Attacks on the Press in 2008: Bolivia

The news media were caught in the middle of a deepening power struggle between the leftist government of President Evo Morales, an Aymara Indian, and the conservative opposition governors of the eastern lowlands. The battle was fueled by rising ethnic tensions between Bolivia’s indigenous majority, centered in the capital, La Paz, and the European-descended opposition based in the lowlands.

Dozens of journalists were attacked, harassed, and threatened in a wave of violence that limited coverage of the country’s bitter political divide. In March, protesters demanding the ouster of the mayor in Pucarani, a town about 30 miles (48 kilometers) from La Paz, ransacked government-owned Radio Municipal and severely beat reporter Carlos Quispe Quispe. The reporter, who suffered head and chest injuries, died two days later. The trial of six people arrested in the attack was pending in late year.

Tensions between Morales’ government and private media reached new heights after the national police commander said in January that police intelligence had spied on opposition politicians and a critical journalist. The announcement was made shortly after news media received anonymous photographs documenting efforts to follow Juan José Espada, a reporter with Unitel television, Morales’ harshest critic. Police commander Gen. Miguel Vásquez said the surveillance had happened without his knowledge, and he demanded that a subordinate be held accountable. The Senate launched an investigation after a complaint by the La Paz Journalists Association, but the inquiry appeared to stall in late year.

In October, after long and angry debate, Congress scheduled a January 25, 2009, referendum on a new constitution intended to give greater power to Bolivia’s long-marginalized indigenous population. Land reform measures were among the biggest provisions.

Controversy shadowed the document for much of the year. Morales and his party, the Movimiento al Socialismo (MAS), had sought to push through an earlier version of the document over the objections of opposition leaders. After Morales agreed to an important concession—a two-term presidential limit—the legislature finally acted to bring the constitution to a vote. The earlier version had allowed presidents to seek indefinite re-election. Morales, in his first term, was expected to seek re-election in December 2009.

Congress also amended a provision in the earlier version that would have weakened constitutional guarantees on free expression. As initially drafted, Article 107 of the proposed constitution said that information and opinions expressed through the media must respect the principles of “veracity and responsibility.” After press groups expressed alarm, the document was amended so those principles—veracity and responsibility—would be established by unspecified media institutions. “It didn’t satisfy our expectations but at least the change keeps the government away from any kind of regulation,” said Juan Javier Zeballos, executive director of the National Association of the Press (ANP), a publishers group.

As the constitutional dispute boiled for much of the year, opposition party governors called a series of referendums to declare local autonomy from Bolivia’s central government. The opposition, especially in the eastern lowlands, which are rich in oil and natural gas, sought to retain control over locally generated profits and land titles that the MAS wanted to redistribute to the indigenous population. Protests erupted in eastern Santa Cruz after voters overwhelmingly backed political autonomy in a May 4 referendum—a vote Morales called unconstitutional. Several journalists working for private media were attacked and harassed as political tensions spiraled. A month later, state-owned and pro-government community media outlets were targeted by opposition activists while covering similar referendums in the states of Pando and Beni, according to the local press.

Political turmoil grew further in September as antigovernment protests erupted in several regions; opposition groups denounced the planned constitutional changes and demanded greater shares of natural gas revenue. Clashes between government supporters and opposition groups left 28 people dead and dozens injured, according to local and international press reports. Militants with the youth group Unión Juvenil Cruceñista in Santa Cruz raided several public buildings, including the premises of two state-owned broadcast outlets, causing substantial damage and halting broadcasts. Two reporters with the Santa Cruz-based daily El Deber were beaten with sticks by pro-government farmers, according to the regional press group Instituto Prensa y Sociedad. PAT television reporter Claudia Méndez was hit in the ankle by a stray bullet as she covered a military operation at the airport in Cobija, according to local news reports.

A presidential decree signed by Morales in June tightened official control over state-owned Channel 7 television. The decree established a five-member board of directors composed of cabinet ministers “to design strategies and plans in the framework of the policies dictated by the national government.” Local journalists said the decision left the station open to political manipulation. In 2007, funded with a 15 million boliviano (US$2 million) investment from Venezuela, the government launched a network of more than 20 community radio stations in isolated rural and indigenous areas. Local reporters said the network was being used to disseminate official propaganda.

Journalists and press groups complained about coverage restrictions. The ANP said the army prevented several private outlets from covering the aftermath of violent clashes in the city of Cobija. A reporter with the daily La Razón and journalists with the ATB and PAT television networks were turned back, while members of state-owned Channel 7 were allowed to stay in Cobija, the press association said.

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