Costa Rica FlagCivic Freedom Monitor: Costa Rica

Introduction | At a Glance | Key Indicators | International Rankings
Legal Snapshot | Legal Analysis | Reports | News and Additional Resources
Last updated: 2 October 2018

Update: On May 8, 2018, Carlos Alvarado became the new President of Costa Rica. The priority of Alvarado has been the “Tax Bill”, but Alvarado has secured support from only 10 out of 57 congressmen and congresswomen. He is also facing opposition in the media, civil society, and business sectors. At this time, it is unknown what activities will finally be taxed and whether or not the bill will affect civil society in a significant way. A Supreme Court decision delivered on September 28, 2018 stated that the Tax Bill will need 38 votes to be passed because it may affect the judiciary. The government claims only 29 votes are needed, however. If the government wins this dispute it may be able to enlist other political parties in congress (PLN, PUSC, FA) to support the bill, thus leading to its passing. Nevertheless, unions have been on strike since September 10, 2018 to voice opposition to the bill. Please see "Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives" below in this report for more details.

Introduction

Costa Rica is considered a model of democracy and stability within Central America. Notably, the country has no standing army and limited resources for law enforcement. Instead, Costa Rica prioritizes investment in education and public health. While organized crime is on the rise, the country does not suffer from terrorism or political violence.

Although Costa Rica is nominally a presidential republic, with three independent branches of government (the Executive Power, Legislative Power (unicameral), and Judicial Power), it is frequently said that the “first power” is the congress. The President, Vice President, and the 57 congressmen /congresswomen of the multi-party legislative assembly are directly elected every four years, with no re-election possible for the president. In April 2014, President Luis Guillermo Solis of the Citizen Action Party (PAC) was elected. The first round of presidential elections was held on February 4, 2018; with none of the 13 candidates securing 40% of the votes, the two top candidates will undergo a second round on April 1, 2018.   

Costa Rica has a civil law system. Compared to many countries in Latin America, the people of Costa Rica largely enjoy basic civil liberties and political rights, ranked as “Free” by Freedom House as of 2018.  Civil society freedoms have long been respected in law and in practice in Costa Rica. The government imposes few, if any, restrictions on the freedoms of association, assembly, and expression.

Consequently, civil society in Costa Rica is vibrant and active. A diverse range of civil society organizations (CSOs) flourish in the country, including civic organizations (addressing human rights, women’s issues, LGBTI issues, the environment, animal protection, among others), universities, trade unions, research centers and the media. Human rights defenders, environmental activists, child protection organizations, international NGOs, and others operate freely, without undue government interference. CSOs are free to participate in policy making.

Civil society activists have been victims of the rise in violence only in exceptional cases. Jairo Mora, an environmental activist, for example, was killed in 2013 by an organized crime group because he targeted the trade of turtle eggs, which is illegal in the country. While the authorities arrested and prosecuted the perpetrators, the incident ignited alarm among activist organizations.

An issue of more pervasive concern is that many associations and foundations in Costa Rica are believed to be businesses masquerading as not-for-profit organizations. The motivation for doing so may relate to taxation; associations and foundations can perform lucrative activities, but pay less taxes than for-profit businesses. In addition, associations and foundations are generally subject to less scrutiny than for-profit businesses. Furthermore, foundations can receive public funds, opening the door to potential collusion with public servants in regards to grant decisions.

In recent political news, Costa Rica's new President Carlos Alvarado announced on April 27, 2018 a "cabinet of national unity". The cabinet is multi-partisan and represents the full spectrum of the political landscape in Costa Rica. This is the first time ever where the cabinet includes members of former defeated political parties (PUSC, FA, PLN) and has fewer people from the president's own political party (PAC). The only political party that declined any participation in the cabinet was the National Restoration Party (PRN). The new cabinet is also notable for its gender equality: 50% men, 50% women. Epsy Campbell is not only the first ever black vice president of Costa Rica but also the first ever female Secretary of State of Costa Rica. The president, who himself is 38-years old, is also bringing in many young cabinet appointees.

Alvarado's new government started on May 8, 2018 while the new congress started on May 1, 2018. The new congress, like the cabinet, set a new precedent with 26 women out of 57 members: no congress has ever had this level of representativeness for women. In addition, the congress is run by a six-person "Congress Directorate", of which women hold five of the leadership posts. Given that women only gained the right to vote 60 years ago and have previously been excluded from public policymaking (both in congress and in the government), it is anticipated that their inclusion now signals a more progressive agenda that will be pushed in Costa Rica in the years to come. There are high hopes, therefore, that this new generation of political leaders will welcome an increasingly enabling environment for civil society that is a model for the region.

