Bolivian government gangs up on Página Siete

Bolivia’s loss of territory along the Pacific coast during a 19th-century war with Chile remains an extremely sensitive issue in the landlocked nation. Every March 23, patriotic “Day of the Sea” ceremonies mark the calamity, which Bolivia hopes to reverse through a lawsuit filed this year against Chile at the International Court of Justice.

But the dispute has also provided President Evo Morales’s government with a baseless yet potent excuse to gang up on Página Siete, one of a dwindling number of independent newspapers in Bolivia. In response to Página Siete‘s aggressive reporting on government corruption, officials for the last year have been loudly denouncing the newspaper as a mouthpiece for Chilean interests who oppose Bolivia’s territorial claims.

The smear campaign peaked last month when the newspaper published an erroneous headline that prompted the resignation of Raúl Peñaranda, Página Siete‘s editor.

“Because it couldn’t close us down, the government began calling us sellouts and traitors,” Peñaranda told CPJ in a telephone interview from La Paz. “They resorted to xenophobia to appeal to the basest instincts of the population.”

A veteran Bolivian reporter and editor and a former Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, Peñaranda, 47, founded Página Siete in 2010. Its birth came on the heels of the purchase by a Venezuelan business consortium of Bolivia’s leading newspaper, La Razón, as well as two of the country’s principle TV stations. They have since become friendlier toward the Morales administration while the pages of La Razón are now filled with government advertising.

By contrast, Página Siete has published investigations on issues ranging from the government’s purchase of cargo boats from China that never arrived to corrupt practices involving entrance exams at the police academy, a scandal that led to the resignation of the national police commander.

The consequences were immediate. Página Siete reporters were shunned at government press conferences while advertising from government entities and state-run companies dried up. In August 2012, the government filed a criminal complaint against Página Siete and two other news outlets for inciting racism even though all three media had accurately reported on a speech in which Morales insinuated that Bolivians living in the eastern plains were “lazy.” That case has been in limbo since the presiding judge was removed on charges of corruption.

Two months later, Vice President Álvaro García held an extraordinary news conference in which he unveiled a chart with photos and family tree diagrams in an amateur attempt to demonstrate Página Siete‘s supposed pro-Chile bias.

The government’s “evidence” amounted to the fact that Peñaranda’s mother is Chilean, while Raúl Garáfulic, the newspaper’s principle owner, is the brother-in-law of Mónica Zalaquett, a conservative Chilean congresswoman. Zalaquett has angered the Morales government by calling Bolivia’s historic claims to territory lost in the war with Chile “ridiculous.”

However, Peñaranda told CPJ that Garavúlic is Bolivian, and that the newspaper receives no financial backing from Zalaquett or any other Chileans. In addition, he said, the newspaper’s editorials have staunchly supported Bolivia’s claims to the disputed Pacific coast territory, a stance endorsed by all but one of Página Siete‘s two dozen columnists.

Even so, the newspaper’s alleged pro-Chile bias was resurrected by President Morales on Aug. 6, Bolivia’s independence day. “I want you to know that there are Chilean newspapers and TV stations in Bolivia that want to cause damage, especially regarding Bolivia’s maritime claims,” Morales said in a nationally televised speech.

Soon afterwards, Minister of the Presidency Juan Ramón Quintana as well as two other ministers and the head of the ruling Movement Towards Socialism party held press conferences to paint Página Siete as a Trojan horse for Chilean interests.

On August 13, Página Siete‘s website was targeted with a denial-of-service (DoS) attack, Peñaranda told CPJ, and now the newspaper is only available in PDF form on the Internet.  The day after the attack, graffiti sprung up around La Paz denouncing the daily and its alleged connection to Chilean interests.

In response, prominent figures rushed to defend Página Siete. Former President Carlos Mesa called the government’s attacks “excessive.” Juan León, president of the National Press Association, said the Morales government was trying to silence critical voices by purchasing, co-opting, or eliminating independent media in Bolivia.

“Quintana and the president have an aversion to press freedom,” said opposition legislator Rubén Darío Rojo. “They can’t stand dissent or critical thought.”

Last month, shortly before Morales traveled to Rome to meet Pope Francis, Página Siete shot itself in the foot by publishing an erroneous headline alleging that four government ministers had been excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church. The article was based on an interview with the secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops Conference who told the newspaper that the four officials were not welcome to attend Mass or take communion because they favor decriminalizing abortion. But the secretary-general later denied he said they had been excommunicated.

Peñaranda took responsibility for the erroneous headline, apologized in the pages of Página Siete, and, to limit the damage to the newspaper, resigned on Aug. 22. Worn down and out of a job, he is considering starting a nonprofit foundation to train young journalists. “I just didn’t have the energy to continue confronting the government,” he said.