Public Outcry Has Costa Rica’s Gag Law on the Ropes


EspañolSince Costa Rica’s government unveiled a draft bill for a new General Law of Radio Broadcasting on Tuesday, April 7, public opinion has railed against the proposal. Civil society groups have branded it a “gag law” for creating sanctions against media outlets that broadcast “vulgar language” or “false news.”

In the face of mounting criticism, Telecommunications Vice Minister Allan Ruiz has backtracked, eliminating the provisions for sanctions against media companies.

“We’re not seeking to restrict freedom of expression in any way, still less promote a gag law. In the draft being taken to the Presidential House there will be no element that controls any kind of content in any way,” Ruiz stipulated in an article published Wednesday 8.

Nevertheless, in a previous interview with local daily La Nación on April 7, the minister argued that the text would “of course … place freedom of expression and the press under discussion.”

“The objective of this law isn’t to promote anything in this sense [of controlling content], but to ensure that media outlets don’t make an inefficient use of the radio spectrum,” he added.

Minister Gsela Kopper meanwhile called for Ruiz’s resignation on the afternoon of Thursday 9, after the vice minister confessed to not having read the text of the bill.

“The three of us [Kopper, Ruiz, and Minister of the Presidency Melvin Jiménez] met and we agreed on the letter asking for the resignation. Ruiz said that he was going to write it but now he’s changed his mind, as his declarations to the press have made clear,” Kopper said.

The draft bill outlines the possibility of fines of up to US$226,700 and the cancellation of licences for those media outlets found to have disseminated information that goes against “good manners” or “threatens the honor or integrity” of those mentioned.

“Costa Rican government promotes radio and TV gag law. Executive will be able to close media outlets.”

Article 68 of the proposed bill further states that those media firms in Costa Rica that transmit “false or alarming news without foundation” will be punished.

The telecommunications minister is tasked with establishing what information is false and what falls outside the parameters of good taste.

“Everything that has to do with content won’t be in the final version,” Ruiz has nevertheless stated.

The vice minister also said that the draft will be submitted to several further weeks of preparation, and will be presented to the executive in June for revision prior to presentation before Costa Rica’s congress.

Costa Rica’s Cut-and-Paste

The text, prepared by the Ministry of Science, Technology, and Telecommunications (Micitt) contains several articles which are exact copies of laws currently in force in Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico, Spain, and Venezuela.

A recent forum organized by the National Chamber of Radio and Television of Costa Rica (Canartel) compared examples of norms in force in those countries to the Costa Rican government’s latest proposals.

“We can’t accept the government bill, not even as a document to provide a basis for discussion, because the textual copy of laws from other countries is evident, and it doesn’t reflect the reality of the country,” Canartel lawyer Vanessa Castro stated.

For example, experts at the forum explained, proposals that demand that 30 percent of radio frequencies are handed over to local radio stations are an exact copy of Article 22 of a recent media law in Peru.

“The law doesn’t explain these magic percentages. It also reveals the asymmetry of the proposals: the state assumes all the tasks of regulator,” argued Juan Manuel Campos, another legal expert.

Former judge Ewal Acuña Blanco similarly argued that the prospective sanctions are only one of multiple worrying provisions contained within the draft bill.

“There’s a clear ideological content and I’d like to know who will be the wise individual of the state who defines what is appropriate information, what’s in the public interest, and what the country’s values are,” she told the forum.

Claudio Paolillo, president of the Comittee on Freedom of the Press for the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), meanwhile spoke of his concerns over the document.

“Who has the formula for measuring the values and the kind of information the general population ought to receive? They’re seeking to measure and quantify the freedom of the press. The government’s intention is to be the arbiter of content, and this is very dangerous for the historic defense of freedom of expression that has characterized Costa Rica,” Paolillo argued.

Clinging On to Office

Cosa Rica’s President Luis Guillermo Solís has insisted on the need to modernize the country’s extant media regulations, which have been in place for over 50 years. However, he argued that the draft bill was only “a document” for discussion, and admitted that it would be “a fatal error” to attack freedom of the press.

In a press release on Friday morning, Solís called for the resignation of Kopper and Ruiz for “failing at the hour of supervising the elaboration and content” of the bill.

Kopper has since agreed to step down, claiming that she has long since “lost confidence” in her junior colleague. Ruiz has nevertheless refused to resign voluntarily, telling reporters “I have absolutely nothing to declare.”

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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