The priority of President Alvarado is the “Tax Bill”, or Law 20.580, but Alvarado has secured support from only 10 out of 57 congressmen and congresswomen. He is also facing opposition in the media, civil society, and business sectors. At this time, it is unknown what activities will be finally taxed and whether or not it will affect civil society in a significant way. Unions went on strike on September 10, 2018 to voice opposition to the bill. The controversial bill is discussed further in the "Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives" below in this report.

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At a Glance

Organizational Forms Associations Foundations
Registration Body Registry of Associations, which is managed by the Ministry of the Justice, and is part of the National Registry. --
Approximate Number There is no official data available relating to the number of registered associations and foundations. There is no official data available relating to the number of registered associations and foundations.
Barriers to Entry Associations are required to have at least ten founding adult members, and they must be more than 16 years old. Associations typically must also pay the equivalent of $500 to the Public Notary in order to receive the authenticated establishment documentation.
--
Barriers to Operations / Activities While the law as written contains certain limitations, in practice organizations are able to operate freely. --
Barriers to Speech and/or Advocacy While members of the police forces and the civil service are barred from publicly expressing their political preferences or opinions, individuals and CSOs are free speak out on issues of public concern. --
Barriers to International Contact No legal barriers No legal barriers
Barriers to Resources Law No. 8204 requires any organization in Costa Rica to demonstrate that funds received do not come from drug trafficking or terrorist financing; all organizations are required to report $10,000 or more at the time of deposit. Donated goods for the creation of a foundation may only be used for the purpose for which the foundation was created.
Barriers to Assembly While there are no prior authorization requirements, assembly organizers are expected to engage in a "mutual planning exercise" with police in advance of a protest. Spontaneous demonstrations may be subject to police scrutiny and possible dissolution if the event becomes a "public order" concern. And in practice, the police are opposed to counter-demonstrations at the same time and place of a group holding opposing views. --

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Key Indicators

Population 4,930,258 (July 2017 est.)
Capital San Jose
Type of Government Presidential republic
Life Expectancy at Birth Total population: 78.7 years (male 76.1 years, female: 81.5 years) (2017 est.)
Literacy Rate Total population: 97.8% (male: 97.7%, female: 97.8%) (2015 est.)
Religious Groups Roman Catholic 76.3%, Evangelical 13.7%, Jehovah's Witness 1.3%, other Protestant 0.7%, other 4.8%, none 3.2%
Ethnic Groups White or mestizo 83.6%, mulato 6.7%, indigenous 2.4%, black of African descent 1.1%, other 1.1%, none 2.9%, unspecified 2.2% (2011 est.)
GDP per capita $17,200 (2017 est.)

Source: CIA World Factbook

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International Rankings

Ranking Body Rank Ranking Scale 
(best – worst possible)
UN Human Development Index 66 (2016) 1 – 182
World Bank Rule of Law Index 67 (2016) 100 – 0
World Bank Voice & Accountability Index 86 (2016) 100 – 0
Transparency International 38 (2017) 1 – 168
Freedom House: Freedom in the World Status: Free
Political Rights: 1
Civil Liberties: 1 (2018)
Free/Partly Free/Not Free
1 – 7
1 – 7
Foreign Policy: Fragile States Index 144 (2018) 178 – 1

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Legal Snapshot

International and Regional Human Rights Agreements

Key International Agreements Ratification* Year
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) Yes 1968
Optional Protocol to ICCPR (ICCPR-OP1) Yes 1968
International Covenant on Economic, Social, and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) Yes 1968
Optional Protocol to ICESCR (OP-ICESCR) Yes 2014
International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) Yes 1967
Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) Yes 1986
Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women No (signed in 1999 but not ratified)
Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) Yes 1990
International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of their Families (ICRMW) No --
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) Yes 2001
Regional Treaties    
American Convention on Human Rights Yes 1969

* Category includes ratification, accession, or succession to the treaty

Constitutional Framework

The Constitution of Costa Rica was adopted in 1949, the year after the last civil war and the last time that government changed by non-democratic means. The Constitution has been amended multiple times.

