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Thursday, June 1, 2023

Referendum Campaigns: How to Find the Truth?

Thousands and thousands of Costa Rican farmers will lose their jobs if the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) is rejected, according to pro-CAFTA forces.

But wait – isn’t that what’s supposed to happen if CAFTA is approved? Anti-CAFTA forces have been saying for years that the proposed free-trade agreement with the United States will push small Costa Rican farmers out of business.

Poverty looms toward voters from both little boxes on the upcoming referendum ballot. So which is it?

As the rhetoric flies back and forth between the two sides of the CAFTA debate, it highlights a key issue Costa Ricans will face during the next four months of campaigns before the October referendum on the controversial U.S. trade pact: What is true, and what is not really true? And how can people know the difference?

Analyst Luis Guillermo Solís, a political science professor at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), says that while it’s too early to judge the quality of the referendum campaigns for and against CAFTA, he’s highly doubtful that either side will provide good information – unless, of course, the people demand it.

“My general impression is that this campaign is not going to be emphatic on content,” he told The Tico Times this week. “It’s going to be more emotional. The simplification on (both) sides is appalling… We’re not going to see efforts in the campaign to truly inform about the content, and (activists) will remain shallow and insufficient about the information they provide.”

Alexander Miranda, president of the Association of Political Science and International Relations Professionals, said he’s optimistic the campaign will become more substantive, though he admits that so far, good information about the controversial U.S. trade agreement and its effects on Costa Rica has “been very scarce – without content.”

Who’s in Charge?

As campaigns for and against CAFTA began in recent weeks, and advertisements, T-shirts, buttons and grassroots events have become more and more prevalent, a debate began regarding who – if anyone – should monitor the quality of information and advertising presented to the public.

The Press Observatory – an autonomous watchdog group that was formed in 2006 with the approval of various professional associations including the Costa Rican Journalists’ Association – submitted a request to the Supreme Elections Tribunal (TSE) last month asking the institution to monitor press coverage of CAFTA leading up to the referendum and ensure “fair coverage” of both sides of the CAFTA debate.

Eduardo Ulibarri, president of the Press and Freedom of Expression Institute, whose members include seasoned editors, journalists and members of the Journalists’ Association, said the organization he helped found isn’t going to sit down and stake out an official position on the Observatory’s request to ensure fair coverage.

Speaking for himself, however, he commented that “no action, no policy, justifies the intervention” of government into matters of freedom of expression, adding that any criteria to do so would be “very, very subjective.”

“The media and citizens have the independence to look for and spread opinions,” he said.

However, Heriberto Valverde, president of the Costa Rican Journalists’ Association, took a more cautious position, saying that while he isn’t in favor of some of the suggestions, the letter is certainly “timely.”

“In no way are we going to be in favor of something that acts against freedom of expression,” he said, but added: “If the TSE decides, thanks to the letter from the Observatory, to implement a system that seeks a balance, we will have to see.”

TSE spokeswoman Giannina Aguilar said the institution’s three magistrates have not officially responded to the Observatory’s request, which is still being studied with no timeframe for a decision. According to Héctor Fernández, the TSE’s head of electoral programs, the Tribunal plans to monitor how CAFTA is being covered – though not to infringe upon freedom of expression.

When, and if, the TSE officially convenes a referendum next month – that depends on a highly anticipated ruling from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) expected in early July – the Tribunal will hire a private company to monitor the media on two fronts, Fernández explained. The company will note all paid advertising for and against CAFTA to help the TSE ensure no single campaigner exceeds his or her allowable contributions, and also note how much space or time all print, TV and radio media – including The Tico Times – devote to covering CAFTA issues.

The monitoring will attempt to determine how much space the media give to stories favorable to or against CAFTA, as well as neutral coverage, Fernández explained. This is the first time the TSE has attempted such monitoring; officials were inspired in part by their Mexican counterpart, which hired similar monitoring services for the presidential elections there.

However, Fernández said the Tribunal will not be using the data it collects to tell journalists what to do.

“We can’t tell a newspaper, ‘You just publish (stories against CAFTA), you have to publish more in favor,’” he told The Tico Times. “The idea is to at least tell people who want to inform themselves.”

The information will most likely be presented on the TSE Web site ( or on government-owned Channel 13 TV every week or two.

Fernández also explained that the Tribunal does not have a constitutional right or obligation to ensure truth in campaign advertising. In 1997, the Sala IV annulled the section of the Electoral Code that granted the TSE this responsibility.

The high court “concluded that limits to advertising can never be qualitative, just quantitative,” Fernández explained. In other words, during an electoral campaign, the TSE must ensure equitable spending on advertising by political parties, but is not responsible for dealing with complaints about incorrect content. (In the case of the CAFTA referendum, TSE interim president Luis Antonio Sobrado has already stated that the Tribunal can’t ensure equal spending on both sides of the debate, because too many diverse sectors, groups and individuals are engaged in the debate.)

If any person feels that he or she has been personally affected by untruths in campaign materials, that person can file a criminal suit against those responsible for the propaganda, according to Fernández. For example, a former trade negotiator of CAFTA could conceivably argue that ads attacking the agreement affect his or her reputation, and sue.

Striving for Balance

In an attempt to help disseminate accurate information, the Tribunal has asked the State of the Nation program, which publishes yearly analyses that examine topics from Costa Rican economic growth to education to political trends, to prepare a neutral summary of CAFTA for public distribution.

Asked Tuesday when this report would be available, Sobrado said the analysts are still in the process of consulting leaders from both sides of the debate regarding the methodology that should be used in creating the report, but it should be completed by early August.

U.S.-Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang, meanwhile – a seasoned CAFTA hand as a former member of President Abel Pacheco’s Council of Notables, which gave the leader a report on the agreement in 2005 – proposed last week that Costa Ricans seeking an unbiased view should turn to the treaty itself.

“Many have asked me to… publicly reveal my position,” Chang stated in an opinion piece June 7 in the daily La Nación.

Explaining that he is reluctant to do so because he doesn’t want to unfairly influence others’ votes, the hugely popular Chang posed the question: “Are we really prepared to vote as individuals that day, or will we let ourselves be guided by the opinions of others?”

To ensure an educated vote, all Costa Rican families should obtain a copy of the agreement and “read, mark, underline, and try to understand” it in the privacy of their own homes, Chang wrote. “Let’s not be carried away by the misinformation and rhetoric we hear so much these days.”

According to analyst Solís, the only way to get better information about what CAFTA really means for Costa Rica is to insist upon it.

“My impression is that the public may become more demanding, and that would be a welcome event,” he said. “There are lots of fora that are going to happen in the next weeks, and maybe people will start demanding from the ‘yes’ or the ‘no’ (campaigns) a little more seriousness. It will depend on the public.”



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