Attacks on the Press 2003: Bolivia

The political crisis that has gripped Bolivia since June 2002 elections peaked in October 2003, when President Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada resigned amid violent protests. During the unrest, journalists were attacked and threatened by both the Bolivian military and civilian protesters.

The year began inauspiciously for Sánchez de Lozada, a close ally of the United States who was elected with just over 22 percent of the vote. In January, coca growers erected roadblocks on some of the country’s main highways to protest the U.S.-backed eradication of coca crops in the tropical region of Chapare. Soon after, indigenous leaders from mining regions joined coca growers to organize roadblocks and vowed to fight for Sánchez de Lozada’s resignation.

In early February, the government announced new austerity measures to reduce the budget deficit. On February 12 and 13, after the government attempted to introduce a new income tax, crowds of civilians in the capital, La Paz, joined thousands of striking police officers in a massive antigovernment protest. Military forces clashed with demonstrators near the presidential palace, leading to riots that killed more than 25 people and injured over 100. A dozen government buildings were also looted and burned during the riots. One journalist was shot, two others were wounded after being hit by tear gas canisters, and two more were beaten by civilians who apparently had joined in the looting.

With rioting in the streets around their offices, the state-owned television station Canal 7 and the private Canal 5Bolivisión decided on February 12 to go off the air to guarantee the safety of their personnel and facilities. The two stations resumed broadcasting the next day.

In the fall, violence erupted again with the “Gas War,” a series of antigovernment protests that began in mid-September in La Paz and the neighboring city of El Alto and then spread to the rest of the nation. The protests rallied union workers, members of neighborhood associations, miners, students, and coca growers against government plans to export natural gas to the United States and Mexico. Many Bolivians rejected the project, which involved the construction of a pipeline from landlocked Bolivia through Chile, because they consider the export of the country’s natural gas reserves a theft. Many also view Chile, to which Bolivia lost its coastal area in an 1879 war, as a historical enemy.

After clashes between soldiers and demonstrators killed more than 50 people and injured hundreds, protesters began clamoring for the ouster of Sánchez de Lozada, who was forced to resign on October 17. He was replaced by Vice President Carlos Mesa, a well-known former TV journalist who had earlier withdrawn his support for the president to distance himself from the government’s violent repression of the protests.

On October 12, just days before Sánchez de Lozada left office, five journalists from the state-owned Canal 7 resigned, denouncing government attempts to manipulate news coverage during the Gas War. The journalists, who claimed that they had been told by station management and the government press department not to show images of violence, also cited threats from protesters who were angry at the station’s coverage.

Several journalists and media outlets were attacked or threatened during the Gas War. Oruro-based TV station Canal 13 and Catholic radio station Radio Pío XII, which extensively covered the mass protests, had their transmission equipment blown up by unidentified attackers. One journalist was assaulted and threatened by the military, while several journalists were harassed or beaten by protesters. While insisting that they had respected freedom of the press, government officials declared that some media outlets had incited the population to commit illegal acts, including “sedition.” However, the government took no legal action against any journalists or their employers.

The La Paz weekly Pulso reported that some copies of its special October 15 issue, which contained an editorial calling on Sánchez de Lozada to resign, were confiscated. According to Pulso Editor-in-Chief Gustavo Guzmán, several individuals in a green van pretending to be Pulso staff members took copies of the weekly in a southern area of La Paz. Newspaper vendors later confirmed those reports. Pulso, which otherwise circulated normally in the rest of the city, also discovered that someone had been buying copies in large numbers in a northern area of La Paz. Guzmán said they suspected that government officials might have attempted to take copies of the weekly out of circulation, but the government denied any responsibility.