Attacks on the Press 2007: Bolivia

Increasing hostility between the government of President Evo Morales and the private media reflected a year of overall tension between Bolivia’s indigenous majority and the country’s conservative, European-descended opposition. Amid heated debate in December, a constituent assembly approved a proposal for a new constitution that grants more power to the country’s indigenous population. Journalists expressed concern about vaguely worded constitutional provisions that could hinder the media in South America’s poorest country.
The first-term socialist president repeatedly accused the press, much of it controlled by the conservative elite, of trying to discredit his administration. Morales’ aggressive rhetoric–he once called the news media his biggest enemy–was not matched by official persecution of the press. But his constant barrage of criticism created growing difficulties for reporters.

Pro-government supporters have attacked and harassed journalists working for the private press, said Renán Estenssoro, president of the press group Asociación de Periodistas de la Paz, which documented more than a dozen cases of violent attacks since Morales took office in January 2006. After the governor of the central province of Cochabamba announced in January 2007 that he would seek greater political autonomy, at least 11 journalists were harassed by Morales’ supporters who had taken to the streets to demand the governor’s resignation.

The media faced harassment by antigovernment militants as well. In April, reporter Mario Fernández of state-owned Channel 7 and Radio Patria Nueva was assaulted by union leaders who opposed Morales in the southern city of Tarija, according to the regional press freedom group Instituto Prensa y Sociedad.

The increasing antagonism between Morales and the press exacerbated historic ethnic differences between the capital city of La Paz and Santa Cruz de la Sierra, the opposition stronghold and base of the media and business elite. The rifts became more evident as the constituent assembly debated a new constitution intended to empower the country’s long-marginalized indigenous majority. Controversial issues such as regional autonomy, relocation of the capital to the city of Sucre, indefinite presidential re-election, and land reform led to a string of protests. At least five journalists were beaten by Sucre police while covering protests against the new charter in late November. Four people were killed and hundreds injured in the demonstrations.

The new constitution was scheduled to go before voters for approval in a 2008 referendum. Fundamental rights, including freedom of the press, are at the heart of the constitutional debate. Article 107 of the new constitution said that information and opinions expressed through the media must respect the principles of “veracity and responsibility.” Journalists and press groups expressed concern about the ambiguity of such terms. They also worried that Article 108–which says the state would support creation of community media–would allow the government to simply amplify its official voice. The provision says nothing about ensuring media plurality and diversity. The same article bars companies from establishing media “monopolies” without defining the term. Some publishers worried that the measure would affect free enterprise.

The escalating confrontation between the private media and the government prompted CPJ to conduct a mission in June to examine press freedom conditions. The CPJ delegation, which included board member Josh Friedman and Americas Senior Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría, met with Morales, Vice President Àlvaro García Linera, senior government officials, journalists, editors, media executives, and human rights activists in the capital and in Santa Cruz.

In “Bolivia’s Historic Moment,” a special report released in September, CPJ concluded that increasing ethnic and class tensions in Bolivian society had fueled resentment between government and media. CPJ called on Morales to exercise greater restraint in his criticism of the news media and to ensure that constitutional reforms do not restrict freedom of the press.

Morales’ intolerance toward press criticism resembled the stance of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez Frías, whose hostility toward the media had become routine. In March, the Venezuelan leader went so far as to bash the Bolivian press, calling it “oligarchic” and “unpatriotic.”

Chávez expanded his influence in Bolivia by using funds from his country’s oil profits to finance Bolivian state media projects. With a 15 million boliviano (US$2 million) investment from the Venezuelan government, Bolivia launched a network of community radio stations called Radios de los Pueblos Originarios de Bolivia. More than two dozen of these stations were broadcasting to rural and indigenous communities throughout the country in late year. Though the government declared the network did not carry official propaganda, reporters said the stations were specifically designed to give the administration a greater voice.

Like Chávez’s Venezuelan regime, the Morales administration had a contentious relationship with the U.S. government. In late August, Juan Ramón Quintana, Morales’ top aide, alleged that the United States was paying Bolivian journalists and columnists to create conflict and undermine democracy. Without providing names, Quintana said funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development were used to influence media coverage.

On the domestic front, Morales made clear that media owners were the principal enemy of his administration. The government complained that private media, especially Santa Cruz-based television stations Unitel and Radio Uno, skewed coverage in favor of business or other special interests. As a result, Morales asked his cabinet to hire communications advisers to monitor television and radio news programs to ensure that the official voice was being presented, presidential aide Víctor Orduna told CPJ.

Journalists and press groups acknowledged that politicization of the media had made the press vulnerable to official criticism. “Television in Santa Cruz is sensationalist: News shows frequently use headlines that exaggerate, change, and distort reality,” said Carlos Valverde, a prominent radio host in Santa Cruz. Unitel argued that it has always treated authorities the same way. “Our duty is to criticize and report on official wrongdoing,” said Unitel News Director José Pomacusi.

Yet many journalists said the polarized environment hindered news gathering and hurt the quality of reporting, sparking a debate within the profession on whether self-regulation could neutralize the excesses of both government and media. Raúl Peñaranda, former editor of the weekly La Epoca, said that with so many news outlets openly supporting either the government or the opposition, only a few outlets were considered neutral spaces for debate.