SAN JOSÉ, Costa Rica – Costa Rica likes to think of itself as a leader in Central America in terms of democracy and development. And when it comes to protecting freedom of expression, the so-called “Switzerland of Central America” boasts similar claims to enlightenment.
Yet, behind the scenes and beyond the twisted forest of red tape that entangles many journalists seeking government information, Costa Rica has its own share of press-related problems, making it hard for the country to live up to the image it has created for itself.
A recent ranking by Reporters Without Borders showed Costa Rica falling eight slots in a press freedom evaluation from last year, landing it behind Ghana, Uruguay and Cyprus.
According to the report’s authors, Costa Rica is slipping because other countries are doing better. If Costa Rica wants to see its ranking improve, the report said, it is going to need to revise its antiquated defamation laws (TT, Oct. 9, 23, 2009).
A musty 1902 printing press law that calls for jail sanctions for public slander still hangs over Tico journalists like the sword of Damocles. In fact, several reporters have been tried and convicted for defamation over the years.
The most prominent defamation case in recent history was against journalist Mauricio Herrera of the daily La Nación. Herrera had written a series of articles on former Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski about his alleged involvement in tax evasion and illegal arms dealing. La Nación was ordered to pay ¢60 million (about $200,000 at the time) and Herrera was to pay ¢200,000, or face jail time (TT, April 2, 2004).
The case prompted a an advisory ruling from the Inter-American Human Rights Court stating that Costa Rican judges had applied an extreme interpretation of the law. The local courts exonerated the reporter and the decision was celebrated as a victory for the media. But 1902 defamation law still remains on the books.
Though a bill in the legislative assembly would revise existing defamation rules, that initiative hasn’t been touched since it was first proposed in 2001.
Eduardo Ulibarri, president of the Institute for the Press and Freedom of Expression (IPLEX), said his greatest concern is that Costa Rica remains in a rut in terms of press freedom advancement.
In fact, perhaps the last great step forward came in 1995, when – thanks to The Tico Times’ 23-year battle with the Colegio de Periodistas – Costa Rica’s Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) annulled the law for obligatory licensing of journalists in Costa Rica. As a result of that effort, Tico Times Publisher Richard Dyer was awarded the Inter-American Press Association’s Grand Prize for Press Freedom in 1995 for his “untiring efforts in the fight against the obligatory licensing of newsmen” in this hemisphere (for more on the history of The Tico Times’ battle against licensing of journalists, see Perspective, TT p. 11).
But the Costa Rican press hasn’t had too many additional victories to cheer about since then. Nor did the 1995 ruling set an irreversible precedent in the region. (In fact, Nicaragua is currently considering a bill that would require the licensing of journalists, which would make The Nica Times illegal.)
“One of the principal threats that I see is that we don’t advance; that we stay in the same position we are in,” said Ulibarri.
Ulibarri added that he would like to see better access to public records as well as new legislation protecting journalists in cases related to defamation (TT, Oct. 23, 2009).
And although Costa Rica is not suffering the same level of violent crime against journalists that’s afflicting other countries in the region, it’s not immune to it either.
In 2001, Colombian-born Parmenio Medina, host of the popular radio program “La Patada” (The Kick) was shot and killed outside his home. And in 2003, journalist Ivannia Mora was shot and killed by two men on a motorcycle.
Another recent incident involved Brazilian-born journalist Gilberto Lopes, who had been working for more than 30 years as a reporter in Costa Rica (TT, Feb. 20, 2009).
Lopes said he was denied Costa Rican citizenship because, according to government documents, “he had not conducted himself well.” The reporter believes he as rejected due to his vocal opposition to the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) – a debate that polarized the country.
Only a month ago, the Costa Rican government set aside a national day for journalists in recognition of its darkest day in journalistic history: the 1984 La Penca bombing, which killed three journalists – including Tico Times reporter Linda Frazier – and injured at least a dozen other people.
Although there have been many theories about who was behind the terrorist attack, a forthcoming documentary film by La Penca survivor Peter Torbiornsson blames several top Sandinista comandantes for masterminding the plot. The documentary, which was shown to The Nica Times in unedited form last December, includes a confession from former Sandinista comandante Luis Carrion (NT, Dec. 18, 2009).
Thanks to a last minute decree from former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias, May 30 will be recognized as National Journalist Day to celebrate journalists in their work and honor those who covered La Penca. The Tico Times continues to honor Linda Fraizer’s memory every week in its masthead.