Report to the Midyear Meeting
March 28 - 30, 2008
A number of significant court rulings were handed down during this period.
On December 20 an appeals court upheld a lower-court ruling that acquitted two journalists of defamation but ordered them to pay civil compensation to a police officer who, according to the minister of public safety, was under investigation for extortion. The journalists in the case are Rónald Chacón Chaverri and Freddy Parrales Chaves; the minister (no longer in office) is Rogelio Ramos Martínez.
In response to the initial inquiry from the journalists of La Nación, the minister requested information from the Legal Department of the Ministry of Public Safety. He then confirmed for the journalists that the assistant police commander of a district in the southern part of the country was forced to go on leave while he was being investigated for extortion in the trafficking of liquor.
At trial, the minister admitted that he was the source of the information that was published. It was also shown that the police chief of the southern district was on trial for extortion. But there were conflicting accounts regarding the information that the minister admitted to having provided: The extortion allegedly wasn’t related to the trafficking of liquor, but to a vehicle that was stopped with no license plate.
The lower court held that the journalists had committed no criminal offense, because the published information came from the ministry. But the judges ruled that the police officer’s reputation was harmed as a result of the inaccurate reports, and under the country’s Civil Code, anyone who causes harm is obligated to pay compensation for it. The minister was found civilly liable along with the journalists.
This ruling is particularly ominous for press freedom in Costa Rica, because it opens the door to civil penalties against journalists in cases in which few avenues of defense are available to them. In criminal cases, a defendant can only be convicted if found to have caused intentional harm. In civil cases, the plaintiff only needs to prove that harm has been caused and that the defendant is culpable to some degree.
On December 19, a trial court in Heredia sentenced business owner Omar Chaves Mora to 35 years in prison for masterminding the killing of radio journalist Parmenio Medina. Minor Calvo Aguilar, a Catholic priest, was acquitted of murder charges but was sentenced to 15 years for fraud against the listeners of Radio María. Parmenio Medina had aired complaints about the finances of Radio María shortly before he was killed. Omar Chaves was also convicted of fraud and sentenced to 12 years in prison on that charge.
The court ruled that Luis Alberto Aguirre Jaime, aka “El Indio,” was among those who opened fire on Medina on July 7, 2001, as the radio producer was driving up to his home in Santo Domingo de Heredia. Aguirre Jaime was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide. Five other defendants were acquitted under the principle of in dubio pro reo (loosely translated, reasonable doubt).
The bill to reform Costa Rican legislation related to press freedom has little chance of success in the current legislative session. The reforms would bring the country’s laws into line with the standards of the Sullivan ruling (the doctrine of actual malice), but the political forces represented in Congress have shown little interest in making this change.