On November 12, 1999, the Penal Court of the First Judicial Circuit in San José convicted Mauricio Herrera Ulloa and the San José daily La Nación of criminal defamation. The case was based on 1995 articles by Herrera Ulloa that cited European press reports alleging corruption by former Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski.
The court ordered Herrera Ulloa to pay a fine equivalent to 120 days wages, the plaintiff's legal fees, and 60 million colones (US$190,000) in damages to Przedborski. It also ordered that his name be inscribed in an official list of convicted criminals. La Nación was instructed to remove all links from its Web site that could lead readers to the offending articles, and to publish parts of the ruling.
On January 24, 2001, the Costa Rican Supreme Court rejected La Nación's appeal. In response, the newspaper filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (an entity of the Organization of American States, as is the Inter-American Court of Human Rights).
According to Herrera Ulloa's lawyer Fernando Guier, the petition suggested that the Commission urge Costa Rica to bring its press laws into line with the American Convention on Human Rights, which it ratified in 1970. On March 1, the Commission's executive secretary, Jorge Taiana, asked the Costa Rican Penal Court to suspend its ruling while the Commission looked into the case.
When the Penal Court refused to comply, the Commission asked the Inter-American Court to confirm the suspension. (The Court's decisions are legally binding on Costa Rica and other countries that have accepted its jurisdiction.) On April 6, the Inter-American Court's president, Antonio Cancado Trindade, ordered the Costa Rican government to suspend the verdict. The Inter-American Court has scheduled a May 22 hearing in the matter.
Unfortunately, the Herrera Ulloa affair is not an isolated case. Throughout the Americas, criminal defamation laws stifle reporting on issues of clear public interest. Senior officials often file criminal defamation charges against journalists and media organizations in order to shield themselves from public scrutiny.
In recent years, the Inter-American Commission has actively defended journalists in several Latin American countries who had been unjustly prosecuted under criminal defamation statutes. And in last year's Declaration of Principles on Freedom of Expression, the Commission affirmed that the reputations of public officials should only be guaranteed by civil sanctions.
"It is shocking that journalists in Costa Rica can be branded as criminals simply for doing their professional duty," said CPJ executive director Ann Cooper. "We urge Costa Rican authorities to set a good example for the rest of the hemisphere by eliminating criminal defamation in cases involving public officials."