal was a deplorable signal to the hemisphere in that our country ignores the jurisprudence and the standards established by an international court whose location an be found just a few kilometers from the Costa Rican congress,” said the press institute. The international court is in San Pedro.

Lawmakers are well aware that the media had a strong role in the scandals that ended in convictions of two former presidents in separate case. The wife of one convicted president now serves in the legislature.

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