The Constitution enshrines the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression, among others:

Article 25:
The inhabitants of the Republic have the right of association for lawful purposes. No one may be compelled to form a part of any association whatsoever.

Article 26:
(1) Everyone has the right to meet peacefully and unarmed, whether it is for private business or to discuss political affairs and examine the public conduct of officials.
(2) Meetings on private premises do not need prior authorization. Those held in public places are regulated by law.

Article 27:
The right to petition any public official or State entity, either individually or collectively and the right to obtain prompt resolution are guaranteed.

Article 28:
(1) No one may be disturbed or persecuted for the expression of his opinions or for any act which does not infringe the law.
(2) Private actions which do not harm the morals or public order, or which do not cause any damages to third parties are outside the scope of the law.
(3) However, clergymen or secular individuals cannot make political propaganda in any way invoking religious motives or making use of religious beliefs.

Article 29:
Every person may communicate his thoughts verbally or in writing and publish them without previous censorship; but he is liable for any abuses committed in the exercise of this right, in such cases and in the manner established by law.

Article 30:
(1) Free access to administrative departments for purposes of information on matters of public interest is guaranteed.
(2) State secrets are excluded from this provision.

National Laws and Regulations Affecting Sector

Laws affecting civil society include:

  • Ley de Asociaciones (Law of Associations), amended in 2011
  • Ley de Fundaciones (Law of Foundations), amended in 2011
  • Ley 3859 – Sobre el Desarrollo de la Comunidad (Act for Community Development)
  • Ley de Impuesto a la Renta (Income Tax Law), amended in 2001
  • Ley Reguladora de Exoneraciones Vigentes, Derogatorias y Excepciones, Ley 7293 (Regulatory Law of Exonerations in Force, Repeal and Exceptions)
  • Código Civil (amended in 2000) (Civil Code)
  • Law No. 8204 on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances, Unauthorized Drugs, Related Activities, Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism

Pending NGO Legislative / Regulatory Initiatives

Since Carlos Alvarado became the new President of Costa Rica, his priority has mostly been the “Tax Bill” (in Spanish it is called “Ley de Fortalecimiento de las Finanzas Publicas”). The context behind the Tax Bill is that the government budget has a huge deficit, which is mostly inherited from past administrations. In the long term, Costa Rica may not be able to cover current pensions, government expenses and even salaries. The situation is serious and international observers are considering degrading the country's rating if a solution is not found. A key factor in resolving this issue is the Tax Bill. Alvarado has secured support for the Tax Bill from only 10 congressmen and congresswomen (all in his political party (PAC)) out of a total of 57 members in congress. He has therefore been attempting to enlist other political parties in congress (PLN, PUSC, FA) to support the bill, so he may yet be able to acquire a majority of votes (pending a final text) to approve the Tax Bill. A Supreme Court decision delivered on September 28, 2018 stated that the Tax Bill will need 38 votes to be passed because it may affect the judiciary. The government claims only 29 votes are needed, however. If the government wins this dispute it may be able to pass the bill.

The Tax Bill is undergoing a bitter congressional battle, facing strong opposition from some members of congress, media, civil society, and the business sector. The issue has polarized the country. As of September 2018, it is unknown what activities will be finally taxed and whether or not the bill will affect civil society in any significant way. For example, cooperatives are currently not taxed on their benefits, but one of the proposals in the bill is to include them. Cooperatives are mostly multi-billion dollar businesses, but under the alleged umbrella of “social” components they have generally not been taxed. The biggest cooperative of Costa Rica  is “Dos Pinos”, a milk company that for the most part holds a monopoly in the country. In addition, there is discussion over taxing “Canasta Básica”, which makes various foods consumed by the majority of the Costa Rican population. Placing taxes on the basic foods of every family in Costa Rica, while maintaining an exemption on taxes for companies like Dos Pinos is an example of the stormy daily discussions of the Tax Bill.

The Tax Bill is now annexed for discussion, but the text is changing daily or even by the hour in congress, so the text must be taken with caution and not be considered definitive for the foreseeable future. A league of public servants and unions went on strike on September 10, 2018 and are calling for the country to be paralyzed because they oppose the bill. Some sectors have joined them (public universities, for example), while other sectors condemned the strike. As the issue of the strike is pending a solution, violence has erupted in the country, including clashes with the police and acts of vandalism. The outcome is hard to predict, as the government is not open to negotiation with unions until the strike is halted, and the unions demand the removal of the Tax Bill from discussion in congress in order to negotiate. Alvarado, elected with the highest ever voter turnout in Costa Rican history (1.3 million votes), lost public approval in just 100 days in office. Currently his approval rating is only 30%, which is the worst ever of any president in the country's history.  

