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Costa Rica6 August 2004

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights overturns journalist’s libel conviction

Reporters Without Borders today welcomed a judgment issued on 4 August by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) overturning the heavy fine imposed by a Costa Rican court in November 1999 on journalist Mauricio Herrera of the daily La Nación for alleged libel. The IACHR’s judgement is binding on the Costa Rican authorities.

The IACHR said Costa Rica had violated both article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights (San José Pact) on the right to free expression, and Herrera’s judicial rights and guarantees. The court also called for changes to Costa Rican legislation to guarantee an effective appeal procedure.

Reporters Without Borders pointed out that in a poll published in September 2003 by the Institute for Social Studies of the Population (Ibespo), 75 per cent of the journalists questioned thought the press laws needed to be amended. In particular, they criticised a law protecting the honour of civil servants and public figures, and the lack of legislation guaranteeing the confidentiality of journalists’ sources and public information access. Articles 149 and 152 of the criminal code put the burden of proof on journalists when they are prosecuted for defamation and punish the press for quoting offensive comments.

Herrera was convicted of libel and fined 430,000 colons (1,500 euros) on 12 November 1999 because of a series of articles in La Nación in which he reported corruption allegations that had been made against Costa Rican diplomat Félix Przedborski. The court also ordered the newspaper to pay 10 million colons (34,000 euros) in damages and said Herrera be registered as a convicted criminal.

Herrera took the case to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the end of January 2001. The commission issued a non-binding opinion on 3 February in which it called for the sentence to be quashed on the grounds that it violated Herrera’s freedom of expression as defined in the American Convention on Human Rights.

The commission’s ruling meant that the case could now go to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, which acts as a second instance and issues rulings that are binding on the countries that have ratified the convention. The court agreed to consider the case two weeks later.

The IACHR’s ruling above all criticises Costa Rica’s courts for insisting that it was up to Herrera to prove the accuracy of the European press allegations against the former diplomat which he quoted in articles in La Nación between January and December 1995.

The IACHR stipulated, according to the AFP (Agence France Presse), that the Costa Rican state must pay 20,000 US dollars in damages and 10,000 US dollars in court costs. It also ordered the state to pay back La Nación the 145,000 US dollars it had to pay to Przedborski.

Foreign minister Roberto Tovar and state prosecutor Ana Lorena Brenes have said Costa Rica will comply with the IACHR’s ruling.

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