ALTHOUGH THE BOLIVIAN PRESS IS PLURALISTIC and freedom of the press is generally respected, structural barriers as well as a tense political situation continued to impede independent reporting.
In April, President Hugo Banzer imposed a state of emergency that lasted for nearly two weeks after violent protests against an increase in water rates broke out in Cochabamba, the nation’s third-largest city, and then spread across the country. Several media outlets received threats during this period, including the national PAT television network, which had aired footage of a sharpshooter firing into a crowd of demonstrators. During the first day of the emergency, the military temporarily occupied three small radio stations in towns surrounding Cochabamba. The tension eased after the Banzer government abandoned its planned rate increase.
In September, a wave of political and social unrest shook Bolivia. Farmers protesting the construction of three military bases and government efforts to eradicate coca plantations in the Chapare, a tropical region in central Bolivia, erected roadblocks on the nation’s main highway, while school teachers took to the streets demanding wage increases. Although local journalists said press freedom was not curtailed, they worried that the mounting crisis could have a negative effect on their work.
Bolivia is a landlocked country with a poorly developed communications infrastructure, and nearly 40 percent of its 8.1 million inhabitants live in rural areas, according to World Bank data, making newspaper distribution difficult. However, local journalists say high rates of poverty and illiteracy are the main reasons for low newspaper circulation, which renders the press vulnerable to pressure from a small pool of advertisers.
Media outlets that support the government benefit from generous state advertising, while opposition or critical media must survive on scanty private advertising. Some media outlets are bankrolled by politicians and businessmen who use them to advance their own interests. Bolivia’s entrepreneurial class is small, and most media owners have close personal connections throughout the business community. As a result, journalists find it difficult to write about corporate malfeasance.
Investigative reporting remains a dangerous activity. In one example cited by local journalists, Gloria Eyzaguirre, chief of information at the La Paz Catholic daily Presencia, received telephone death threats in early March. Presencia had recently investigated the alleged drug trafficking and money laundering activities of Marco Marino Diodato, an Italian-born businessman.
On May 10, free-lance journalist Ronald Méndez was jailed for eight days on criminal defamation charges after he reported on the alleged embezzlement of one million dollars by a local water company. Initially sentenced to a one-year prison term, the journalist was released and the case was closed after a court determined that Méndez’s constitutional rights had been violated. On June 11, an unidentified gunman shot Méndez in the leg and then fled on a motorcycle.
The press plays a particularly important civic role in Bolivia, where the judiciary is often labeled corrupt and beholden to various political interests. The La Paz weekly Pulso stands out in particular for its critical and independent reporting. Journalists hold most of Pulso‘s shares, and its pages are open to writers with diverse political tendencies.
Last year, a bill was re-introduced that would modify the 1925 Print Law in order to force journalists to disclose their sources. Although many consider the Print Law obsolete, it does guarantee professional confidentiality and the protection of sources. On October 23, journalists protested against the proposed law by marching in front of the Palace of Government and the National Parliament with their mouths gagged. Later that day, the Senate withdrew the legislation.
The Print Law also provides for special 40-member juries (which include journalists) in each municipality to hear cases of defamation committed through the press. All defamation cases brought by public officials are tried before these special juries, which are not entitled to impose criminal sanctions. The first press juries were convened only recently, however, due to long-standing political and institutional instability and the inherent difficulties of assembling such large juries. Local journalists say it is too early to assess their effectiveness.
Journalists in Bolivia must have a university degree in journalism and be registered in the National Registry of Journalists in order to exercise their profession. Though enforcement is lax, penalties are potentially severe. Under a 1984 law, “persons who call themselves journalists without complying with the pertinent legal requirements shall be sanctioned and prosecuted in accordance with the Penal and Criminal Procedure Codes.” In 1985, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in Costa Rica ruled that mandatory licensing of journalists violates the American Convention on Human Rights.
The La Paz daily Presencia received an anonymous bomb threat, the latest in a series of telephone threats that staff members had been fielding since early March.
Bolivian journalists suspected that the threats stemmed from Presencia’s reports on Marco Marino Diodato, an Italian-born businessman who was acquitted on February 23 of charges that included drug trafficking, money laundering, and involvement in an international Mafia ring.
After the acquittal, Presencia continued to investigate Diodato, who is married to President Hugo Banzer’s niece. The paper’s reporting linked Diodato and senior Bolivian government officials to a money-laundering racket administered through illegal casinos.
Presencia spokeswoman Gloria Eyzaguirre told CPJ that she had begun receiving telephone death threats in early March. One caller gave a detailed description of her daughter’s daily routine, including the clothes that the girl had been wearing when she left the house that morning. Other Presencia reporters also received threats during this period, according to Eyzaguirre.
On April 24, CPJ published an alert condemning the threats against Presencia.