Journalists temporarily flee Bolivia after harassment

Bogotá, October 19, 2012–The Committee to Protect Journalists condemns the official harassment of two executives of a Bolivian newspaper that has reported on government corruption in the northern department of Pando. Both journalists sought refuge in Brazil for three days after the episode, according to news reports.

Wilson García Mérida, the founder, editor, and owner of the biweekly Sol de Pando, and his general manager, Silvia Antelo, fled the department capital of Cobija on October 13 and stayed in the adjacent Brazilian border town of Brasilea after they were harassed twice by investigators who said they were from the police and prosecutor’s office, according to news reports and Franz Chávez, coordinator for the La Paz-based Bolivian Press Association. The journalists said they fled the country because they feared arrest, Chávez told CPJ.

The journalists were in Cobija to distribute the latest edition of Sol de Pando, which covers government, the indigenous population, and social affairs in the department of Pando. Investigators began to follow them and photograph them, and later that day, arrived at their hotel in Cobija with an order to leave, García told reporters on Sunday.

Pedro Melgar, the secretary of legal affairs for the Pando government, told CPJ that there had been no effort by local authorities to harass them or prevent the distribution of the paper.

Antelo told CPJ that she left Brazil on Tuesday and flew to the Bolivian capital of La Paz and that García had returned to his home in Cochabamba. She said they both intended to remain in Bolivia and to continue publishing Sol de Pando but that they feared further government harassment.

Sol de Pando has reported on government corruption in the past, and both the paper and its editor, García, have been targeted by Bolivian officials. Richard Flores, a former congressman and a brother of Pando Gov. Luis Adolfo Flores, has sued García for defamation in connection with reports in Sol de Pando that alleged he improperly received work contracts from the government, Melgar told CPJ. Flores denied the allegations. García claimed that in June 2011, the governor had ordered the confiscation of about 2,000 copies of Sol de Pando that included stories about government corruption. A government official denied the accusation.

“The management of Sol de Pando should not face intimidation because of the paper’s coverage of sensitive issues,” Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas, said from New York. “Authorities in Pando department should halt the harassment immediately and allow the paper to circulate freely.”

Bolivian government officials and critical media outlets have clashed before. In August, authorities filed a criminal complaint filed against three media outlets and accused them of inciting racism and discrimination in connection with their coverage of a speech by President Evo Morales.