Currently we are unaware of any pending legislative or regulatory initiatives that would affect civil society and civic freedoms.

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Legal Analysis

Organizational Forms

There are three predominant organizational forms for civil society available under Costa Rican laws: associations, foundations and community-based organizations.

Associations are groups established by at least 10 members with the goal of pursuing scientific, artistic, sporting, beneficial, entertainment and all others which do not have as their only and exclusive goal profit or gain; societies, unions and associations of mutual aid, of securities and patronage are also specifically named as subject to the law. No political associations of any kind are allowed, including those pursuing an end which is physically or legally impossible under the terms listed in Article 631 of the Civil Code. (Article 3, Law on Associations) For an association’s activities to be legal, it must be registered in the Registry of Associations, which is managed by the Ministry of the Justice, and is part of the National Registry. (Article 5)

Foundations are defined as “private entities of public service that are established for no profit through the dedication of asset sand with the objective of realizing or helping to realize educational, beneficial, artistic, literary or scientific activities and in general all those that mean social well-being.” (Article 1, Law on Foundations)

Community-based organizations are those groups “that wish to organize themselves to carry out integral or specific development activities for the own benefit of the country … in the form of district, cantonal, regional, provincial or national associations, which shall be governed by the provisions of this Act.” (Article 15, Ley 3859 – Sobre el Desarrollo de la Comunidad or the Act for Community Development)

A 2010 report by “Estado de la Nacion”, a multilateral research project, concluded that there were 16,259 registered civil society organizations in Costa Rica. Notably, however, this figure includes unions and trade associations, but does not include the many unregistered groups that exist and operate in the country.

Public Benefit Status

The Law of Associations recognizes a special “public benefit” status for associations whose development or activities are particularly useful to the interests of the State and fulfill a social necessity. To be so recognized, associations must submit a request to the Ministry of Justice. To be eligible for this status, the association must be registered for a minimum of three years and operate legally for the benefit of the community. The associations recognized as public benefit may enjoy the exemptions and administrative and economic concessions that the Executive Power may grant them so that they may accomplish their goals. The Ministry of Justice supervises public benefit associations and requires annual reports from them; the Ministry can revoke this benefit at any time if the reasons for which it was granted disappear. (Article 32, Law on Associations)

Unless the Ministry of Justice revokes them, foundations automatically receive exemptions from payment of registration dues, and national and municipal taxes, except tariffs. (Article 10, Law on Foundations)

According to Article 3 of the Income Tax Law, tax-exempt entities include “unions, foundations, associations declared of public benefit by the executive branch, as long as their income and their assets are used for public benefit or charitable purposes and are not distributed, directly or indirectly, among their members.”

The “Regulatory Law of Exonerations”, No 7293, in Article 2, paragraph (e) provides for tax exemptions for foundations, but only if their work focuses on minors under social risk, the re-collection or treatment of garbage, or the conservation of natural resources, the environment in general, environmental hygiene and public health. While this provision apparently narrows the available tax exemption for foundations, in practice foundations are generally treated as tax-exempt entities.

Barriers to Entry

Associations

Mandatory registration.
All associations are required to register with the Registry of Associations under the Ministry of Justice. The Law on Associations appears to require associations to be registered in order for activities to be considered legal: “For an association’s activities to be legal, it must be registered in the Registry of Associations…” (Article 5) Furthermore, the Law on Associations prescribes fines for those who maintain a secret or hidden association, even when its goals are legal. (Article 33)

It should be noted that in practice, groups are allowed to exist without being registered at all, and there are many “spontaneous organizations” pursuing a range of social and civic issues in the country. In addition, the advent of new technologies has had a profound impact in civil society: there are hundreds, if not thousands, of “Facebook” and “Whatsapp” groups in Costa Rica. As but one example, the “Coalición Costa Rica” was formed immediately after the elections of February 4, 2018, as a spontaneous reaction to the election results. Membership of the association has grown quickly to include approximately 300,000 people. Thus, in practical terms, Article 33 of Law of Associations is not being enforced.

Founding members. To seek registration, associations are required to have at least ten founding adult members. (Article 18) Associations can admit underage members, but not under sixteen years old, and they cannot be elected to any position. (Article 15) Aside from age requirements, there are no express restrictions on who can serve as a founder of associations. No minimum assets are required for establishing associations.

