The administration of President Abel Pachecothis week attempted to discredit a highlycritical report from the Ombudsman’s Officethat calls for greater transparency and accountabilityin government.Pacheco and his political advisors blastedOmbudsman José Manuel Echandi’s scathingreport and accused the ombudsman of using hisposition as a launching pad for his own politicalambitions.In his report last Friday, Echandi stressed that theCosta Rican government has violated the public’s rightto gain access to information, consequently weakeningcitizen participation in the democratic process.Without enough clear information, the people cannotfully participate in the governmental process, Echandiexplained in a press conference reviewing his annual“State of the People.”“SILENCE and indifference seem to have becomethe governmental norm,” says the yearly report.Claiming citizen rights “is impossible if the peopleare not sufficiently aware of those rights,” Echandi said.The Ombudsman mentioned the fee to obtain LaGaceta, the government’s official daily newspaper (inprint and online), in which all government business, public notices and new laws and regulationsare published, as “a clear limitation”and an “obstacle” to citizen participation.The Ombudsman’s Office also citedthe government’s call to participate in apublic meeting of the NationalCommission on Indigenous Affairs, heldfor the first time in four years, in a smalladvertisement in a not-too-widely circulatednewspaper as another example of thegovernment’s reluctance to share informationand ensure citizen participation.“But citizens can be certain that theOmbudsman’s Office will take necessaryactions to respect transparency, accountabilityand the established constitutionalright to access to information,” the reportstates.PACHECO, whose campaign platformincluded promises of greater transparencyand citizen participation in government,blasted the Ombudsman’s reportduring his Tuesday Cabinet meeting.“This person is running an open politicalcampaign,” Pacheco said. “TheOmbudsman admits he went to don RafaelÁngel Calderón (founder of the rulingSocial Christian Unity Party) to see if hewould put him on the list for deputies [duringthe next election]. He also went to[Citizen Action Party president] don Ottón[Solís] to see if he would make him adeputy for his party. How can this gentlemanexpect to be taken seriously? If he’srunning a campaign, I don’t have to takeinto account anything he has said.”Echandi, whose job is to act as adefender of the people against governmentabuses, denied his report has anything todo with a political campaign.PRESIDENCY Minister RicardoToledo denied the government had failedto provide the public access to information.Toledo noted that both previousOmbudsmen have sought public office followingtheir tenure. Echandi is the thirdperson to serve as the country’s ombudsmansince the institution opened in 1993.The country’s first Ombudswoman,Sandra Piszk, ran for vice-president as partof National Liberation Party candidateRolando Araya’s unsuccessful presidentialcampaign in 2002. The second Ombudsman,Rodrigo Alberto Carazo, is a CitizenAction Party legislative deputy for SanJosé.“We do feel the report had a very politicaltone,” Toledo said. “On some things, hemay be right. If you analyze the report, a lotof the information is not very accurate.”He provided only one example, however,saying that the Finance Ministrycould not provide information about PlanB budget cuts because the cuts have not yetbeen made. The cuts were first proposedearlier this year (TT, Feb. 20).The Ombudsman’s criticism, however,was in reference to the government’srefusal to provide information about budgetcuts made in July of last year (TT, July11, 2003).THE Ombudsman is not alone in voicingcomplaints about access to publicinformation – a right that is guaranteed bythe Constitution.Raul Silesky, president of Costa RicanJournalists’ Association, told The TicoTimes this week he agrees with Echandithat the government must do more to facilitateaccess to public information.The Libertarian Movement Party alsohas accused public employees of abuse andinefficiency in providing information tothe public, and recently proposed a law toaddress this (TT, June 4).The bill proposes that entities of thestate be given no more than 10 days torespond to public requests for information.If they take longer, the party making therequest can file an injunction with theConstitutional Chamber of the SupremeCourt (Sala IV).Under the proposed law, publicemployees who do not provide the information,or who alter or destroy publicinformation, would be subject to sixmonths to one year in jail.LAST March, the Inter-AmericanPress Association (IAPA) also requestedCosta Rica update its press and libel lawsto facilitate the free flow of information inthe country.The IAPA stated that punishing thedefamation of a person’s character with aprison sentence is incompatible withdemocracy (TT April 2).“They used this law to sentenceMauricio (Herrera) from (the daily) LaNación, three journalists from (the dailynewspaper) Diario Extra and others forinforming the public of things they shouldknow,” Silesky said.The current, 102-year-old press lawstates that if public officials feel the presshas damaged their honor, they can sue. Inthe United States, for example, the law isthe opposite: Public figures are more opento press scrutiny.IN Costa Rica, damaging someone’shonor in the media can be considered acriminal offense that carries a sentencefrom one month to two years in prison – orup to three years if the offended party is ahigh-ranking official.Court cases like the December 2001libel and defamation case against LaNación and Herrera based on the claim ofa former Costa Rican diplomat, currentlybeing reviewed by the Inter-America Courtof Human Rights (TT, April 2) may scaremany journalists into self-censoring.“This law is used as a governmentinstrument to scare journalists. This effectsall citizens, because they don’t get all theinformation they should have,” Silesky said.Silesky and national media directorsare calling on the Legislative Assembly toapprove the proposed press law on theassembly floor, which they say would easerestrictions on journalists so they couldbetter inform the public.
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