Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Costa Rica: Court rules surveillance of journalist is unconstitutional


The International Press Institute (IPI) welcomes a Costa Rican court's ruling that government surveillance of a reporter's phone records was unconstitutional.

Costa Rica's Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court made the ruling Friday (21 March 2014) in the case of Diario Extra journalist, Manuel Estrada, who was targeted by the Judicial Investigation Police (OIJ) after he wrote an article that criticised the agency.

Following the article's publication, the Costa Rica Prosecutor's Office authorised the OIJ to record Estrada's phone conversations to learn the identity of his sources.

“This is certainly a win for journalists in Costa Rica,” Zach Dyer, a freelance journalist currently working in Costa Rica, said. “But I think it's also one for bloggers.”

According to Dyer, Judge Ernesto Jinesta Lobo went out of his way in the ruling to mention people who “regularly contribute” to reporting or public opinion as a category outside traditionally defined reporters to whom protection from surveillance applies.

“It's encouraging to see a more inclusive definition of who is a reporter and under the aegis of constitutional protection from invasive police wire taps or phone record intercepts,” Dyer explained to IPI.

Last month, Estrada told IPI that he had lost a series of sources within the judicial system as a result of the operation.

“They put my journalistic career in danger,” Estrada, who has covered the judicial sector in Costa Rica for the last seven years, told IPI. “Other colleagues [were] worried that the same thing would happen to them.” “I received death threats as a result of this case.”

Estrada told IPI that he is completely satisfied with the Chamber's ruling.

“I did not expect less from the magistrates, who ruled [on] an extremely important [constitutional case] for myself, the newspaper that I have worked for the last seven years, the country, and the journalist guild, which has been somewhat uncomfortable due to the privacy violation that took place,” Estrada said. “We will continue to inform responsibly with the truth and to protect the sources that trust [us] and that want to report irregularities, not only the ones that pertain to the government.”

However, according to a statement obtained today by Dyer, the Prosecutor's Office said that the ruling only pertains to journalists and that, as a result, it will continue to investigate anyone outside of the press related to this particular case, including Estrada's source at the OIJ.

In January of this year, Diario Extra received a 200-page document from an anonymous source detailing the OIJ's surveillance operation targeting Estrada.

Last month, IPI reported on the case and on how Grupo Extra, the company that owns Diario Extra, had presented a complaint before the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court and requested that the phone records collected by the OIJ be destroyed and that further action be taken against the agency.

Last Friday, the Chamber ruled that the surveillance violated the privacy of the reporter, ordered the investigative agency to destroy all recordings pertaining to the investigation and prohibited any government agency from carrying out this type of operation in the future.

The Chamber also faulted the Prosecutor's Office for having authorised the operation.

Costa Rica, which is generally considered one of the most democratic Latin American nations and to have a higher degree of respect for press freedom among countries in the region, came under fire the last year after the sitting president, Laura Chinchilla, announced that she would sue a social media user for defamation after the person alleged that Chinchilla used her office to profit from a land deal.

The country had a criminal information law that many journalists in Costa Rica feared would have put them at risk of being jailed if they publish “secret” information obtained from possible whistleblowers. The law was blocked by a constitutional complaint and subsequently reformed. The section of concern about journalists risking jail time was eventually removed.