On June 27, by a vote of 37 to 5 and without providing much detail about their decision, legislators from six political parties decided to bury a bill that would have better protected freedoms of speech and press.
In a quick vote, lawmakers from the ruling National Liberation Party (PLN), Citizen Action Party (PAC), Social Christian Unity Party, Costa Rican Restoration Party and National Renovation Party turned down the bill, opting for a new version to be drafted. Only lawmakers from the Access without Exclusion Party (PASE) and the Broad Front Party tried to rescue the bill from being archived.
The Press Freedom and Freedom of Speech Bill was submitted to the Legislative Assembly on July 9, 2001. It was drafted with the input from important national media figures from television, radio and print.
President Laura Chinchilla also once supported the idea of a new press freedom law while serving as lawmaker for the PLN from 2002 to 2006.
The bill sought to eliminate prison sentences for journalists found guilty of slander and “honor crimes,” proposing instead that such accusations should be civil cases, not criminal ones.
The bill also sought to allow reporters to refuse to report on issues when conflicts of interests exist.
The establishment of protections for confidential sources was another of the innovations included in the bill. Currently, only a ruling from the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) from 2008 guarantees that reporters have the right to keep sources confidential.
In several statements delivered to the media, legislators who opposed the bill said it was not properly written and would fail to protect citizens’ rights.
“This project has no real reason to exist at this time,” said PLN congressman Francisco Chacón. “We need to analyze a new proposal.”
“We must ensure a balance,” said Luis Gerardo Villanueva, the PLN’s legislative party leader. “It’s important to have laws that protect journalists, but it is also important to ensure that other citizens are able to defend from abuses of the press.”
PAC lawmaker Jeannette Ruiz also said the bill needs improvement.
An Act of Revenge?
Supporters of the bill say some lawmakers blocked the bill in retaliation for recent media investigations of political parties.
In the past 12 months, press investigations revealed scandals involving mostly members of the ruling PLN, but also other parties as well. In February, the daily La Nación reported that Rodrigo Arias, a PLN leader, allegedly called Attorney General Jorge Chavarría on October 2010, to a stop a criminal investigation against him for allegedly mismanaging public funds (TT, Feb. 4).
A more recent investigation, also carried out by La Nación, exposed how current Foreign Minister René Castro appointed a large number of PLN insiders to work in diplomatic positions without the required job qualifications (TT, July 3).
“This is a way to intimidate,” said José María Villalta, a lawmaker from the Broad Front Party. “Many of the lawmakers who belong to the parties under scrutiny refuse to provide more power to the press because they fear that corruption will be exposed,” he said.
According to Villalta, the bill’s approval would have benefited not only journalists, but also citizens who seek and publish public information of any kind, particularly on the Internet.
Without the bill’s passage, journalists remain under the jurisdiction of the outdated Press Law of 1902, which establishes three types of crimes that could send journalists to jail, if found guilty: libel, slander and defamation.
According to the same law, reporters can also be found guilty of defamation when using information published by other media if it turns out to be false.
The president of the Costa Rican Journalists Association, Raúl Silesky, believes Costa Rica must comply with international resolutions that say governments shall not prosecute journalists for crimes against the honor if the reporting is in the public interest.
“This is not an extremist type of bill,” said Silesky. “We must be consistent. The country signed the American Convention on Human Rights in 1969, an action that led to the creation of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The government is committed to implementing the resolutions and recommendations [of the convention and court].”
In May 2008, the human rights court ruled against the “crime against honor” concept in journalism.
PASE congressman Víctor Granados said lawmakers from his party would take the case before the Sala IV as a way to speed up new regulations to protect journalists and free speech.
But there is no indication how long that process would take. In the meantime, analysts say they don’t expect a replacement bill to come along anytime soon.