Inter-American Court Quashes Journalist's Libel Conviction
The human rights tribunal of the Americas announced on August 4 that the libel conviction of a Costa Rican journalist violated the regional bill of rights.
The case was brought before the court by Mauricio Herrera, a reporter of the daily (La Nacion), who had been found guilty of criminal libel by the Costa Rican courts and ordered to pay about $150,000 in fines and damages. The initial charges arose out of Herrera's reporting on allegations against a former Costa Rican diplomat implicated in a Belgian arms scandal.
In setting aside the conviction, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights noted that public officials and others who "enter the sphere of public discourse" must tolerate a greater "margin of openness to a broad debate on matters of public interest." This, the court added, was essential to the proper functioning of democracy.
The judgment, reached on July 2 and made public last week, marked the first time that the Inter-American Court clearly embraced this fundamental principle of modern free speech law, thus echoing the case law of other leading human rights bodies. The special protection enjoyed by political speech, the court noted, does not flow from the status of the individuals involved, but from the public interest in the discussion of their activities and performance.
Addressing the facts of the Herrera conviction, the court stressed that the journalist had largely reported on allegations published by the European media. Requiring him to prove those third-party allegations, in a matter of clear public interest, had amounted to an impermissible restriction on his freedom of expression.
The international court ordered Costa Rica to revoke Herrera's conviction and all its effects, and to pay him $20,000 in moral damages and $10,000 in legal expenses. The Costa Rican authorities have indicated that they will fully comply with the judgment.
In May 2004, the Justice Initiative submitted a "friend of the court" brief in the case, urging the court to set a high standard of protection for political speech in defamation cases. That standard, generally known as the "actual malice" rule, requires public figures to prove that the speaker acted with knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, an adjunct to the court, had also urged the court to find that criminalization of political speech is incompatible with the American Convention.
While the Inter-American Court chose not to adopt a specific standard of proof, the importance of the general principle established by the court cannot be understated in a region where personal honor and reputation have too often prevailed over legitimate expression. The judgment confirms the global relevance of special protection for political speech, and will empower free expression groups to push more forcefully for defamation law reform in Latin America.