Students protest Costa Rica's information crimes law

By Zach Dyer

Students took to the streets in downtown San José, Costa Rica on Thursday Nov. 15, to protest the country’s recently enacted and much reviled information crimes law, reported the Tico Times website.

An estimated 1,200 demonstrators marched down Second Avenue, one of the capital's main streets, converging on the offices of the Costa Rican Social Security Administration, according to CRHoy.com.

Video from the Tico Times showed demonstrators wearing white gags with the words “Ley Mordaza” ("Gag Law" in English) painted on them and signs reading “Ley Mordaza Refugio de Corruptos” ("the gag law is the refuge of the corrupt"). Protesters screamed as part of a dance performance to represent to effects of the law, according to the Times.

The “gag law” has been criticized by the Costa Rican Union of Journalists as an attack on freedom of expression because of a reform to the penal code that could punish journalists or bloggers with up to 10 years in prison for obtaining and publishing “secret information.” The organization filed a constitutional complaint against the law with the Supreme Court this August after the bill was signed into law on Jul. 10.

Outcry from press groups and civil society when the law took effect on Nov. 7, prompted President Laura Chinchilla’s office to promise to reform the law during the up-coming legislative session set to begin in December. While the president said her administration did not support the law’s passage, she did not veto it.

Chinchilla went on to say the law would not be used against journalists, according to Reporters Without Borders’ website. This handshake promise did little to assuage the concerns of investigative reporter Ernesto Rivera of the newspaper La Nación.

"They pointed out that under a previous law that existed no journalists were prosecuted, and they are right, but we don't know whose going to rule next," Rivera told the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas, concerned that such a law on the books was a liability for press freedom in the country.

La Nación’s investigative division is celebrated for its work, including uncovering a corruption scandal that sent two former presidents to jail. The investigative department is also known as a trailblazer for data journalism in Latin America. Whether the information comes from a traditional source or a dataset, Rivera said, “any law that harms or restricts the free flow of data will hurt journalism and those who benefit from it."

Internet scholar Andres Guadamuz posted to his blog about the law, calling it an “anti-WikiLeaks law,” according to Global Voices:

This has rightly created a bit of a stink with the local press and blogosphere, as they see it as a possible affront to freedom of the press and freedom of speech. However, I think that journalists miss the real point behind the law, this is evidently an attempt to criminalise leaking information to whistle-blowing sites like Wikileaks. The law in its present form was discussed and approved in a legislative commission in 2010, at the time that Wikileaks was front page news across the world. The inclusion of this reform makes no other sense whatsoever, as it enhances existing penalties for espionage just by adding the digital element. There is no other justification that I can think of to make incarceration for leaking political information through electronic means almost twice as harsh as 'analogue' leaking."

Global Voices pointed out that the newspaper La Nación published classified material obtained from WikiLeaks in 2011.

Besides the demonstrations against the information crimes law, protesters also vented their frustration with the country’s Social Security administration and police violence during a protest the previous week. The protest on Thursday was peaceful.

See the Tico Times' video of the protests below:

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.