Journalist investigates Bolivia’s ‘silent campaign’ for editorial control

At a bizarre news conference in April, Bolivia’s Communications Minister Amanda Dávila claimed that journalist Raúl Peñaranda, who was born in Chile, represented a dangerous “beachhead” for Chilean interests trying to deny landlocked Bolivia access to the Pacific.

Dávila’s remarks were denounced by critics as xenophobic. Peñaranda has lived in Bolivia since he was 11 months old and is a widely respected author, a former Nieman journalism fellow at Harvard University, and the former editor of the La Paz daily Página Siete.

The minister’s true aim, these critics claimed, was to smear Peñaranda whose book about government efforts to gain control over independent media outlets was due to go on sale two days later. In the end, Dávila’s statements drew more attention to the book, Control Remoto, (Remote Control,) which went on to become a bestseller in Bolivia.

“The government was very upset with me and the only way they could try to discredit me was to say I was pro-Chilean,” Peñaranda told CPJ.

Peñaranda’s book is the first in-depth study of how the left-wing government of President Evo Morales has carried out a silent campaign to gain the editorial support of several TV stations and newspapers through their purchase by business people friendly to the government. Remote Control also accuses the government of harassing critical media outlets through advertising boycotts, labor inspections, and tax audits.

“I have never before seen such a well-built strategy by a government to take over the media,” Rafael Loayza, director of the journalism program at Bolivian Catholic University in La Paz, told CPJ. Still, the effort is strikingly similar to the Venezuelan government’s campaign to force the sale of independent news outlets in that country to businesses with ties to the administration of left-wing President Nicolás Maduro.

The TV station Globovisión, the media conglomerate Cadena Capriles that published the daily Últimas Noticias, and the Caracas newspaper El Universal have all been sold in the past two years, and have subsequently softened their coverage of the Maduro government, according to CPJ research and media reports. On September 17, for example, Rayma Suprani, El Universal’s award-winning cartoonist, was fired for a drawing criticizing the way the government has handled several recent public health crises. The paper’s editor did not comment on her dismissal, according to news reports.

In Bolivia, Remote Control has been especially controversial because the Morales government has never acknowledged its role in the recent media transactions that include the sales of the television stations ATB, PAT and Full TV. No paper trail proving these links has emerged. Instead, Peñaranda sometimes relied on second-hand accounts when piecing together the puzzle.

But Loayza and other independent analysts say Peñaranda got it right. One indication, he said, is that no one has sued Peñaranda for defamation. But perhaps the best evidence lies in how media coverage of the government has shifted from mostly negative during Morales’ first years in power to mostly positive.

There are still critical media outlets in Bolivia, among them Página Siete, the Santa Cruz daily El Deber, the Cochabamba daily Los Tiempos, and the ERBOL radio network. However, Morales, who is favored to win a third term in the October 12 general election, rarely comes under sustained scrutiny. Morales himself has acknowledged this shift.

In an interview last year with El Deber Morales said that when he was first elected in 2005 between 80 and 90 percent of the media was against him. “Now, it’s just 10 or 20 percent in the opposition,” Morales told the newspaper.

This transition is perhaps best exemplified by La Razón, the largest daily newspaper in La Paz that was critical of the Morales government throughout much of his first term. But according to Remote Control, after a series of labor inspections and tax audits designed to intimidate its owners, La Razón was sold in 2008 to Carlos Gill, a Venezuelan businessman friendly to both the Maduro and Morales governments.

The book also maintains that Vice President Álvaro García Linera was directly involved in selecting La Razón’s new editorial team and that he rejected several prospects before finally hiring one of his friends, journalist Claudia Benavente. She has denied this account and insists she never met with the vice president to discuss the job.

But since the purchase, La Razón has become friendlier toward the government, with its headlines often similar to those in the state-run newspaper Cambio, according to Rafael Archondo, who claims to be the only columnist at La Razón who regularly criticizes the government.

Remote Control includes a study of La Razón’s content during a 30-day period last year. It shows that 56 percent of its news articles were generally favorable towards the government, 40 percent were neutral, and only about 3 percent were critical.

But in an interview with CPJ, Rubén Atahuichi, news editor at La Razón, denied the newspaper has become a Morales mouthpiece and pointed to several recent stories that were critical of the government. He also noted that the Morales administration has accused La Razón and Benavente of espionage over an article in April about Bolivia’s legal dispute with Chile over access to the Pacific.

“The lawsuit shows that all of these accusations of coordination between La Razón and the government are false,” Atahuichi said. He called Peñaranda’s book a poorly sourced hatchet job.

Dávila, the communications minister, told CPJ that the government has no control over La Razón or over the television stations PAT, ATB and Full TV.

“Everything that Peñaranda says about these media outlets becoming mouthpieces for the state is absolute lies,” Dávila said. “If they were under our control these media would have a clear editorial line. But they don’t have a clear editorial policy. They are all over the map.”

Dávila also defended her April press conference. She said the government has solid information linking Peñaranda to Chilean interests, and that the newspaper he once edited, Página Siete, is hostile towards Bolivia’s legal claims for access to the Pacific. When asked what that information consisted of, Dávila refused to comment.

UPDATE: The seventh paragraph has been corrected to reflect that Rayma Suprani is a cartoonist.