Defamation case points out perils in daily journalism here

This is the Al Día article that said Hernández was a false

A local lawyer is seeking a $2 million judgment against the newspaper Al Día because a news story headline called him a fake attorney.

The news story by Nicholas Aguilar was in the Spanish-language daily Oct. 16, 2011. In addition, the lawyer,  Arcelio Hernandez Muso, says that La Nación acted in bad faith when it published a story about his preventative detention and noted that he was the holder of 340 corporations. That was Oct. 13, 2011.

Although that was not his plan, Hernández illuminates one of the weaknesses in Costa Rican journalism. Police and prosecutors seldom provide full names for those arrested.

The initial claim against Al Día relates to a Sept. 28, 2011,news story. Reporter Nicholas Aguilar said that a prosecutor in Heredia was seeking a man identified only by the last name of Hernández. “Yesterday however, it was not possible to confirm if Hernández has a professional degree,” said the reporter. But the headline writer said a fake lawyer was sought for a multi-million colon fraud.

In his civil legal filing, Hernández said that the reporter should have checked various sources, including the online list of practicing lawyers maintained by the Colegio de Abogados. Of course, with only the last name of Hernández, that would not have been possible. The prosecutor appears to have provided a photo that clearly shows Arcelio Hernández.

Al Día, which has been converted recently into a sports publication, and La Nación are owned by the same firm and shared at the time the work of reporters.

Costa Rica Report, a title owned by the parent corporation of A.M. Costa Rica, also printed a summary of the Al Día article that day. But editors quickly updated the summary with a note saying that Hernández was well known to them and that he was, indeed, a real lawyer.

In his filing, Hernández said that the Al Día management has refused to publish a correction and that the story with the incorrect headline continues to be available on the Internet. In a Oct. 16 news story, the newspaper did identify him as a lawyer as it reported that he was remanded for preventative detention. But no mention was made of the earlier error.

At the time Hernández was being investigated by prosecutors in relation to some $638,000 that had been given him by foreign investors to buy a hotel.

The lawyer’s claim against La Nación said that reporter Ronald Moya Chacón wrote that he was the owner of 340 corporations as if that were some sort of crime. Moya also noted that Hernández had represented a U.S. woman who was
being sought to face tax charges in the United States. Neither of those facts are criminal, and neither was related to the news story, Hernández said.

The thrust of the Oct. 13, 2011, La Nación new story also was that he was being given preventative detention. The lawyer also takes issue with a posted reader comment that labels him a scammer, estafador in Spanish.

The allegation points out the danger to newspapers that accept unedited reader comments. In the past Hernández attributed the news stories to persecution by a prosecutor. He eventually was released from preventative detention on constitutional grounds.

Hernández is seeking $1 million for moral damages and $1 million for actual damages.

Defamation and slander also are felonies here, and editors and reporters continually face the possibility of such a charge being filed, even as a private action.

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