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Journalists Seek Greater Press Freedom

COSTA Rican journalists have been hounded by lawsuits, two murders in the last three years and ancient press laws whose modifications are gathering dust on the to-do list of the Legislative Assembly.

A recent wave of prison sentences and fines imposed on several writers as well as perceived apathy regarding the capture and conviction of those responsible for killing two Costa Rican journalists has drawn renewed criticism of the Inter-American Press Association (IAPA).

That organization s report, issued at a meeting in Los Cabos, Mexico, last month, also scolded Costa Rica s press for the self-censorship pervasive in the country s newsrooms.

The association blames the courts, which have wielded legislation dating back to 1902 that outlaws statements that damage a public official s reputation.

JOURNALISTS have not fared well in the courts. Just recently, three reporters from the daily Diario Extra were sentenced to prison and charged steep fines after they were found guilty of libel and defamation of character.

Journalist Marco Leandro Camacho was sentenced to 30 days in prison and fined ¢7 million ($16,500) for tarnishing the image of a high-school principal in El Roble de Puntarenas in the central Pacific coast.

Gabriela Chávez was sentenced to 10 days in prison and fined ¢28 million ($65,000) for publishing an altered photo of several television models. Her report said fake photos of the models were being sold on the streets and circulating on the Internet. Despite the clarification, she was found guilty of defamation.

José Luis Jiménez was sentenced to 50 days in prison and fined ¢7 million ($16,500) after being sued by a female public employee accused of misusing government funds.

IAPA expressed concern over the sentences and urged Costa Rican legislators to reform the country s press laws, which it claims are not compatible with freedom of speech.

SPECIFICALLY, IAPA called for the reform of Article 7 of the country s 102-year-old Print Law, and said punishing the defamation of a person s character with a prison sentence is incompatible with democracy.

Raúl Silesky, president of the Costa Rican Journalists Association, said this week he backs the Diario Extra journalists.

On behalf of the Journalists Association, I want to propose our solidarity with Gabriela Chávez, Marco Camacho, and José Jiménez. We have an absolute commitment to continue supporting them and any journalist who faces any kind of threat, he said Tuesday at the inauguration of the educational institute José María Castro Madriz, at the San José headquarters of the Journalists Association.

A commission in the Legislative Assembly has been studying a bill that would reform the country s press law. The Assembly also has discussed a proposal to create a mixed commission of legislators, businesses and associations, such as the Journalists Association, to study other proposed laws to fortify freedom of the press and of expression, according to Legislative Assembly Secretary Francisco Sanchún.

The proposed law reform, still far from landing on the main floor for a vote, would add key freedoms to the work of journalists in Costa Rica.

It would, for example, allow journalists to report on potentially incriminating facts if the accusations are true and their publication is in the public interest.

It also states reporters will not be forced to reveal their sources, and that journalists can break their contracts with their employers if they feel obligated to do something that violates their conscience.

LAWS to protect journalists have been debated since they were introduced shortly after radio journalist Parmenio Medina was killed when he was shot point-blank near his Heredia home in July 2001 (TT, July 13, 2001, TT, Jan. 9). No one has been convicted for the murder.

Another journalist was killed at the end of last year. Economic reporter Ivannia Mora, 33, was shot at close range by two men on a motorcycle Dec. 23, 2003, at a red light in front of the Plaza del Sol shopping center in Curridabat, east of San José.

The two suspects escaped and police say their identities and motive are unknown. Two days after the shooting, police arrested Eugenio Millot, Mora s former employer (TT, Jan. 9), who has since been released for lack of evidence.

Yesterday, IAPA urged Costa Rican judicial authorities to quickly solve the murders.

JOURNALIST Mauricio Herrera, a reporter at La Nación, recently gained another ally in his struggle to overturn a defamation conviction when a delegation from the U.S.- based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) submitted a brief to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in February.

The court agreed a year ago to examine the conviction of Herrera, who was sentenced by a Costa Rican court to jail time and fines for the defamation of former Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski (TT, Feb. 2, Mar. 2, 2001).

The CPJ delegation submitted the brief last month in league with CNN, Reuters, the Associated Press, The Miami Herald and the Chicago Tribune, among others.

The amicus curiae brief cites cases in other countries that could serve as precedent for the court s decision, and presents the CPJ s argument for the reversal of Herrera s sentence.

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, the brief stated.

Such laws have an inevitable chilling effect on freedom of expression and must not apply unless there is an obvious and direct threat of lawless violence, which was not the case with Herrera s articles, the brief said.

Herrera was convicted in 1999 for a series of articles he wrote in 1995 on his investigations into the conduct of diplomat Przedborski.

Herrera had read European newspaper reports that Przedborski was allegedly involved in tax evasion and illegal arms dealing, and he followed those up with other interviews and published his stories in the daily La Nación.

PRZEDBORSKI, a businessman of Eastern European descent, was acting as Costa Rica s honorary Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Organization, based in Vienna, Austria.

According to the Costa Rican court s ruling, one of Herrera s crimes was a report that the Belgian magazine Le Soir Ilustré had linked Przedborski to Russian and Italian mafia groups.

The court also argued Herrera reportedly had access to information that he failed to include in his articles that favored Przedborski, such as the fact that the diplomat had won a case against a Belgian publication (TT, Feb. 2, 2001).

After his conviction, the Costa Rican court also ordered La Nación to remove all links to those stories from its Web site and fined the newspaper ¢60 million (about $200,000 at the time).

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) rejected the newspaper s appeal in 2001, which prompted the appeal to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.


Inter-American Court

does not have a deadline for its decision, although CPJ said it expects one in the first half of this year.

Silesky said if the court decides in favor of Herrera, it would set the course the country must take to reform its laws.

The country will adapt its national legislation to make it correspond with international norms and standards, Silesky said.

That will allow the consolidation of a press that is more free in its professional duties.

That is not to forget the urgent necessity of the media and journalists to reinforce ethical norms to ensure a more responsible society.

Inter-American Court rulings are legally binding in the 21 countries that have accepted the court s jurisdiction, including Costa Rica.



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