By Carlos A, Sandi | AFP
By Latin American standards of turbulence and strife, Costa Rica stands apart as a breath of fresh air and bastion of human rights.
But now it’s under fire for a new media law criticized as a gut punch to freedom of the press at a time when corruption scandals here sprout like mushrooms.
In enacting the law, this small Central American country with no army and a Nobel Peace laureate to its credit – former President Oscar Arias – seems to be emulating bigger Latin American neighbors with populist leaders that often tangle with or otherwise crack down on the press. These include Argentina, Venezuela and Ecuador.
Costa Rica is tiptoeing into this arena – the president already sounds apologetic over the new law – but the legislation is indeed right there on the books and in force since last week.
It is framed as being part of a drive against cybercrime and says reporters can go to jail for “improperly” obtaining information of a confidential nature.
One of the most reviled articles is No. 288, which allows for jail terms of up to 10 years for anyone who publishes “secret political information.”
It punishes people who “unduly” obtain information on defense or foreign affairs issues, or which affects the country’s fight against drug trafficking or organized crime.
The criticism has been scathing. The bill was introduced in 2009 and approved in June, even though the congressional Human Rights Commission was then examining an alternative law proposed by news executives.
The citizens’ ombudsman’s office says it is going to court to challenge the law as unconstitutional.
“It is a law that is going to curb freedom of expression and information, and which is not only going to affect the news media,” said José Rodolfo Ibarra, president of the Costa Rican Journalists Association.
Critics say the law is especially offensive given Costa Rica’s tradition as a defender of human rights and freedom of expression.
Media executives say it is the press that has exposed countless cases of corruption, including three involving former presidents – two of whom went to prison.
“In recent decades, the main allegations against corrupt people, both public and private figures, came from the news media,” said Ignacio Santos, director of the TV news program Telenoticias on Channel 7.
“It is a law that is going to have very serious impact on the development of the investigative journalism done in this country,” added Roxana Zúñiga, director of Noticias Repretel on Channel 6.
Faced with the onslaught of criticism, President Laura Chinchilla issued a statement promising to tone down the law and not go hard on journalists.
But Ibarra of the journalists’ association said that conciliatory spin was too late, as the law was already approved and in a big rush. Reporters Without Borders said she should simply have scrapped the law.
“Legislation that is so opposed to the guarantees offered in our constitution in the areas of freedom of expression and information should have led to a presidential veto,” the association said.
Costa Rica has ample company as a country now criticized over its treatment of the press.
The Inter-American Press Association said last year that freedom of the press in Latin America faces threats from government attempts at control in Venezuela and Ecuador.
It said that Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez is at outright “war” with the press and has the ultimate goal of controlling digital media.
In Argentina, media giant Clarín says President Cristina Kirchner is now trying to silence an opposition press by forcing the media group to sell off some radio and TV licenses or see them auctioned off.