La Nación of Costa Rica claims state-owned bank withdrew official advertising because of critical coverage

Government officials have called for an investigation into claims made by one of Latin America’s most serious newspapers that the state-owned Banco Nacional of Costa Rica (BNCR) used official advertising against it.

In a series of articles on July 11, Costa Rican newspaper La Nación accused BNCR of carrying out a multipronged attack against the publication “to silence the press and prevent the disclosure of sensitive information of public interest that it considers a ‘reputational risk’ if it were to be released to Costa Ricans.” The bank has denied this, according to Teletica.

The newspaper says this “offensive” was in reaction to reports it started publishing on Feb. 24, 2016 about “serious anomalies in the Bank.”

The claim getting the most attention concerns BNCR’s withdrawal of official advertising that eventually “fell to zero” by June, according to the publication.

La Nación published an interview with Juan Carlos Corrales, general manager of BNCR, in which he was asked about the committee that decided to reduce advertising to the newspaper. He said the recommendation came from advertising employees and he decided to proceed with it. However, he added that he then decided it was a bad idea and reversed course.

“I, immediately, changed the instruction to eliminate it and we returned to advertising as it should be, that is, that news that focuses on the bank should not be the cause of eliminating or reducing publicity,” he said, according to the newspaper.

The publication also claimed that the bank looked into the possibility of filing lawsuits against journalists or legal ways of forcing the newspaper to take down a report from the bank that was posted to the newspaper’s website.

The use of public resources to silence the press violates freedom of expression of whoever issues the message and also the public’s right to information,” La Nación said, adding that this kind of economic pressure is against international law.

La Nación reported on July 12 that the president of the Committee of Control of Revenue and Public Expenditure said he would present a motion to investigate the claims about BNCR’s withdrawal of advertising from the newspaper.

Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís later said that freedom of expression and of the press are essential for democracy, EFE reported.

“Any complaint about the use of advertising or institutional resources to favor or affect the proper functioning of the media should be investigated and once research is done, must be sanctioned,” Solis said, according to EFE.

However, according to La Nación, the president did not say that the executive branch would take action to investigate the case. Instead, he referred to a potential investigation from the legislature.

Yet, EFE reported that Mauricio Herrera, the country’s minister of communication, said the government would present a bill concerning official advertising that “is in line with the principles of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression of the OAS (Organization of American States) that sets standards to prevent official advertising to be used as a reward or punishment.”

Additionally, the BNCR board approved a measure to investigate the case, requiring Corrales to turn in a report on July 18, Teletica said.

In its rejection of BNCR’s reported handling of official advertising, the Inter American Press Association (IAPA) reiterated that the move would go against Inter-American jurisprudence.

The association also mentioned the fact that in 2015, Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís signed the Declaration of Chapultepec, a document containing basic principles on the right to free speech.

“The capricious use of official advertising on the part of government officials is not only an attack on freedom of expression but also amounts to an act of corruption, as it is an unlawful handling of public money, that which belongs to all citizens, to the benefit of public administrators,” said Claudio Paolillo, chairman of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, according to the release.

The Board of the Association of Journalists of Costa Rica (Colper for its initials in Spanish) also expressed concern with La Nación’s claims against BNCR.

“The fact that Costa Rica is privileged in terms of the practice of journalism is not something that is free. It is due to the continued defense of the freedoms that make this possible,” the association said in a press release.

La Nación is known for impactful investigative reporting, including reports on government corruption known as the Finland Project and the Alcatel Case.  The coverage, under former editor Giannina Segnini, led to legal action when former presidents were sent to jail in connection with the cases. Under Segnini, the paper also built a strong data journalism unit.

Note from the editor: This story was originally published by the Knight Center’s blog Journalism in the Americas, the predecessor of LatAm Journalism Review.