Costa Rican court sparks debate over free press

Costa Rica's Supreme Court has sentenced a US reporter to prison for ''illegal practice of journalism'' - and thereby sparked a debate about the validity of calling this country a model of democracy and free expression.

Stephen Schmidt of Wisconsin, who until recently wrote for the English-language Tico Times and the Spanish-language La Nacion in San Jose, was prosecuted by the Costa Rica College of Journalists for violating a law that says reporters based in Costa Rica must be members of the college in order to write here. The college is a government-sanctioned professional organization.

The case against Mr. Schmidt, one of many non-college members in Costa Rica, was thrown out of a lower court for lack of merit. And in January, an appeals court judge found Schmidt innocent, ruling that his reporting constituted his ''exercising a basic human right.'' But this month, the nation's highest court, ruling on an appeal of the January decision, found Schmidt guilty of ''illegal practice of journalism.'' The court sentenced him to three months in prison but suspended the sentence.

The local English-language press feels stung by the decision, says Richard Dyer, publisher of the Tico Times. Mr. Dyer says his ''unlicensed'' reporters have been harassed by the college and refused access to some government press conferences. A Times editorial says the paper has asked the college to provide qualified reporters who can write in English, but the requests have gone unanswered. The two foreign correspondents stationed here for US papers say they have not been harassed.

Journalism college president Carlos Morales says the ruling ''doesn't limit freedom of expression because the law allows people to write opinion and commentary.''

But Costa Rican Communications Minister Armando Vargas told the press he is ''deeply worried'' about the court's ruling. ''This decision threatens to seriously damage the image of Costa Rica as a country with high respect for human rights,'' he said.

''It might be time to reevaluate the law,'' he said.

Schmidt now edits a commodities newsletter in Wisconsin. He says he may take the case to the Inter-American Human Rights Court, which is based in San Jose.

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