Associations may be formed by both natural persons and legal entities. The Law on Associations defines three categories: simple associations, federations and confederations. Unions of two or more associations with legal entities are called “federation,” “league” or “union,” which must be integrated in its name and cannot be used by the simple associations. The federated associations can, in turn, form a “confederation” and must use this term in their name. (Article 30)

Registration documentation. Among the required documents for registration are (1) the governing statutes of the association, which include the organization’s name, address, goals and the means to achieve them, rules regarding membership, resources, branches, dissolution procedures, and statute amendment procedures; and (2) the naming of the Board of Directors, signed by the Board members, with signatures authenticated by a lawyer or the political authority of the place. (Articles 5, 7, 18)

Associations typically must pay the equivalent of $300-$500 to a Public Notary in order to receive the authenticated establishment documentation. Inscription in the public registry is paid by a fee using stamps (“timbres”) attached to the document; the amount paid is usually not more than $100.

Registration Process: The founders must submit two copies of documents confirming the establishment of the association (e.g., an official notice of a session of the association), as well as the organizational statutes, to the Ministry of Justice. The Ministry will examine the documentation to establish that it “fulfills the requirements of the law and any other relevant provisions.” If the Ministry finds defects or omissions, it will communicate this to the organization. If the defects are corrected or if there were none, the Ministry will publish the applicant’s information in the Diario Oficial, noting the constitution of the association, its name, purpose, residence and legal representation, and inviting interested parties to object to the association’s registration within 15 days after the date of the publication. (In practice, an objection to an association is very rare.) If this period ends without opposition or a sufficient objection, the registration proceeds. If registration is denied “due to opposition or for any other motive,” this will be final; there is no appeals process. (Articles 18-19)

Name limitations. Associations may not adopt a name that is identical or so similar to a name already registered such that it would cause confusion. Associations are also prohibited from using the name “society,” “firm” or “company” as part of the name of the association, or any other term which implies that it has different purposes than the ones listed in this law. (Article 8)

No political associations. “[N]o political associations of any kind will be admitted, including those pursuing an end which is physically or legally impossible under the terms listed in Article 631 of the Civil Code.” (Article 3) The term “political” is interpreted narrowly, to restrict associations from engaging in political party kinds of activities, such as campaigning or electioneering.

Foundations

Foundations are “constituted through public registration or testament” (Article 3, Law on Foundations) However, they acquire legal personhood through registration at the Public Registry’s Person’s Department. (Article 5)

Community-based Organizations (CBOs)

The regulatory approach toward the formation and registration of CBOs is generally supportive and facilitative. CBOs are often expected to coordinate with the local municipality and to avoid any political or for-profit activity.

Foreign NGOs

An association based in a country outside of Costa Rica may operate in Costa Rica by establishing a subsidiary with its own legal entity status under the Law on Associations; or when its governing statutes are incorporated in the Registry of Associations, fulfilling all other requirements governing legal entities in Costa Rica. (Article 16, Law on Associations)

Barriers to Operational Activity

Internal Governance

The internal governance affairs of associations are regulated with significant detail. For example:

  • Associations are required to establish three governing bodies, including (1) the “Assembly or General Board”, (b) the “Supervisor” to oversee that the association complies with the requirements of law and the governing statute, and (c) a governing board made up of at least five members and including a President, a Secretary and a Treasurer, all of majority age. (Article 10, Law on Associations)
  • In the first fifteen days of each program year, the assembly will convene to hear the reports of the President, the Supervisor and the Treasurer, regarding steps taken during the previous program year. (Article 21)
  • The association’s registry of associates (members) and book of minutes for the General Assembly and the Board must be “authorized” by the mayor of the canton of residence. (Article. 22)

Prohibited Activities

By law, associations cannot allow illicit acts, disorders or crimes against morality or good customs to be committed on their premises. Meetings, conferences and all kinds of manifestations of a political partisan nature are prohibited, as well as facilitating the meeting for these acts. (Article 23) In practice, however, these prohibitions are not strictly enforced or subject to government scrutiny. 

