Bolivian media attacked in protests over constitutional reform

New York, November 27, 2007—At least five journalists were beaten by police on Sunday in Bolivia while covering antigovernment protests in which four people were killed and hundreds were injured. The violence occurred in the city of Sucre during protests against the government’s efforts to approve a new constitution, according to international news reports. Violence also flared on Monday in La Paz, where supporters of President Evo Morales harassed journalists and attacked media outlets.

The country’s constituent assembly voted Sunday to approve a first draft of the new constitution, according to news reports. It would allow for Morales’ indefinite reelection and, he says, empower Bolivia’s marginalized indigenous majority. The constitution still has to be approved article by article and in a national referendum.

In Sucre—where protesters have been demanding the relocation of the capital to the city—Aizar Raldes, a photographer with AFP, Ricardo Montero and Pablo Ortiz, photographer and reporter with the Santa Cruz-based daily El Deber, and Adriana Gutiérrez and Pablo Tudela, reporter and cameraman with national PAT television station, were covering the protests when police punched them and kicked them, the daily La Razón said. The reporters, who took refuge in a nearby house, were not seriously injured.

President Morales led the rally in La Paz in support of the proposed changes. Journalists working for private media covering the event were harassed by pro-government militants in Murillo Square, La Razón reported. Indigenous groups and members of the ruling leftist party Movimiento al Socialismo chanted “death to the press,” and “death to Unitel,” in reference to the Santa Cruz-based private television station, known for its strong opposition views, the daily reported.

After the rally on Monday, a group of protesters hurled rocks at the premises of Unitel in La Paz, and gathered in front of the offices of private television stations PAT and ATB, which belong to the Spanish media group Prisa, launching insults and threats, according to the local press.
“We are alarmed by these recent attacks against the press during a time where Bolivians need to be informed about crucial political changes that will affect their lives,” said CPJ Executive Director Joel Simon. “We urge Bolivian authorities to ensure that journalists are allowed to report freely.”

Free press activists have expressed concern over vaguely worded articles in the draft constitution that could hinder the work of the media. According to the new text, information and opinions expressed through the media should respect the principles of “veracity and responsibility,” said the La Paz-based daily La Prensa.

“We urge the government to ensure that constitutional reforms do not restrict the freedom of the press,” Simon added.

A government official condemned the attacks. Sacha Llorenti, vice minister of Social Movements, said the attack did not come from Morales’ supporters. The National Association of the Press issued a statement urging the government to provide safety guarantees so the press can work without fear of physical retribution.

In late September CPJ published a special report describing the antagonistic relations between the private media and Morales’ administration. “Bolivia’s Historic Moment,” documents the president’s heated rhetoric and its effect on free expression in the Andean nation. More than a dozen attacks on journalists have been reported in recent months.