CPJ calls for government action after growing violence against the press

New York, September 19, 2008—With the rise of violent attacks and threats against journalists covering civil unrest in different regions of Bolivia this week, the Committee to Protect Journalists called on national and provincial authorities today to ensure that all media can report the news freely.  

At least 18 people have been killed and dozens injured over the last week. Antigovernment protests erupted as opposition groups demanded a larger share in the nation’s gas profits and greater autonomy. The groups also oppose a constitutional reform, according to international and local news reports. President Evo Morales and opposition governors began talks on Thursday in an attempt to defuse the serious political crisis.

“It is deeply disturbing that journalists have been attacked and prevented from covering the unrest sweeping Bolivia,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s Americas senior program coordinator. “We call on the national and provincial authorities to ensure that all media, not just state-owned outlets, have unimpeded access to conflict zones and can report without fear or reprisal.”

Early on Tuesday morning, unidentified assailants detonated a homemade bomb outside the premises of private television station Channel 9, which belongs to Red Uno network, in the central city of Cochabamba, the Bolivian press reported. No one was injured in the attack although it caused extensive damage, the Cochabamba-based daily Los Tiempos reported. The station had received threats before the attack, the publishers’ group Bolivian National Association of the Press said in a statement. Authorities have launched an inquiry into the incident.

Also on Tuesday, at around 1 p.m., a crew with private television network PAT was insulted and attacked with stones by a group of pro-government militants while covering a street protest in El Alto, near the capital city of La Paz. Technician Miguel Chuquimia was treated in the hospital for a cut on his eyebrow, said the La Paz-based daily La Razón. At the same time, a group of university students in La Paz attempted to storm the offices of private television networks PAT and Unitel but police forces dispersed the crowd before they could enter their buildings, according to La Razón.

Reporter Christian Peña and photographer Angel Farell, with the Santa Cruz-based daily El Deber, were attacked on Sunday by a group of pro-government farmers, according to regional press group Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS). The two reporters were covering a confrontation between farmers and opposition groups who were attempting to clear a road that had been blocked in the city of Tiquipaya, said IPYS. El Deber reporters were pushed to the ground and beaten with sticks. Peña was able to escape and suffered some bruises, while Farell had a serious wound on his head that needed 15 stitches, said El Deber.   

The National Association of the Press and other press groups said the Bolivian army prevented journalists working for private outlets from covering the aftermath of violent clashes in the city of Cobija, in Pando province, where more than a dozen people were killed over the weekend. A reporter form the daily La Razón and journalists from ATB and PAT television networks were forced to return to La Paz, which the army said was not safe for the media, according to La Razón. The press association and the Bolivian press argued that members of state-owned television station Channel 7 were given preferential treatment and allowed to stay in Cobija.

In another incident, reporter Claudia Méndez with the private TV network PAT was hit by a stray bullet in her ankle on Saturday while covering a military operation in Cobija’s airport, the local press said.

On September 9, opposition activists in the city of Santa Cruz de la Sierra stormed the offices of two state-owned media outlets, destroying equipment and forcing them to halt broadcasts in the wake of two weeks of antigovernment protests.
Bolivia’s Historic Moment,” a 2007 CPJ special report, concluded that increasing ethnic and class tensions in Bolivian society have fueled resentment between Morales’ government and the private media. In the last year, tensions between the country’s majority indigenous population and the lowland, rich city of Santa Cruz, dominated by a European-descended, Spanish-speaking elite, have increased.