Costa Rica may suffer a blow to its image as one of Latin America’s beacons of democracy after a government agency was accused of spying on one of the country’s most popular daily newspapers.

Diario Extra reported that the Investigative Police Body in Costa Rica, or the OIJ, had been monitoring and recording the telephone conversations of one its reporters.

The daily published a story on Jan. 20 citing a 200-page document, presented to the publication by a confidential source, which detailed the telephone surveillance of Diario Extra reporter Manuel Estrada by OIJ.

The spying allegedly took place during a 10-month period following the publication of a story about a kidnapping and the involvement of an OIJ member in the case.

On Jan. 24, the Grupo Extra media company that owns Diario Extra presented a complaint at Sala IV (the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court in Costa Rica) requesting an investigation of the matter and the destruction of all recorded telephone records obtained by the OIJ.

The International Press Institute (IPI) considers this type of action a violation of the right of journalists to protect the confidentiality of their sources, which has been recognised by international human rights bodies, including the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, as one of the basic conditions for press freedom.

“Without such guarantees, sources may be deterred from providing journalists with information that is of public interest,” IPI Press Freedom Manager Barbara Trionfi said. “IPI fully supports the request of Grupo Extra that the police destroy the telephone records of the journalist and that a thorough investigation be carried out to ensure that there is no pattern of abuse of reporters’ confidentiality rights by the police.”

A local reporter covering the story for another publication in Costa Rica told IPI via e-mail that “the real issue here is that [OIJ] freely admits to tracing the journalist’s phone calls in order to identify the leaker.” OIJ officials “keep repeating that it’s within their bounds as law enforcement to spy on reporters if it’s in the interest of their investigation,” explained the journalist, who declined to be identified as he continues to follow the story.

Carlos Castro Gamboa, reporter from Diario Extra who is also following the story, told IPI that as of Feb. 17, there were no new developments regarding the request presented to the Supreme Court Chamber.

“The Chamber’s justice said this is a delicate case that would take time to resolve even though they had initially stated they would try their best to expedite the investigation,” Castro said. “Regarding the [investigation] by the judiciary body, they have informed us that they cannot provide any leads as they as in the process of gathering evidence at this time.”

For further information, please contact: Vanessa I. Garnica, +43 5129011, ext. 15.