Santa Cruz, Bolivia, is seen on March 26, 2020. Bolivian journalist Junior Arias recently took a leave of absence, citing government intimidation. (Reuters/Rodrigo Urzagasti)

Bolivian journalist takes leave of absence citing government intimidation

On June 3, 2020, Junior Arias, host of the news program “Behind the Truth” on the privately owned broadcaster Gigavisión, announced on-air that he was stepping down from his job, saying he felt threatened by the Bolivian government’s response to his work and would take a temporary furlough for his safety.

On May 31, Arias had reported that the Bolivian government bought tear gas at inflated prices from Brazil, allegedly wasting more than $2 million.

Hours after that report aired, the Bolivian Interior Ministry released a statement calling the report false and accusing Arias of engaging in a “dirty war and dirty politics” against the government.

The statement confirmed the tear gas purchase but disputed that the government had overpaid, and said, “We will not rest until Mr. Arias redresses and restores the dignity and the image of the people he has harmed.”

In a brief phone call, Arias told CPJ he was too busy dealing with the controversy to respond to questions.

On June 6, Gigavisión aired a report alleging that the federal government had instructed police officers in Santa Cruz, where the broadcaster is based, to spy on Arias and smear his name.

Gigavisión, which is owned by Arias’ family, was closely aligned with former President Evo Morales and received a constant flow of government advertising during his time in power, Raúl Peñaranda, a Bolivian press critic and editor of the independent news website Brújula Digital, told CPJ by phone from La Paz. The Morales administration used government advertising to favor friendly private media organizations, according to CPJ research.

Since Morales resigned in November and was replaced by interim President Jeanine Añez, Peñaranda said Gigavisión had broadcast several stories on alleged corruption in the new administration. In March, the Añez government withdrew its advertising from the station, arguing that Gigavisión’s ratings were too low to justify the expense, according to news reports.

During its seven months in power, the Añez government has forced several opposition radio stations off the air, harassed critical journalists, and labeled some as “seditious,” according to news reports.

CPJ texted and called Bolivia’s Interior Ministry and the Santa Cruz police for comment, but did not receive any responses.