Bolivia’s president and state-run TV skip presidential election debate

President Evo Morales wasn’t the only no show at Bolivia’s lone presidential debate in the run-up to this Sunday’s election. State-run Bolivia TV, which has provided live coverage of every presidential debate since the late 1980s, also ignored the September 28 candidate forum.

Rather than operate as a public service channel, critics told the Committee to Protect Journalists, Bolivia TV has morphed into a highly partisan propaganda tool for Morales’s left-wing government. They claim that because the president skipped the debate, Bolivia TV opted to broadcast a soccer match.

A week earlier, Bolivia TV declined to broadcast the country’s only vice presidential debate after the current vice president, Álvaro García Linera, pulled out. Several private channels broadcast both debates, but they lack the national reach of Bolivia TV, Rafael Loayza, who heads the communications program at the Bolivian Catholic University in La Paz, told CPJ.

“State television always favors the government but this is the most submissive that Bolivia TV has ever been,” Raúl Peñaranda, vice president of the Association of Journalists of La Paz, which organized the two debates, added. “It’s an embarrassment.”

Peñaranda and other critics said that the station’s decision to turn its back on the debates represents the most egregious example of how Bolivia’s media landscape has become heavily tilted in favor of Morales, who is expected to win a third consecutive term on Sunday.

Other factors are driving the positive coverage. The economy has been growing by nearly 5 percent annually since Morales took office in 2006. That’s a stark contrast to the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s when Bolivia suffered through hyperinflation, recessions, and political instability. In addition, Morales is the first indigenous president in a country where most people are Quechua or Aymara Indians.

Under these conditions, even a strong challenger would have a hard time unseating the popular incumbent. But Bolivia’s divided opposition is running four candidates who appear to be splitting the anti-Morales vote. An Ipsos poll of more than 3,000 people, showed Morales leading his closest rival by 41 points.

Still, analysts told CPJ that the increasingly pro-government media tilt has bolstered the president, with taxpayer-financed Bolivia TV serving as a Morales’s most loyal mouthpiece.

Bolivia TV is supposed to be “a state channel, not an administration channel,” Ronald Grebe, president of the National Association of Bolivian Journalists, told the Página Siete newspaper. He claimed that the station now receives orders “directly from the presidential palace.”

Bolivia TV did not respond to requests from CPJ for comment.

But at a news conference Alfredo Rada, deputy minister for social movements, defended the station’s decision to ignore the debates, saying they were organized by journalists determined to attack the Morales-García ticket. Communications Minister Amanda Dávila, who is on the board of directors for Bolivia TV, told journalists that Bolivia TV is autonomous and does not receive instructions from the government.

Bolivia’s private media are also undergoing a major transition. In his best-selling book, Control Remoto (Remote Control), Peñaranda describes a silent campaign by the Morales administration to gain the editorial support of major media outlets through their purchase by business people friendly to the government.

In a September interview, Dávila told CPJ that the book was full of lies. But Peñaranda said the editorial shift of these outlets has been glaringly obvious. ATB and PAT, two of the TV stations that he claims were recently sold to government allies, broadcast interviews with Morales and García during the same time slot as the presidential debate that Morales snubbed.

Many TV news programs are now reluctant to scrutinize Morales, and shy away from political coverage in favor of crime or human interest stories, Lupe Cajías, president of the Association of Journalists of La Paz, told CPJ.

TV reporters who try to address controversial issues sometimes resort to journalistic end-runs, Jimena Costa, an opposition candidate for congress, told CPJ. She claimed that when speaking privately with TV reporters, they sometimes ask her to bring up touchy subjects during interviews because they fear reprisals from their supervisors if they ask pointed on-camera questions about the government.

Critics contend that La Razón, which is the largest daily in La Paz, has also abandoned its critical posture since its 2008 sale to a Venezuelan businessman allied with the Morales government.

La Razón news editor Rubén Atahuichi insisted to CPJ that the newspaper continues to hold the government’s feet to the fire. But many analysts disagree.

Rafael Archondo, a columnist for La Razón, said that the pro-government bias makes it more difficult for stories critical of the Morales administration to gain traction. In March, for example, opposition politicians accused García of influence trafficking after his sister-in-law Silvana Carolina del Castillo received a no-bid catering contract for a state-run Bolivian airline. García insisted the contract was legal, and the story quickly disappeared, Archondo said.

Overall, Morales is far more prominent in the Bolivian media than his electoral rivals, a dominance that extends beyond news coverage. That’s because a new campaign law stipulates that candidates can only run electoral propaganda in the 30 days before the October 12 election, and their daily advertisement buy is limited to two pages in newspapers and 10 minutes of airtime on TV and radio stations.

These limits put opposition candidates at a disadvantage because they lack the name recognition of Morales, who has served as president for nearly nine years, Juan León, executive director of Bolivia’s National Press Association, which represents media owners, told CPJ.

Further skewing the electoral playing field, León said, is a barrage of government advertising in Bolivian media touting health, education, and public works programs that may also be boosting the Morales electoral campaign.

For his part, Morales is taking full advantage of incumbency as the election approaches by speeding up the opening of public works projects and attending a series of ribbon-cutting ceremonies, according to news reports. On September 15, for example, a beaming Morales inaugurated a new line to La Paz’s cable car public transport system even though several of its stations were still under construction. The event was broadcast live on Bolivia TV.