Termination

Termination of an association may occur:

(a) When the number of eligible members falls below the minimum required (10) for the formation of an association;

(b) In case of dissolution by the court based on the voluntary request of more than 2/3 of the members;

(c) When the temporary purpose for which it was founded is accomplished, or due to the legal or material impossibility of accomplishing it;

(d) Due to deprivation of its legal capacity, as consequence of a declaration of insolvency or bankruptcy; varying in its final purpose; a change in the nature of its legal entity or for not renewing the directive branch (executive body) in the timeframe provided by the governing statutes.
(Article 13)

Termination of an association can result only from a court order (Article 27) and may be appealed to a superior court.  

Associations will be considered illegal and subject to dissolution, under the following grounds: the Government repeatedly perceives the association’s leaders as allocating funding or activities to objectives different from what is listed in the statutes, and the association does not rectify this; the association appears dedicated to activities proscribed by laws or contrary to morals or good customs or is acting subversively; or the association appears to be formed to conceal goals distinct from the ones defined in the statutes. (Article 34) In practice, however, the government is generally unable to monitor association (or foundation) activities at this level.

Sanctions

Associations may be fined for 2-30 days under the following grounds: Having a secret association, even when its goals are legal; or the Secretary or Treasurer of the association fails to “maintain the books sealed,” keeps the books outdated by more than six months, or refuses to present them to the competent authority. (Article 33) (The fine is based on a salary of approximately $31 (USD) per day; the salary base is adjusted every year).

Associations may be fined for thirty to sixty days under the following grounds: repeating the preceding offenses listed in Article 33; or members of the Board permit funding or activities to support different goals than those listed in the statutes. (Article 33)

For a public benefit organization, depending on the seriousness of the abuse, the justice tribunals can declare the Board ineligible to create new organizations of a similar nature for up to ten years. (Article 33-bis)

As previously mentioned, in practice, the government is unable to keep a watchful eye over association and foundation activities.

Dissolution

For associations, dissolution will be conducted according to the association’s statutes. If no specifications exist, the funds will be distributed to each member in proportion to his/her contribution, and a civil judge will appoint 1-3 liquidators. (Article 14)

For foundations: “Only the appropriate Civil Judge, at the request of the Administrative Board or the General Comptroller of the Republic, can declare the dissolution of a foundation, when it has achieved its goals for which it was created or for motives of absolute impossibility in the execution of the same. If the Judge grants dissolution, he will order that the property be passed to another foundation or, in its absence, to a similar public institution if the creators of foundation did not deed them to another purpose and signed the necessary documents transferring the property.” (Article 17, Law on Foundations)

Barriers to Speech / Advocacy

The Constitution enshrines the freedom of expression:

Article 28:
(1) No one may be disturbed or persecuted for the expression of his opinions or for any act which does not infringe the law.
(2) Private actions which do not harm the morals or public order, or which do not cause any damages to third parties are outside the scope of the law.
(3) However, clergymen or secular individuals cannot make political propaganda in any way invoking religious motives or making use of religious beliefs.

Article 29: Every person may communicate his thoughts verbally or in writing and publish them without previous censorship; but he is liable for any abuses committed in the exercise of this right, in such cases and in the manner established by law.

In practice, the right to freedom of expression and freedom of the press are generally respected in Costa Rica, promoted by independent media, an effective judiciary, and a sound democratic political system. Indeed, Costa Rica is the highest ranking Latin American country and number 6 out of 180 countries in the 2017 World Press Freedom Index. Attacks against journalists and media outlets are rare.

There are only a few legal limitations on expression:

  • The criminal code refers to the protection of the reputation (“injurias, calumnias, difamacion”), but bans political criticism as the basis for defamation suits.
  • Members of the police forces and the civil service are barred from publicly expressing their political preferences or opinions, and from participating in any electoral activity, even attending meetings.

Thus, citizens, organizations, and the media enjoy great liberty in expressing any criticism about the president, government officials, congress, and other public servants. There are many TV and radio shows that analyze current affairs on a daily basis, and several use comedy and satire in their programs. The press is not subject to any form of government restriction or censorship, even with inaccurate reporting.

Notably, in 2015, President Solís removed the minister and vice minister of science, technology, and telecommunications (MICIT), in response to a draft law that the ministry submitted without his approval and that would have allowed regulators to shut down broadcast stations. The proposed law was immediately labelled the “censorship law”; the backlash from the media and population was sufficiently strong to kill the proposal and result in the removal of those responsible for the proposal.

Censorship or Content Restrictions

As mentioned, the press is not subject to any form of government restriction or censorship, even with inaccurate reporting. Any person believing he or she has been affected by a publication has the right to demand that his or her answer be published.

