Content Regulation / Censorship, Defamation / Reputation, Political Expression
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The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) held that Costa Rica’s criminal defamation law violated Article 13 of the American Convention on Human Rights (ACHR), which guarantees freedom of expression. Journalist Mauricio Herrera-Ulloa published seven articles exposing the corruption of a Costa Rican public official, for which he was convicted of criminal defamation. The court reasoned that Herrera-Ulloa’s actions encompassed both an individual right and a social protection to freedom of expression. Hence, when Costa Rica required Herrera-Ulloa to prove the statements quoted in his articles, it placed an excessive limitation on his freedom of expression, directly violating Article 13. The court also ordered Costa Rica to make a series of payments to Herrera-Ulloa for damages incurred as a result of the State violating his rights.
Mauricio Herrera-Ulloa was responsible for coverage of Foreign Ministry Affairs for the Costa Rican newspaper, La Nación. In 1995, Herrera-Ulloa published a series of seven articles that addressed the corruption scandal surrounding Félix Przedborski, Costa Rica’s Ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency. These articles were instigated by a series of articles in the Belgian Press discussing the scandal.
In response to the La Nación articles, Przedborski filed two criminal complaints for defamation of a public official against Herrera-Ulloa and a civil lawsuit seeking damages from both Herrera-Ulloa and La Nación. Przedborski’s complaint mentioned only four of the seven articles.
On November 12, 1999, Herrera-Ulloa was found to have acted with malice and was convicted of criminal defamation, and both La Nación and Herrera-Ulloa were ordered to pay civil monetary damages to Przedborski. Herrera-Ulloa was also ordered to post a section of the civil court’s opinion in La Nación, link to the judgment in the four contested articles, and remove the links where the four articles mention Przedborski by name. Finally, Herrera-Ulloa’s name was entered into the Judiciary’s Record of Convicted Felons.
In March 2001, Herrera-Ulloa and Fernán Vargas Rohrmoser, La Nación’s representative, filed a petition with the Inter- American Commission, seeking precautionary measures. Then in October 2002, the Commission issued its report, requesting Costa Rica, inter alia, to nullify the convictions against Herrera-Ulloa and the newspaper; to remove the respective conviction records; to vacate the order of removing the link at the La Nación website that directs the reader from the surname Przedborski to the impugned articles; and to make appropriate reparation.
Upon Costa Rica’s failure to comply with the precautionary measures within a two-month time-frame, the Commission submitted the case to IACtHR in January 2003.
Herrera-Ulloa and the newspaper’s representative submitted that the criminal defamation law restricted media outlets’ ability to act in the public interest by preventing them from reporting on public officials. They also alleged that the statute violated Article 13 of the ACHR, which protects freedom of expression. Costa Rica argued that the purpose of the statute was to protect an individual’s right to privacy and one’s honor. The state averred that the criminal defamation statute allowed for a fair balance of freedom of expression and protection of honor because it only penalized those who acted maliciously.
The IACtHR held that Costa Rica had violated Article 13 of the ACHR. The IACtHR stated that Article 13 protects freedom of expression over two dimensions: 1) an individual right to exchange thoughts freely to the greatest amount of people and 2) a social element that expands to protect an individual’s right to receive information and news. Freedom of expression is essential to democracy, and the media plays a fundamental part in ensuring the social element of freedom of expression. Freedom of expression can only be restricted for the necessity of the state; it cannot limit freedom of expression in an attempt to censor public debate.
The IACtHR stated that as a journalist, Herrera-Ulloa’s actions encompassed both an individual right and a social protection to freedom of expression. When the Costa Rican courts required Herrera-Ulloa to prove the statements taken from the Belgian press were true, Costa Rica put an excessive limitation on freedom of expression that violated Article 13. This standard of proof restricts journalism and, therefore, the social element of freedom of expression that encourages public debate. Thus, the IACtHR found that Costa Rica had violated Herrera-Ulloa’s right to freedom of expression under Article 13 of the ACHR
Because of the violation of Herrera-Ulloa’s right to freedom of expression, the IACtHR held Costa Rica must nullify all measures ordered in the November 12, 1999, judgment against him. The IACtHR also ordered Costa Rica to make a series of payments to Herrera-Ulloa for damages incurred as a result of the state violating his rights.
Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.
The decision by the IACtHR expands freedom of expression and protection of the press in Costa Rica. The IACtHR’s decision that the criminal defamation statute is contrary to Article 13 forces Costa Rica to expand its laws to comply with the ACHR.
Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.
Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.
Costa Rica gives human rights treaties the same weight as constitutional provisions. Furthermore, the Costa Rican Constitutional Chamber has held that when a fundamental right is better protected by a human rights convention, the provision stated in the convention will trump the constitution. The Costa Rican Constitutional Chamber has also held that a decision by the IACtHR will supersede domestic court decisions.
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