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Explainer: Why is Costa Rica’s former President Laura Chinchilla suing a hotelier over a Facebook post?

July 15, 2014

“President Laura Chinchilla arrives at the Criminal Court for complaint against businessman for defamation. Her parents accompanied her.” From Radio Monumental.

Former President Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014) is back in the news, this time as a private citizen. Chinchilla appeared at a criminal court Monday morning for a defamation lawsuit she filed in June 2013 against businessman Alberto Rodríguez Baldi.

“I brought this complaint with complete confidence in our Rule of Law and today as a simple citizen of our dear country I will put the defense of my honor and respect for the truth and the responsible exercise of freedom in the hands of justice,” Chinchilla wrote in a Facebook post Monday morning.

The Tico Times assembled a run-down of the case and what’s at stake:

What did Baldi say?
Hotelier Alberto Rodríguez Baldi alleged on Facebook that Chinchilla illicitly benefitted from her public office in order to buy millions of dollars in land in Puntarenas and Guanacaste’s Nicoya Peninsula supposedly slated for a wind power development project. The original Facebook post has since been removed. Chinchilla decried the allegations as libelous and filed the lawsuit despite outcry from socia media advocates.

How can Chinchilla sue someone for what they say on Facebook?
Chinchilla alleged that Baldi’s Facebook post was defamatory, a so-called “honor crime” under Article 146 of the Costa Rican Penal Code. Defendants can be sued for intentionally “dishonoring” someone or attacking their character.

What’s the punishment for defamation?
Defamation carries a fine based on the defendant’s salary for 20 to 60 days. Local media reported that Chinchilla is seeking ₡100 million in damages, roughly $185,000.

Costa Rica eliminated prison sentences for defamation in 2010.

What does this mean for freedom of expression in Costa Rica?

Taking to social media, Chinchilla posted a Facebook message stressing that her lawsuit was not a threat to Costa Rica’s famously tolerant freedom of expression:

The trial that begins today is NOT against freedom of expression, but rather seeks to fortify it and defend it from those who irresponsibly prostitute it with defamation and lies. We Costa Ricans are proud of our democracy, but democracy without responsibility, drowns liberty.

The trial that begins today is NOT against social media networks, but rather against those who use them for malevolent purposes. The Internet and social media networks should be protected from those who scam, harass, attack or defame. If we do not support a responsible attitude for those who use the Internet and social media, we will end up justifying bureaucratic and authoritarian regulations for them, which we should reject.

Chinchilla goes on to argue for the need to establish a precedent for the “responsible” use of the Internet and social media.

Baldi did not make any statements to the press before entering the courtroom.

How does Costa Rica stack up on freedom of expression?

According to Freedom House, a Washington, D.C.-based human rights group, Costa Rica has one of the highest press freedom scores in the Americas, outscoring the United States and Canada in the group’s 2014 “Freedom of the Press Report.”

Whether or not the judge decides that Rodríguez’s statements qualify as protected speech will be decided this week. The trial is set to continue through Wednesday.

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