By law, Article 23 on the Law on Associations prohibits “[m]eetings, conferences and all kinds of manifestations of a political partisan nature.” But in practice, this provision is not enforced.

Two past incidents are worth mentioning. In 2016, it was reported that a state-owned bank (BCR) withdrew its official advertising from a newspaper due to critical articles published by that newspaper. In 2014, the Supreme Court reprimanded the Judicial Police (OIJ) for monitoring a journalist’s phone calls to identify a potential whistle-blower.

Internet Freedom

The right to communicate via the Internet is mostly respected.

As of 2015, approximately 60% of individuals used the internet and 60% of households had internet access, according to the International Telecommunication Union.

Public Access to Information

The constitution provides for public access to government information, and the government generally provides access for citizens and noncitizens, including foreign media. Authorities have 10 days to disclose or respond to a request for access. There are no processing fees or sanctions for noncompliance, although requesters can file a petition if their request is denied. Government institutions publish reports that detail their activities during the year. The Public Ethics Solicitor’s Office provides regular training to public employees on public access to information. The Ombudsman’s Office operates a webpage dedicated to enhancing transparency by improving citizens’ access to public information.

Looking beyond the constitution, there is no freedom of information law in Costa Rica; there have been several proposals, but none have resulted in the enactment of a legislative act.

Barriers to International Contact

There are no legal restrictions on the ability of CSOs to contact and cooperate with colleagues in civil society, business and government sectors, either within or outside the country.

Barriers to Resources

Foreign Funding

There are no CSO-specific restrictions impeding domestic CSOs from receiving funding or resources from foreign governments, organizations or individuals.

There are, however, generally applicable restrictions stemming from Law No. 8204 (on Narcotics and Psychotropic Substances, Unauthorized Drugs, Related Activities, Money Laundering and the Financing of Terrorism). Law No. 8204 requires any organization in Costa Rica to demonstrate that funds received do not come from drug trafficking or terrorist financing; all organizations are required to report $10,000 or more at the time of deposit.

Domestic Funding

Article 26 of the Law on Associations affirms that associations can acquire all types of goods, can hold contracts of any nature and have any legal operations, if leading to the realization of their goals.

State funding to associations (“Donations, subsidies, transfers of goods and properties or other economic contributions from the State or its institutions”) is subject to the supervision of the General Comptroller of the Republic. If the association fails to report to the government within a month after the closing of the fiscal year, the association will be forbidden to receive any funds from the State or its institutions, until the required information is received. (Article 26, Law on Associations)

Regarding foundations, the donated goods for the creation of a foundation “will be sole patrimony of the same” and may only be used for the purpose for which the foundation was created. (Article 8) In order to receive donations, subsidies, transfers of goods and properties or any other economic support from public institutions, foundations must (a) have been formed for at least one year; (b) have been active since their formation, executing at least one project a year; (c) have an up-to-date registry of its personnel and legal entity; (d) have the concurrence of the General Comptroller of the Republic, when appropriate, which shows that received donations and transfers were executed and liquidated according to the stated purpose and conforming to the principles of good administration. (Article 18) Furthermore, while foundations do not have commercial ends, they may engage in income-generating activities to increase their patrimony, provided that the profits obtained are exclusively used for the accomplishment of its goals.” (Article 7, Law on Foundations)

Barriers to Assembly

Article 26 of the Constitution protects the freedom of peaceful assembly:

(1) Everyone has the right to meet peacefully and unarmed, whether it is for private business or to discuss political affairs and examine the public conduct of officials.
(2) Meetings on private premises do not need prior authorization. Those held in public places are regulated by law.

There is no legislative act or regulation governing assemblies in Costa Rica.

In practice, the police and assembly organizers engage in a mutual planning exercise. Organizers are expected to report their intention to demonstrate to the police; there is no required advance notification period, but organizers generally understand that police need more than one day to prepare for the event. The names of the participants are not provided to the police. Organizers are able to conduct demonstrations, and the police support the event, providing sufficient protection to the organizers and participants of assemblies. The only restrictions imposed by police, based on the mutual planning exercise, is that organizers are expected not to blockade streets and not to provoke disturbances.

Spontaneous demonstrations may be subject to police scrutiny and possible dissolution if the event becomes a “public order” concern. At the same time, anyone can gather with other people for peaceful purposes in public spaces at any time; as long as there is no disturbance, it is not considered a police matter.

