In Bolivia, 11 journalists attacked while covering protests

New York, January 10, 2007—The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns attacks by protesters and police against at least 11 Bolivian reporters, photographers, and camera operators covering Monday’s violent demonstrators in the central city of Cochabamba.

Thousands of demonstrators-including members of the ruling leftist party Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), labor unions, and indigenous groups-took to the streets to seek the ouster of provincial Gov. Manfred Reyes Villa, according to Bolivian and international press reports. The governor, who is allied with the conservative opposition, announced last week that he would seek a referendum granting greater autonomy to Cochabamba province, according to news reports.

Protesters set fire to government offices and to police and private vehicles in Cochabamba, about 140 miles (230 kilometers) southeast of La Paz, according to press reports. Local police fired tear gas and rubber bullets, and protesters responded by throwing rocks and wielding sticks. Thirty-one people were injured during the clashes, The Associated Press reported. News reports and CPJ sources identified at least 11 journalists as being attacked. Some of the journalists were targeted by demonstrators and security forces; others were caught in the crossfire.

“We condemn these attacks against our colleagues in Cochabamba,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We call on Bolivian authorities to provide the necessary protection to enable journalists to do their work and to hold accountable all those responsible for Monday’s violence against the press.”

Four journalists for local television station Univalle-camera operators Víctor Cabezas and Alfredo Orellana, and reporters María Elena Soria and Limbert Sánchez-were attacked by protesters in the city’s central plaza, where the most violent clashes took place, Sánchez told CPJ. Orellana was hospitalized for two days with head injuries; minor injuries were reported to Cabezas, who was hit by a rock, and Sánchez, who was struck by sticks. Demonstrators seized Orellana’s equipment and Soria’s microphone, Sánchez said.

Sánchez told CPJ that stick-wielding demonstrators also struck Cristián Rivero, a reporter for the national television station Bolivisión. According to Sánchez, protesters threatened Elizabeth Paravisini, a photographer for the local daily Los Tiempos, and confiscated her equipment.

Protesters accused the journalists of being biased against President Evo Morales, the former coca farmer elected 13 months ago, Sánchez told CPJ. Many Bolivian media outlets are controlled by companies tied to the conservative opposition. Morales has accused Bolivian media of aligning themselves with antigovernment forces, going as far as to label members of the press as his main enemies.

Local radio reporter Efraín Gutiérrez from the Cochabamba-based radio La Chiwana was attacked by members of the governor’s security personnel, Sánchez told CPJ. The assailants accused Gutiérrez of giving one-sided information and slashed the reporter’s ear, Sánchez told CPJ. Jorge Abregó, a photographer for the press agency Fides, Efraín Muñoz, the local correspondent for the press agency Agencia Bolivariana de Información (ABI), and Noé Portugal, a photographer for Los Tiempos, were injured when local police fired tear gas grenades and rubber bullets, according to ABI reports. ABI and Los Tiempos representatives confirmed the attacks in interviews with CPJ today.

According to ABI, unidentified assailants also attacked freelance photographer Raúl Guevara and confiscated his camera.