Attacks on the Press 1999: Bolivia

While President Hugo Banzer’s government used the state intelligence apparatus to intimidate journalists, the Bolivian press continued to report aggressively on a number of public scandals.

Banzer, a general who led a military government from 1971 to 1978, publicly embraced press freedom after he was democratically elected president in 1997. But many local journalists are skeptical about the sincerity of his promise.

In an example cited by the Sindicato de Trabajadores de La Prensa de La Paz, a local press union, Interior Minister Walter Guiteras ordered government agents to investigate and track journalists who covered a drug scandal involving Marco Marino Diodato, the husband of Banzer’s niece. Diodato, an Italian citizen employed by the Bolivian military as a special communications and arms expert, was arrested on June 17 and accused of heading the Santa Cruz Connection, an international narcotics ring. After falling out with the government, Diodato publicly alleged that the Banzer administration was carrying out widespread telephone interception within government agencies.

In response to growing concern about wiretapping, a locally based U.S. company volunteered to check the telephone systems of local media for bugs. On September 12, technicians discovered hidden microphones in the office of the director of La Razón newspaper and in the offices of the chairman and vice president of the ATB television network. Both La Razón and ATB are owned by Raúl Garáfulic, the owner of Comunicaciones El País S.A., the largest multimedia company in Bolivia. He told CPJ that it was unclear whether the microphones had been placed by intelligence organizations within the Bolivian government or by drug traffickers angered by his media’s critical coverage of the coca trade.

Banzer publicly apologized for a July 21 police assault on journalists and photographers covering a protest march held by the Bolivian Labor Union (COB) in La Paz. But the apology backfired when he also warned journalists to “be prudent.” Press associations and unions organized an anti-Banzer demonstration the next day to show their discontent.

Bolivian journalists also complained about the administration’s practice of selectively placing state advertising in media outlets that cover the government favorably.

March 2

A group of suspected government intelligence agents tried to seize the March 3 edition of the monthly magazine Informe R. The cover of the magazine featured a photomontage of former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet and current Bolivian President Hugo Banzer. Part of the montage was based on a picture of Banzer taken when he was dictator of Bolivia in the 1970s.

After repeated electrical problems delayed the publication of the magazine, staff at the Center of Documentation and Information (CEDOIN), which published Informe R at the time, noticed they were being watched by a number of individuals stationed outside their offices. At 8 p.m., director Ruy Omar Suárez was stopped outside CEDOIN by a group of eight to 10 individuals who demanded that he hand over the next day’s edition of Informe R.

Suárez notified opposition congressman Juan de Granados. When the two men returned to the offices, they found the same group trying to make off with the magazines. When asked for identification, they all fled, except for a woman who identified her colleagues only as members of the police. Later, Granados and Suárez recognized the intruders’ vehicle and followed it to the Central Intelligence Office. The same individuals got out of the car and entered the building.

The following day, March 3, the Sindicato de Periodistas de La Paz, a local press union, distributed the magazine and filed a complaint with Interior Minister Guido Nayer. In a press conference later that day, Nayer blamed the attempted confiscation on Granados, accusing him of resorting to this tactic for his own political gain. Days earlier, Granados had launched a new political party known as the Fearless Movement (MSM), after leaving his previous party, the Free Bolivia Movement (MBL). Both parties are opposed to the ruling party of President Banzer.

A former editor of the magazine, Silvana Ruiz, told CPJ that Nayer also threatened to take the magazine’s editors to court for defaming the president. However, President Banzer promised not to pursue the case. Findings from an investigation conducted by the Bolivian public defender found government officials responsible for the attempted seizure. No further action was taken.

August 29
Edgar Toro, Presencia ATTACKED, THREATENED

City council member David Foronda attacked Toro, El Alto correspondent for the La Paz-based newspaper Presencia.

In June, Toro had published a report implicating Foronda and three other council members in a corruption scandal. For the next two months, Foronda threatened to take Toro to court for damaging his reputation. During those same months, the journalist also received a number of anonymous death threats by telephone.

On August 29, Toro ran into Foronda and his wife in El Alto. Foronda’s wife began insulting the journalist. Then Foronda, an ex-wrestler, attacked Toro, breaking several ribs. Authorities were apparently slow to investigate both the attack and the corruption scandal. The attorney general finally contacted Toro in October. But the journalist declined to cooperate with an investigation because he felt that too much time had passed.