While counter-demonstrations are not addressed by law, the police in Costa Rica is strongly opposed to marches or protests at the same time and place by groups of opposing views; it is unlikely, for example, that the police would support simultaneous demonstrations organized by an anti-abortion group and a pro-choice group.

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Reports

UN Universal Periodic Review Reports

Session 19 - April 2014

Reports of UN Special Rapporteurs

UN expert urges Costa Rica to protect all groups of older persons, including those abandoned (18 May 2016)

Council on Foundations Country Notes

N/A

U.S. State Department


2016 Human Rights Report: Costa Rica

Fragile States Index Reports

Foreign Policy Fragile States Index

IMF Country Reports

2017 Article IV Consultation-Press Release; and Staff Report (Costa Rica)

International Commission of Jurists

Compensation owed by the Republic of Nicaragua to the Republic of Costa Rica

International Center for Not-for-Profit Law Online Library

Costa Rica

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News and Additional Resources

While we aim to maintain information that is as current as possible, we realize that situations can rapidly change.  If you are aware of any additional information or inaccuracies on this page, please keep us informed; write to ICNL at ngomonitor@icnl.org.

Events

In a groundbreaking decision in May 2018, the Superior Electoral Court (TSE, a fully separate branch of the three powers) reported that it would eliminate ”sex” in the official national identity document. This is considered to be a major step for LBGTI rights. Gay marriage is still under discussion in the country. The full resolution is unavailable because it is still pending to be published in the official registry (La Gaceta). The Catholic Church and other conservative groups condemned the TSE resolution.

General News

Costa Rica can't ban same-sex marriage, court rules (August 2018)
Costa Rican President Carlos Alvarado welcomed the country's Supreme Court ruling August 8 that declared a ban on same-sex marriage as unconstitutional. Supreme Court Judge Fernando Castillo gave Costa Rican lawmakers 18 months to pass a same-sex marriage bill. If not, same-sex marriage will become legal by 2020 if no action is taken. If lawmakers pass a same-sex marriage law, the country will become the first in Central America to recognize marriage equality.

Former Presidents Of Costa Rica Make A Call Against Xenophobia (August 2018)
Former presidents have called for peace and warned against perverse interests that may be trying to destroy “our harmony and fuel hatred and xenophobia”. “Let us not succumb to temptation,” says the Tweet that includes a copy of the letter signed by all the former presidents: Rafael Angel Calderon (1990-1994), Jose Maria Figueres Olsen (1994-1998), Miguel Angel Rodriguez (1998-2002), Abel Pacheco de la Espriella (2002-2006), Oscar Arias (2006-2010), Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014), and Guillermo Solis (2014-2018).

Thousands protest tax reform (June 2018)
President Carlos Alvarado tweeted the government hopes to declare the strike illegal, adding in a statement he “will not enter a dialogue” while the strike impacts workers and students. Demonstrations began with a red wave of taxis blocking Avenida 2 in downtown San José. The protests continued throughout the capital city as they did on streets throughout the country: thousands of people voicing their disapproval of a tax reform law they believe unfairly targets the working class.

Trans People Waiting on TSE to Change Names According to Self-Perceived Sex (June 2018)
As of May 31, 2018, the number of requests by trans people waiting to change their names on their cedula (national identity card), according to their self-perceived gender, reached 151. This procedure, which has been demanded for years by the trans population, will be possible after the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced on May 17, 2018 a reform in the Civil Status Regulation.

Statistical dead heat in Costa Rica's presidential elections (March 2018)
Evangelical preacher Fabricio Alvarado and former government minister Carlos Alvarado are in a statistical tie as the second round of Costa Rica's presidential campaign enters full swing, according to a poll published Wednesday. The preacher, who less than one month before February's elections was at 3 percent in the CIEP poll, surged to the lead after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ruled in favor of same-sex marriage within its member countries, which include Costa Rica. Alvarado said that if he is elected, he will withdraw Costa Rica from the court in order to avoid complying with the ruling.

TSE receives a complaint every six hours for alleged use of religion in politics (February 2018)
In just fifteen days the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) received 60 complaints for the alleged use of religion in politics. That is to say, the electoral body registered four complaints per day, one every six hours, of Costa Ricans concerned about the violation of the Electoral Code for invoking religious reasons to campaign politically.

The foregoing information was collected by ICNL's CFM partner Costa Rica.

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